“Dad, help me!”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

The story of Kelly Thomas, the mentally ill homeless man beaten to death by police in Fullerton, has stunned people all over Southern California, and perhaps, around the world. During his announcement of the serious charges being filed against the officers, the Orange County District Attorney reviewed Kelly’s pathetic cries when he realized how brutally he was being attacked: “I’m sorry!” “Please!” “I can’t breathe!” “Dad, help me!”

I have heard about these plaintive outcries many times in TV news reports during the three months since the beating occurred, but as the District Attorney read from the transcripts, the emotional impact on me was stronger than ever. In particular, I noticed that I choked up every time I pictured Thomas’ bloody face as he called out “Dad, help me!” I thought of what it must have been like to be his father, Ron Thomas, during Kelly’s teen and young adult years, as he kept thinking this was a phase he’d get over, but slowly realized that Kelly was never going to fit into the picture in his mind of the man his son would grow to become. How many times had Ron gotten Kelly out of a tight scrape? How many times had Kelly gone against Ron’s advice, gotten himself into trouble, and then called out “Dad, help me?”

A dad’s supposed to be able to help his son, when he’s a toddler, when he’s struggling with algebra, when he’s been stood up by a cute girl, and, yes, when he’s a 37-year-old schizophrenic street person. When Ron first heard that tape of Kelly crying out “Dad, help me!” what was his gut feeling? “I wasn’t there for him; I couldn’t help him.” How awful.

I had gone through these thoughts and feelings every time I read or heard a report of the details of the attack, but it was only as the District Attorney read the words “Dad, help me!” that I realized why my emotions were so intense. I had not faced up to some of my feelings about the death of my own son Steve, when in 1995 we lost him to AIDS at the age of 27. He began to spiral out of our control when he was 13, pulling away from church and school activities, hanging with a more and more wild crowd, climbing out of his bedroom window and finding his way to the streets of Hollywood. Time after time he’d call at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’d drive out there to get him. By the time he was 17, he began to calm down, and within a year or so, he had earned his GED, found a suit-and-tie job with a law firm, and settled into a quiet suburban lifestyle.

But it was too late. He already had the HIV virus, and he knew his days were numbered. By God’s grace, he ultimately came back home and spent his last couple of years in warm fellowship with our extended family. And as many of you will remember, he reentered the church fellowship and found the reality of God’s forgiveness and love during the last months of his time on earth.

I guess the story of Ron and Kelly Thomas made me face up to my own sense of failure and impotence in not being able to rescue Steve. A dad’s supposed to be able to help his son. It’s not for lack of caring or trying, but I was not able to keep him from the people and circumstances that led to his falling victim to the AIDS disease. He never really called out for help; that wasn’t his style. But on some level he was longing for someone to help him take charge of his life and point it in a healthier direction. In Kelly’s cry I was hearing Steve’s cry.

One day, about 2,000 years ago, a son cried out to his Father from the cruel loneliness of a cross of execution: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” “Dad, help me!”

I wonder how his Father felt!