Saturday, December 13, 2008

Midday Connection and Irving Wasserman

Yesterday, my good friend, Anita Lustrea, interviewed me on Midday Connection. She asked me about the affect of the cold weather on the homeless and about Irving Wasserman, whom I had written about in one of the devotionals in her new book, Daily Seeds, which she co-authored with her associates, Lori Neff and Melinda Schmidt. You can listen to the program at this link.

Irving Wasserman taught me how powerfully God can use people who seem to the world to be "weak and foolish" (1 Corinthians 1:27). Irving came to Breakthrough shortly after it opened in 1992. Peering curiously into the Center’s storefront window, he seemed pleased when I invited him into the center for a cup of coffee. Soon he came regularly for a hot lunch at noon.

Living on disability support, Irving had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man. He had been institutionalized and given shock treatments, and he spoke of being sexually assaulted in the state hospital and out on the street after he was released. He was odd-looking, with the top of his pants lifted high above his waste and the bottoms high above his ankles. He was the object of frequent torment from neighborhood children.

Clearly, Irving was very alone, and Breakthrough became a sort of family for him. He enjoyed talking about current events and the world economy. Sometimes he would make perfect sense; other times he would release a string of profanity for no apparent reason, or become enraged over things that seemed insignificant. Conversations were unpredictable, but always interesting.

Irving’s overarching concern in life was the national debt. He had a great mind for numbers and watched the interest rates and markets closely. He was sure that with wise economic policies and habits, he could personally make a difference. He wanted to eradicate the national debt “for his own self respect”.

In fact, Irving was very particular about how he spent and saved his money. He washed his dirty laundry about once a year, bringing it to Breakthrough in a worn potato bag. He stuffed his pockets with used paper towels from the bathroom garbage to use for toilet paper. Irving’s apartment had plain plywood floors It hadn’t been painted or renovated in years. Irving wanted it that way because he didn’t want the landlord to raise the rent. He even asked us to help him move his stove out to the alley for the garbage men to pick up, because he didn’t want to pay the monthly gas bill to keep the pilot light lit. He picked up loose change he’d find on the sidewalk and immediately deposit it at the local bank, even if it were only five or six cents at a time. “I can’t trust myself with money,” he’d say.

I was surprised when one day, Irving asked me to help him to find a lawyer who would set up a living revocable trust for his estate. He said he knew he didn’t have long to live and that he had decided he wanted to give his savings to Breakthrough to be used for job training for the homeless and mentally ill. By living frugally and saving nearly $700 per month from his disability checks, Irving had bought government bonds every quarter for 50 years. With $500,000, this eccentric man, who had been forgotten by many, became Breakthrough’s biggest donor!

A year later, Irving was hospitalized with terminal cancer and hepatitis C, and he died shortly thereafter. He never wanted fame or a building named after him, yet Irving’s legacy will live on for many years to come through the changed lives of people who have been trained and have earned jobs because of his gift.

3 comments:

Judy Bupp said...

Dear Arloa,
Thank you so much for sharing your story about Irving. It brought tears. What a special gift he was to Breakthrough! What a special humble gift he has been to us all.

Merry Christmas,
Pastor Judy Bupp
York, PA

Arloa Sutter said...

Thanks Judy!

Jeremy said...

Just read this quote from Dostoevsky (a guy with a profound understanding of human psychology), and it reminded me a little bit of your story. Especially how he describes our difficulty in seeing past the rough edges many people have.

"these souls, these people who seem hardhearted, stormy, and unrestrained, people like my client, sometimes, and indeed most often, are extremely tenderhearted, only they keep it hidden. ... Yes, these hearts - oh, let me defend these hearts, which are so rarely and so wrongly understood - these hearts quite often thirst for what is tender, for what is beautiful and righteous, precisely the contrary, as it were, of themselves, of their storminess, their cruelty - thirst for it unconsciously, precisely thirst for it. ... Only they are unable to conceal their passion, at times very course - and that is what strikes everyone, that is what everyone notices, and no one sees the inner man."