St. Thomas priest prepares to turn the page

Published 5:30 pm Thursday, July 2, 2009

Come here, buddy.

Let me tell you a story.

So these cops knock on this guy’s door one day and he tries to slam the door in their faces. They move in and corral everyone. They seize files and start serving warrants. The operation is big. Insurance fraud. This guy, it seems, has set up several different dummy corporations with the company seals to prove it. I mean this is huge. It brings everybody out of the woodwork: IRS, FBI, police. I mean HUGE.

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The kicker is, they weren’t even after this guy to begin with. Some goon with a rap sheet was about to choke some folks out of a ton of money by staging – get this – the Man of La Mancha at the theatre downtown. Gonna raise some money for the humane society, he told everyone. Got movie stars, sports stars, spotlights, a big gala, he said.

So the cops go check him out. They ask him questions. He doesn’t have answers. They read him his rights. This short guy, bald-headed, walks in. They pop him to. It turns out baldy is connected, used to work with Meyer Lansky – yeah, that Meyer Lansky – as an accountant. Never been in prison. Never had a record.

He does now. Because baldy’s in with the HUGE guy, who’s right next door. All the chickens have come home to roost, so they say.

The La Macha guy? He runs. Somebody said he was in a motel in New Jersey somewhere. Somebody said he ticked off the wrong people. Somebody said he was dead.

Ask that guy over there. He was a cop in Atlanta. He helped bring them all down.

But watch your mouth. He’s a priest, too.

Father Fred Lindstrom’s office at St. Thomas Episcopal Church is a collection of books and photographs. His degrees, certificates and honors line the walls, personal signposts for one man’s 66-year journey through life. The journey from here to there. The journey from the past to the present.

He was a newsman before he was a priest, working for a radio station in Atlanta and the Associated Press while also juggling a college career. One day, he knew something bad had happened when he saw the American flag being lowered to half-staff outside the window. It was Nov. 22, 1963. President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated.

He left class and headed for the radio station.

Covering crime and criminals naturally led to police work, says Lindstrom.

A small shadow box holds the four badges he held as an Atlanta police officer between 1970 and 1975.

As a detective Lindstrom investigated the white-collar criminals that preyed on the public trust: the con artists, the frauds, the fake charities, and real estate scam artists.

And organized crime, which included investigating motorcycle gangs like the notorious Outlaws.

“They were pretty dangerous guys,” says Lindstrom. “I remember raiding their clubs. But we did a lot of outreach programs as well. We started programs that opened up dialog for a better understanding between the police and neighborhoods.”

Lindstrom was chosen for the intelligence division, but he could have just as easily been assigned to homicide. He prayed not to be. Because homicide detectives deal with humanity’s horrors, says Lindstrom.

The murderers.

The rapists.

But there was this one time, he says…

Back for another one?

Figured you would be.

Okay, that ex-cop, the priest, the one you talked to? Seems someone in Atlanta lets him in on some information. Some creep’s been cruising one of the local high schools, picking up girls. This is not his division, but he figures he’ll check into it and starts hanging out by the school, waiting for this creep to come along. Sure enough, here comes the creep with a passenger. A girl is let out. Our guy flashes the lights and pulls the creep over. He smells marijuana. The creep’s passenger is practically baking in it, because he’d just sparked up a joint when the blue lights started flashing. Now that joint is burning a hole in his front pocket.

Our guy and his rookie partner search the car. In the trunk are five purses.

They haul the creep in on drug charges.

But creep isn’t just a creep. Creep is the lone suspect in a series of rapes involving five women. All their purses had been stolen. A warrant was just about to be issued for his arrest.

An open and shut case if there ever was one, says our guy.

Open and shut.

Lindstrom became a priest in 1970.

“I was struggling with a vocation at that point,” he recalls. “My radio career was going very well, but it was tiring. I went into a church and just prayed and I knew right then and there I was going to seminary.”

Lindstrom had left Atlanta by 1979 when a killer started a murder spree, dubbed the Atlanta Child Murders, that lasted until the spring of 1981. By the time it was over 29 people, mostly black children, had been killed. He says he was glad he wasn’t there to witness that.

After leaving, Lindstrom says he moved “all over the place.” He married his wife, Marcia, in 1983 and then landed in Meridian, Mississippi before moving to Greenville in 1997. He and Marcia had visited the city earlier and soon after came here permanently.

“We just fell in love with the place,” he says. “We had a marvelous time and loved the people.”

Lindstrom knows what the parishioners of St. Thomas Episcopal Church want when he steps behind the pulpit on Sundays.

“They want to see Jesus,” he says. “They don’t want ideologies or your opinion on politics. They want a message. They want to see Christ in you. For many, a priest is defined by a pulpit.”

When he first arrived in Greenville, Lindstrom worked with former Sheriff Diane Harris and then became the Greenville Police Department’s chaplain in 1998.

“Having been a cop, I have real empathy for our police officers and what they deal with on a daily basis,” says Lindstrom. “The fellows become like family.”

Lindstrom will soon leave this family behind. He announced his retirement in May, but will stay into the first of the year while a search is conducted for his replacement. He and Marsha are moving to the mountains and their home in North Carolina, where the neighbors are close, but not too close, he says, laughing.

He has left behind something for that replacement, a reminder of how a priest is supposed to appear to his congregation. Nailed into the pulpit at St. Thomas is small, shiny marker with a simple statement:

“We Wish to See Jesus.”