Viral story shines light on church & police

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Robert Wood/FACEBOOK

EUGENE, Ore. (Christian Examiner) -- The Robert Wood family did not have much money when they relocated from Alaska to Eugene, Oregon. To cut expenses they slept in their car, even when traveling the Alaskan Highway -- in February.

Heather Wood, pregnant with their third child, cuddled with 2-year-old Logan in the back seat. Robert Wood, an unemployed glazier by trade, and a master juggler by inclination, held 4-year-old Sam in his arms in the front seat to give the youngster part of his body heat.

Police Lt. David Natt found the family like this at 10:30 p.m. their first night back in Eugene. They were sleeping in a neighborhood park that closed at 11 p.m.

"I saw the kid on his chest and a kid on her chest, and this was a cold night," Natt said. The Eugene police department has a three-word motto, Natt said: Protect, serve and care. "You have to take each one of those in all circumstances to heart when you're making your decision," the officer said.

He knocked on the car window and roused the sleeping dad. The men talked, and the officer offered the family two nights' lodging at a local hotel.

"Any of us could be right where they're at," Natt told a local television station later. "It doesn't take much. And like I told him, you given him an opportunity to gain a bit of time. A little bit of time is so valuable, and it's so meaningful to them."

Wood refused the first two times the offer was made, then relented for the sake of his family. The first night in the hotel, he penned his thanks to the officer on Facebook.

By April 11 his post had been shared thousands of times on Facebook and the story seen by more than 1.1 million people on YouTube.

"Don't hate the police," Wood posted Feb. 25. "They are there for you when you need them. ... Those men and women who choose to wear body armor and help people do so with good courageous hearts."

Wood said to a local reporter, "He [Natt] took away the shame. He made me want to do the same kind of things for others."

The money for Natt's generosity came from a fund given to the police department by University Fellowship Church, a nondenominational congregation that five Christmases ago decided that rather than spend money on each other, they would gather money to be used at police discretion.

After five years, the $10,000 they gave still has not run out.

It was used again April 1, when a woman and her children were removed from their home and put in a hotel when police responded to a "distressed man with a gun" call that was a potential suicide.

Brett Gilchrist, in an exclusive interview with Christian Examiner, said he started University Fellowship Church in 2008. About 700 people participate in Sunday worship, though 1,300 showed up Easter at the South Eugene High School gymnasium for worship.

University Fellowship operates as a "simple church," the pastor said, with minimal programming, Baptistic doctrines and helping others.

"We feel like the church of today puts too many demands on a person's schedule," Gilcrist told Christian Examiner. "What we do is counterintuitive to that. We want you to be in your home with your family, in your neighborhood with friends and in your community, serving. That's a general philosophy."

University Fellowship, which gives 10 percent of its income to missions, promoted the Advent Conspiracy to church members starting with its first Christmas. Advent Conspiracy is a movement to encourage church members to spend less money at Christmas, and to pool the money saved from less spending with that from other church members so as to make a significant impact.

The first couple of years the money went to drill water wells in India. The third year, the pastor suggested doing something more local with the money.

"The police officers in our town like most towns struggle to have a good reputation," Gilcrist said. Despite the good so often done, one negative report skews the public's opinion, he explained.

Police officers see people in desperate circumstances all the time. Church members decided to give money to the police to be used at their discretion, with no need to report back to the church how the money was spent.

"We trusted them to make better decisions than we would," the pastor said.

The unemployed glazier Robert Wood, still looking for work, who during the two days spent in a hotel found temporary lodging for his family with a friend, said he will forever be grateful for the care, understanding and life lesson he received from the police officer.

"I have tears in my eyes, but they are good tears," Wood concluded his Feb. 25 Facebook post. "Tears of hope, gratitude and renewed courage to continue becoming a better man for myself, my family and the world around me."