- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2017

SALEM, Va. (AP) - The deep sense of loneliness was the first thing that struck Tom McCracken when he stepped into the little, low-slung cabin tucked just off a busy street in Salem.

“That is what overwhelmed me more than anything, loneliness,” said McCracken, pastor of the CommUNITY Church.

“Knowing that this man woke up in the morning alone. He went to bed alone. He struggled.”

It was late November when McCracken first got the call that led him to this doorstep. Social services reached out asking if he would be willing to perform funeral rites for a 72-year-old man who died with no apparent friends or family, McCracken said.

The pastor readily agreed and said he later became the man’s estate executor through a will he learned had been left to a Salem church that CommUNITY absorbed last year.

That role brought him into the house where the man had lived and died in solitude. The conditions inside brought McCracken to tears.

Cramped, dusty rooms were crowded with faded stacks of papers or a collection of old plastic bags and milk containers.

Broken glass from a splintered door was scattered on the floor. In the bathroom, much of the lower ceiling was missing and a layer of detritus coated the room.

“I don’t think something like this should happen in the Roanoke Valley,” McCracken later said in a video he was moved to make and posted to Facebook.

Society, including churches, had “missed the mark” when people like this end up falling through the cracks, McCracken said.

He added he was particularly stung by the realization that this man lived close by the church where his own congregation of about 350 gathers every week.

“While we were singing on Sunday in the comfort of a heated sanctuary . this man was here, within walking distance, isolated and alone,” he said in the post, growing emotional. “We can do better than that.

“I hope this video wakes you and shakes you so that you, like me, will want to change something in our lives.”

McCracken initially expected that his five-minute video, posted Dec. 2, would reach only his friends and parishioners.

But it’s since been viewed 274,000 times and shared nearly 5,000 times, according to Facebook metrics. Messages have poured in to McCracken from around the world from people inspired to get more involved in outreach or take time to check on a neighbor.

“It’s been crazy,” he said. “The response to this has been totally unexpected.”

McCracken said he sifted through the messages as best he could over the holidays and plans to pull together a committee of church members to review them more closely.

He’s also in the early stages of forming a proposal that he hopes leads to his church forming close partnerships with social services and other agencies that can help the congregation connect with people in need.

“More change than any has really come into my own life from this,” McCracken said. “I’ve taken this personally. I could have done better. I should have been engaged in this neighborhood . A church has to get out of its four walls.”

The Roanoke County Department of Social Services said it was open to working with CommUNITY Church within the bounds of the strict confidentiality laws that govern its work.

The department could provide the church’s information to a client, for example, but couldn’t forward a client’s information to the church.

Privacy restrictions prevent the department from speaking to the Salem case that McCracken’s video referenced, officials said.

Speaking more broadly to the phenomenon sometimes referred to as “self-neglect” among adults, department representatives said professionals and volunteers alike must come prepared to exercise patience and understanding.

It’s not uncommon for people who fall into that category to resist help, and those wishes often can’t be overridden unless the person is deemed incapacitated in some way. Building trust takes time and forbearance.

McCracken, who’s still thinking through the details of the proposal he hopes to advance, agreed there will be limits to what can be done.

But there is also the potential to help many, he added. Since his video went viral, he’s been inundated with messages from people who are offering help as well as those in need of help.

“I don’t want to let that fizzle,” he said, adding while some may ultimately decline help, it doesn’t absolve others of the responsibility to try to offer it.

“You can’t help everyone,” he said. “But I think everyone can help someone. If we just get that out of this, something has been done.”

In the wave of response to his Facebook post, McCracken acknowledged he’s faced criticism from those who question his decision to speak publicly about the man’s life and to show the interior of the house in the video.

He said he weighed those comments, but ultimately hopes the recording will be a catalyst for change that will help others in need.

“Then, I think, this man will be honored in his death,” he said.


Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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