Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Moment of Ministry

As I was walking in to the hospital this morning to visit a parishioner, my mind flashed back to a moment during the early years of my first settled ministry -- a moment when I felt I really was a minister.  

I was serving a congregation in southern Maine, and there was a family in the congregation that consisted of a mom, a dad, and two kids -- a son and a daughter.  The son was, as I recall, in late elementary school, and besides being a really smart and likable kid, he had real issues with angry, defiant behavior.  Angry's too euphemistic, actually.  It was rage.  Being a little flip, I'd say that this kid could make the Hulk look like Hello Kitty.  He was, as I said, a really great kid, I liked him a lot, but he had a real problem.

So did his family.  This boy had hit and hurt his mom on more than one occasion.  He'd broken things, too.  And he'd been in trouble with the police.  And on the occasion of this incident he'd done all three.  He'd hit his mom, he'd bashed a huge hole in his bedroom wall, and when he ran away his mom did the only thing she could think of -- she called the police.

And then she called me.

I arrived after the police.  When I got there the parents were standing on their front steps.  The police were standing by their cruiser.  And the boy?  He hadn't run far, it turned out -- he was sitting near the top of one of those large Maine pine trees that was in their front yard.

Getting out of my car I took all of this in and started going through all of my seminary training and, no, nothing in any of my classes or practicum had prepared me for this.  What could I possibly do?  The police, clearly, had decided to wait the kid out.  They'd tried to cajole him, but he wasn't budging.  And all the threats and pleading of the parents didn't move the boy either -- physically or emotionally.  Finally, since the he didn't seem at all likely to come down, I decided to go up.

As I began to climb the boy climbed a bit higher.  I told him that I'd follow him as far as he wanted to go.  So he started lobbing pine cones at me, and since they hadn't yet opened they were solid and hard.  They hurt as they hit my hands and my head.  But I told him that he couldn't do anything that would stop my joining him.  Yet I also told him that I wasn't coming up to try to get him to come down.  I was coming up, I said, so that he wouldn't be alone.

I told him that I knew he was really angry about something, and that I imagined he might be kind of scared as well.  That kind of anger can be really scary, I said, even when you're the one wielding it.  And the police were sitting down there ... waiting for him.  He denied any feelings but righteous anger, but he also stopped dropping pine cones on me.  And as I got closer and then settled in, he lost some of his bravado as well.  Oh, he kept challenging me, but I kept responding that I was going to stay with him for as long as he was up there because I didn't want him to be alone.  No matter what he'd done, no matter why he'd done it, no matter how he was feeling about it now, I didn't want him to be alone.

Recently my friend and colleague Leia Durland-Jones pointed me toward an extraordinary book -- Tattoos on the Heart.  It's written by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Gregory Boyle.  Father Boyle -- G-dog as he's more affectionately known -- has worked for decades in the area of Los Angeles that is notorious for the largest concentration of gangs.  (And that's saying something, as Los Angeles itself has been the city with the largest concentration of gangs.)  His work has been to address not the problem of gangs, but to try to do something about the problems of gang members.  He developed Homeboy Industries, and the work they do is absolutely astonishing.  (The author Anne Lamott says of the book, "... one of my favorite books in years.")

Again and again, both directly and more indirectly, Fr. Boyle reminds us that you can only go so far doing things for people.  Where the real beauty is to be found is in being with people.  In fact, often the being is more important than all the doing in the world.  That's what helped bring that boy out of that tree all those years ago; and that's what happens in those hospital rooms I visit.  And the families I sit with who've just lost a loved one.  And the folks who're wondering what they're going to do now that their job has fallen away, or their relationship, or their sense of self-worth.

And we can, each of us, practice this on a daily basis -- with the people we work with; the people we live with; the people who serve us in restaurants, or ring us up in the grocery store, or answer the phone when we call customer service.  We can practice this -- especially challenging and especially rewarding! -- with those people we're really rather not practice it with.  And, Fr. Boyle would no doubt remind us, we can practice it with those whom everyone else seem so quick to discard.  Now that would be ministry.

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

Dave Dawson said...

We had a staff member at the children/adolescent psych hospital where I worked who did what you describe so well. He was "with the kids" who were struggling. He was a "scruffy" looking "old hippie" and I love him still. Thanks for the reminder Erik!