Every time I walk into this Nursing Home I can’t believe how terrible is smells. The place looks clean, but it smells like an outhouse. Thank God my parishioner is outside smoking. I don’t like the smoking part but the atmosphere outside is healthier than inside. I’m a pastor and once a month I just sort of, show up. Sometimes I am expected, and sometimes I appear out of the either. Sometimes my parishioner greets me with a warm smile and sometimes I get the distinct feeling my presence is not appreciated. Either way, I regularly hop onto my proverbial pony and ride the circuit to visit my parishioners. Its wonderful work, if sometimes smelly, and a great blessing for myself and my people.
I walked into the house and there were stacks of newspapers everywhere. It was like walking down a Home Depot isle with boxes on the storage shelves stretching high into the sky. There was a path that wound between the stacks of pulped and reformed trees. The path led to a chair for me and one for her. We sat and talked about this and that, surrounded by the stories that enfolded her life. In between the pages were murders, wars, the ups and downs of the stock market. Stacks and stacks of cartoons, obituaries and, pre-owned certified hardly used cars for sale. Here was the history of the local civilized world my friend and I lived in. And here it was slowly turning yellow, along with its caretaker. I tried not to let the newspapers distract me too much. Instead, with all of the people I visit I try and focus on them. In every home there are items that draw my attention. We all have some quirky things in our private spaces. So my job is to focus on the person and accept everything about my friend and her living space even if it includes a few old newspapers.
The Steelers just scored a touchdown. Our conversation about the comings and goings of her grandchildren paused for a brief moment while we took in the celebrations. This lovely older woman always had football on when I came calling on Sunday afternoons. We would talk while the running backs dodged and weaved on the field of dreams. Since we lived in Pennsylvania the game was always either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Crowds bundled up against the cold while we sat in our warm and comfortable chairs. I think she would have loved to go to one of those freezing games, but she needed a special chair that lifted her into a standing position as well as a chair lift to get up the stairs. We sat and talked, and every once in a while cheered. It was a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon despite the games obvious distractions. It never crossed my mind to ask if she would turn off the game. I didn’t mind if the game interrupted us every so often. I adjusted my comfort level to hers and we were both fine. Watching a football game while visiting with someone is a bonus.
Honoring the Past
He jumped out of his burning bomber over Denmark. When he landed he broke his leg. I thought parachutes were supposed to prevent that kind of thing. Local people turned him over to the Germans. Another myth, the locals were on our side, shot to pieces. My parishioner spent a freezing/starving year in a German prison camp. Then they kicked him out and sent him on a bizarre journey. As the war neared its end the Germans cleared out their prisoner of war camps and sent all of the prisoners away from the front. The fact that they were surrounded and there was no place to go didn’t matter. After hearing this story I took a history book out of the library that documented this strange episode. At the end of World War II hundreds of thousands of people were wandering across Europe trying to survive. My parishioner walked with his comrades across Germany. They begged for food from locals. They slept outside in the winter. They stayed a night in a functioning concentration camp. They ended up in a forest against a river they couldn’t cross. They made huts out of tree branches. He still had pictures of his home in the woods. Finally they were rescued by the US Army. An amazing and hair raising tail that I will never forget. His story along with many others has helped me to better understand and honor war veterans. Not having lived through these experiences, the next best thing is to sit and listen to the epic stories they have to tell.
Her eyesight deteriorating, she talked to me about what her eyes had seen through many long years. We talked about Scranton and the surrounding area. She related all of the changes that had happened and all of the people who had come and gone throughout her life. On the wall there was a picture that caught my ever curious eye. It was a picture of President and Mrs. Clinton, autographed in gold ink. I asked about it and was surprised by the answer. My friend was Mrs. Clinton’s nanny when she visited her relatives in Scranton. Hillary Clinton spent many of her childhood summers in our lovely valley. When they entered the White House they sent the picture to this old friend who had seen so much in her long life. My friend’s eyes had seen this young woman growing up, and now she saw through the eyes of her memories.
I visited him every month for years at the VA Hospital. Alzheimer’s was very advanced and he didn’t know who I was, or where he was, or whether I was there or not. I said hello and talked about people he knew at church. I hoped I would get a response if I mentioned familiar things. At first this worked but over time the responses disappeared. So I talked as long as I could think of things to say, one way conversations are very difficult. When I got ready to go I left a business card with a note and date on it. I did this for the family. There were always new photos on the wall so I knew that they came and visited too. They needed to know that someone cared for this man who sat day after day and just existed. Everyone needs someone who cares.
Two in the morning we were in the hospital chapel. We prayed some and spent the rest of the waiting period talking about whatever came into our minds. His wife was having an emergency operation. She had been seriously ill for months. When I got the call I figured I was going to be doing a funeral. I’m happy to say that she recovered from this terrible illness. That night though, we had no idea what was to come. So we sat and talked and prayed. It didn’t matter what we talked about. What mattered to my friend was that someone was there.
So, Just Show Up
An old pastor once told me that most of ministry was just showing up. I’ve tried a lot of things since that conversation. I have given away Bibles, knocked on doors like an insurance salesman, started programs, and Bible studies. Despite all of this, visiting people has always been the most successful of my efforts. And it’s so easy. I knock on the door; do a little bit of talking and a lot of listening. People need to be listened to. People need to know someone cares for them. People need to be honored. So that is what I do, and I hope you will too with your friends and relatives. It’s great work if you can find it.
First Baptist Church of Rahway, 177 Elm Ave., Rahway, New Jersey 07065 is a multi-cultural congregation that has a Blended English Service on Sunday Mornings, a Latino Service at 12:00, and a Service in Telugu at 3:30PM. For more information, call (732) 388-8626. Or click here to send an email. If you wish to help the Mission and Ministry of First Baptist financially click the Donate Button.