Remembering Mike Lawson

posted by South Bend Catholic Worker on January 24th, 2007

Mike Lawson, photographed by Cinnamon SarverA few days after Christmas, folks living on or near the streets in downtown South Bend started talking about a couple of guys who were missing. Mike Nolen’s family had been expecting him and his friend, Mike Lawson, for Christmas dinner, but they never showed up. This was unusual, not like them. Nolen’s mother put in a missing person’s report. We started calling local hospitals and jails.

A week later, with no word from either of the Mikes, their friends told police to check out an abandoned building where they were known to hang out, or down in the nearby manholes, in case something bad happened.

Their hunch was right. Nolen and Lawson were down there, bludgeoned to death. So were Jason Coates and Brian Talboom. As best we can reckon, the bodies lay in the manholes more than two weeks.

Several things trouble us about all this. For one thing, there’s the violence of their deaths. For another, there’s the lethargic response to the missing person’s report; not the kind of response we would have seen if it had to do with, shall we say, more respectable members of the community.

For yet another thing, there’s the prospect of the murderer, or murderers, still among us, walking around, which has left a lot of folks uneasy. And then there’s the way the murder victims have been described in the press, with words such as “homeless” and “scrappers.” Not that these descriptions aren’t accurate; these guys were homeless, and some of them were known to collect scrap metal. But these words also imply that they were lowlifes who ventured into shady dealings, maybe even got what they deserved. In any case, such words don’t explain their deaths. Nor, as we see it, do they sum up their lives. For us at the Catholic Worker, this is especially true when it comes to Mike Lawson, who lived with us on and off for the past three years.

Lawson came to us at our house on West Washington Street. He was one of a group of guys who would regularly come for coffee, a shower, supper and (when there was room) a bed. He had an easy, boyish smile, a friendly way of talking and a flare for delivering droll comments with a deadpan face. We could tell he’d been in places like ours before. He pitched in, especially with the dishes. He and a couple of friends used to joke about having dishpan hands. “Every fork in this house,” someone once remarked, “has, at one time or another, been scrubbed by Lawson.” He knew where to find the light bulbs, the towels and the tools. He was ready to help with repair work, plumbing and roofing — evidence, we came to learn, of a pretty impressive string of construction jobs.

Sometimes he wouldn’t show up. Other times we had to ask him to leave. But he always made his way back. Over time, he told us that he had been married, twice; that he had a daughter, of whom he spoke glowingly; and that he had other family as well, though the references here were vague. As we have recently come to learn, most of his family lives in the area and would certainly have taken him in. But he just wouldn’t go, for reasons that surely had to do with failure and shame, of not feeling worthy of love and forgiveness. But such things are profoundly personal and utterly mysterious, so we will never really know what demons beguiled him, the particular kind of darkness that overwhelmed him from within.

About a year ago, Mike and some friends were sleeping in an abandoned building and awoke to find themselves surrounded by flames and thick smoke. He jumped out of a second-floor window, stumbled to our house, collapsed on the couch, then went to the emergency room to discover that the fire was toxic and had permanently damaged his lungs. He vowed to change his ways after this, refusing to accept the prospect of dying homeless in some old abandoned building.

Soon he took a dishwashing job at Fiddler’s Hearth, moved into his own place and seemed to be flourishing. But then things went downhill. We didn’t see him for months, until this past fall when he started coming around again. He stayed with us for a few weeks after Thanksgiving and helped clean up for the opening of our drop-in center. A few weeks later, he said he had been to a doctor who told him he had spots on his lungs. Like anyone, it scared him, caused him to think. “I just want to be around my friends,” he said, “around people I love and who love me.” A week later he disappeared.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, often wrote of “the mystery of the poor.” At the heart of that mystery lies the truth that we are all impoverished, all in need of love and mercy from God and each other. It’s a truth we ignore to the extent that we imagine ourselves as self-sufficient, as safe somehow from the seamy side of life. It’s a truth that pertains to the non-homeless as well as the homeless, teetotalers as well as alcoholics, solid citizens as well as scrappers.

For the Gospel reading at Lawson’s memorial Mass, we chose the story of the good thief, the one who asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and who receives the assurance, “In truth I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.” We like to think that Mike grasped this truth when he spoke of love and friendship shortly before his death. To remind ourselves of this truth we’ve put out a photograph of Mike. The camera caught him turning from a stack of dishes in the sink, his hands still in the dishwater, smiling one of his easy, boyish smiles.

This article was written by the South Bend Catholic Worker community: Michael Baxter, Brenna Cussen, Margie Pfeil, and Cinnamon Sarver. It is copyright 2007 and reprinted here by permission of the authors. The photo is of Mike Lawson at the opening of Our Lady of the Road, December 2006, and was taken by Cinnamon Sarver. It’s not the one mentioned in the article. The original is here. The photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. Some rights reserved.

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4 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On January 24, 2007 at 14:16 Adam (Southern California) said:

    A very sad situation, but a wonderful memorial.

  2. On January 24, 2007 at 23:12 Mauro said:

    This leaves me speachless. My heartfelt prayers. +

  3. On January 28, 2007 at 10:25 Roberta Hankins said:

    I knew Mike when he lived in Belleville, MI in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. We were good friends and roommates for a few years.
    At that time, he was the manager at a local retail store.

    We kept in touch for awhile after he moved back to Indiana. I heard from him last about 10 years ago.

    Your description of my old friend brings back many memories. Although his life had changed, his caring nature, dry wit and warm smile seem to have prevailed.

    I have used the internet to search for a phone number or address for Mike intermitently over the years without success. I never expected that the first news I would find would be an obituary.

    “Homeless” is not the way I will remember him. Whatever demons he lived with, Mike did not deserve to leave this world in that way…no human being does.

    My prayers are with his friends, family and my old friend, Mike.

  4. On January 29, 2007 at 12:07 Brenna said:

    Roberta,

    Thanks for your comments. I guess the years he knew you were the “seven years he disappeared” according to friends and family around here.

    If you ever want to get in touch with his friends or family in South Bend, let me know. Thanks for praying for them and for him.

    Peace, Brenna

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