The Prodigal and the Hot Car
by Larry Downing | 25 February 2018 |
In the Adventist world of the early ‘60s, an extern was a man, often young, who, prior to the completion of his academic program, was hired by a conference and placed in a parish. In 1965 I enrolled in Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, to complete the third year of my Bachelor of Divinity (BD), now the Master of Divinity (MDiv). I did not have classes for one quarter and was assigned as an extern to a Southern California Conference church. The senior pastor, my boss, had spent most of his pastoral career in the Southern states. His transition to the Southern California lifestyle was not a smooth one. He read his sermons from well-worn manuscripts that he dug out from a box under his desk. More than once I came into his office to find him on his hands and knees pawing round his “pickle barrel” attempting to rescue what had once been his homiletical jewel. Unfortunately, his sparkling jewel tended more toward the paste variety. He did, however, provide a learning opportunity, mostly of the negative variety.
One of the first pastoral calls the pastor and I made together was to a dilapidated nursing home where one of the members had been confined. It was a ramshackle facility with hallways that resembled more a maze than a defined building. We made our way up and down a series of stairways, commenting on the poor maintenance as we traversed the tired hallways. Our trek brought us to the room where we found, lying on a bare bed, a comatose woman wrapped in a hospital gown. The pastor and I stood by the bed for a few moments. I watched and waited to see the pastor’s response to this situation. After a short time he reached out his hand, placed it on the woman’s head and said something like, “Hello, mother. We have come to pray for you.” He began to pray asking the Lord to give “mother” peace and rest. We left, with no indication the woman knew we had visited her. My conclusion after my first pastoral call to a nursing home was that if I ever was threatened with being incarcerated in such a facility a true friend would toss me off a bridge or find some other means that provided certain escape. Within two hours of our return to the church we received a call from the nursing home informing us that the woman had died. One prayer for peace and rest answered, and that right soon.
The pastor drove a full-sized blue Chrysler sedan. Riding with him on the Southern California streets and freeways was a life-changing experience. That we survived without creating mayhem was a continual reminder that miracles are not limited to biblical times. His driving technique may well have been refined in the jungles of Africa where he had lived as a child. A sudden turn in front of oncoming traffic generated frequent theological responses from the opposing drivers, at least the words had some connection with the deep places described in scripture. The high point of the driving experience was the occasion when the pastor gunned his Chrysler and started, full bore, up the off ramp of the Glendale Freeway. The other passenger, who was riding shotgun in the passenger seat, and I (in the back seat) grabbed hold of whatever was close by and in unison shouted at him to stop. He did. He backed up, now going with the exit traffic, and turned round to enter the lane that led to the freeway. Once again a guardian angel breathed a sigh of relief, and we passengers counted one more miraculous delivery. It was a day of thanksgiving when seminary classes gave rescue and my extern days were history.
Upon my completion of the seminary course I, now an official pastoral intern, was assigned to an inner-city parish. The senior pastor had recently been transferred to another church, leaving another intern and me as the pastoral staff. In a few weeks, the other intern was offered his own church, and he accepted, leaving me as the sole minister for the parish.
It was mid-afternoon when a phone call came that would, all of a sudden, modify my priorities. An older woman of the congregation called to inform me that her grandson, whom she was raising following the death of his mother, had gone missing. I asked her what had happened. She explained that apparently Gene*, her grandson, had taken a car and no one knew where he was.
This dramatic revelation did not fit the character of the quiet kid I knew. He was at church every Sabbath, sitting with his dad, sister and grandparents. He participated in Pathfinders and other church programs. True, his mother had recently died of a devastating disease, but Gene and the other family members appeared to be taking their severe loss in stride.
As I listened to the grandmother’s recital of what she knew of her grandson’s absence, questions multiplied: “A car? What kind of car?” (This kid was about 15 or 16 years old.) “How long ago did this happen?” “Have you contacted his friends?” She was able to provide few definitive answers, but she had seen Gene and the car earlier in the day when he stopped by the house for a few minutes. She said the car was bright red, and it had a hump on the hood. She thought she remembered seeing a name on the car; it might have been something like Pontiac.
After further conversation, I assured my parishioner that I would make some calls to see what I could find out. My first call was to the police department. They had no record of a stolen car that fit the description Gene’s grandmother had provided. Now what? A light went on. I called a Pontiac dealer and asked to speak with a manager. The person I talked to assured me that Pontiac had no car that matched what I described. He suggested I call the Pontiac Zone office, and gave me a number.
I made the call to the Zone office and explained my purpose to the woman who answered the phone. She transferred me to a manager who listened as I once more reported what Gene’s grandmother had told me. At the conclusion of my recital, the man replied that yes, Pontiac did have a new model that did match the description of the vehicle under question. However, he continued, the car was not yet in production. He assured me that it was not possible for anyone to have seen such a car, much less steal it. If there was such a car, it would still be in Detroit. It certainly was not in California. I thanked him for his time and his assurances, left my number, and called the grandmother to report what I had learned.
A couple of hours later, the phone rang. It was the man at the Pontiac Zone office. He began the conversation by telling me he was embarrassed. There was indeed a missing car, a fire-engine red Pontiac Firebird with an on-the-hood speedometer and tach—the hump on the hood. GM had brought a pre-production model to Hollywood the previous week to film a TV commercial and had left it on the lot to await the film crew. It had gone missing. A police report had been filed. Here was a positive lead that provided some information relevant to our teenager’s absence.
I called Gene’s family to convey this information and told them I would soon be at their house. When I arrived at the grandparent’s house, the family, including the boy’s father, had gathered round. All were concerned. Where might their child be? When he was found, what then? What if he had had an accident? When the police found him, would they hurt him? Would he go to prison? They had continued to contact his friends. No one knew anything about where the boy was, nor was anyone aware he had taken a car. There was little else I could do but pray with the family to implore the Lord to protect Gene and return him safe to his family.
More than a week and a half passed. Another call came from the Pontiac Zone office. The car had been found…in Southern Oregon…parked at a local cafe. Gene was safe and had been taken into custody. He would be returned to California, where the legal process would take over.
The call to Gene’s family brought forth a mixed response. The family members were ecstatic that the lost son had been found and that he was safe. They were less pleased that he was in police custody. There had been a hope, faint though it was, that perhaps Gene had not really taken the car. This news squelched that hope. They wondered aloud how it was possible that Gene, a teenaged driver behind the wheel of the only Pontiac Firebird on the road, and a red one, to boot, was able to drive, undetected, to Oregon. Where did he get the gas money? He had no credit card. He had no driver’s license and the car was hot, in more ways than one!
Another visit to the family found them with new questions. Will Gene be put in prison? Will this ruin his life? Should they hire an attorney? I had few answers. My role was to offer support and encouragement to the dad and other family members, and to assure them that their church family would be with them in whatever awaited. We pastors do have opportunity to provide a quiet voice of assurance and to pray with people in their time of crisis. I did affirm their decision to consult an attorney, and they did.
I was soon thereafter transferred to another parish and had no further contact with the family. It puzzles me still how it was that no one spotted the only red Pontiac Firebird in America—with a hump on the hood. A car that traveled on interstate highways from Southern California to Southern Oregon. Driven by an unlicensed teenaged kid. What a wild ride! Now the prodigal was back in the fold, well at least not resting in a culvert or piled up on a freeway. All in a day’s work for an intern inner-city pastor.
Lawrence Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.