Like a Mustard Seed – Where is God in all of This?

Like a Mustard Seed – Where is God in all of This?

I noticed that my hands were shaking as I leaned against the wall outside Mrs. Dandridge’s room.  I could hear her screaming obscenities at Sharon, her nursing aide, inside the room.  I had known Mrs. Dandridge before Alzheimer’s had stolen her mind and turned her into someone else.  In her day, she was beautiful, and classy, and articulate, a graduate of a fine Richmond prep school, and the University of Richmond.  She had been married to a prominent Richmond lawyer.  If I could think of a word to have described her, it would have been “dignified”.  And to hear the stream of curses that was now emanating from her made my heart sink. I did not want to leave the safety of the hallway to go into her room that day.  I wanted to remember her, to honor her, and I knew that what I would encounter on entering would challenge my ability to do that.  How do you pastorally care for a person whose personhood has been shattered by the plaques and ravages of this monster of a disease?

I had been a chaplain on the nursing wing of this Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) for two years prior to this day.  In my brief tenure as a chaplain on this wing I had been spit on, insulted, kicked, and nearly missed being bitten by quick reflex alone.  This CCRC was home to some of the most prominent and powerful Richmond, Virginia people.  Some of them had begun to sail away on this floor.  Not much was being done at that time in the area of pastoral care to people with Alzheimer’s disease.  It was just assumed that where the mind went, so went the soul. It was the floor where they stuck seminary students because they didn’t know enough to say “Forget it”.  I had been taught that my role was to see to the pastoral needs of the residents on the floor.   But as I stood outside the door to Mrs. Dandridge’s room that day, I remembered a subtle Hebrew word that changed everything for me – one of two major paradigm shifts that would occur that day.  That word was “Nephesh” – the soul.  In the paradigm of most of the Western World, educated in the thinking of Plato and Socrates, a person consisted in three separate and distinct aspects: body, mind, and spirit…as if “never the ‘twain shall meet”.  But were one to ask a person of Semitic heritage and thinking who they were in essence, the response would be subtly different.  One who understood the deep theological significance of the term, Nephesh, might more likely say “I AM a soul that has a mind and body”.

In this paradigm, the soul is always whole, the breath of God within us. It is that place in our personhood where the Kingdom of God is always alive.  And, as I said, the distinction between Greek thinking and Semitic thinking locked so carefully away in the folds of language is subtle.   At the deepest root of Nephesh is the reality that the soul experiences itself through the limitations of this mind and this body. Though aspects of mind and body will fracture, the soul is whole.   The affliction of Alzheimers had given Mrs/ Dandridge a voice, more correctly it had taken the voice of her soul and created character and replaced it with this mocking and foul-mouthed voice that would have horrified her when she was still who she knew herself to be,  That day, and every day forward, I chose to speak to the voice of a person’s character – the voice of their soul – rather than the voice of their affliction no matter how prominent or demanding the voice of their affliction might be.  The Kingdom of God was inside of them, and before every visit, I would stand outside their room and beg God for the ability to see the Kingdom within them, no matter what was coming out of them at the moment.

Sharon and Mrs. Dandridge would not have met under ordinary circumstances.  Mrs. Dandridge was raised in, and lived among, wealth and prominence and broad opportunity.  She attended a large Episcopal church and belonged to the Country Club of Virginia.  She lived in a historic home in Henrico County before retiring here with her husband.  Sharon was raised in Gilpin Court, a brutal housing project in the City of Richmond. While she might have been allowed to work at the Country Club of Virginia, she would not have been allowed membership. She had managed to graduate from High School and to receive certification as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) before getting pregnant with her first child, which placed her in a minority among her peers, most of whom had been swallowed up by hopelessness, giving in to gangs and drugs and teenage pregnancy.  The father of Sharon’s child had been shot and killed before her child was born.  Sharon, too, went to church.  She attended a Baptist church in city.  I would learn that it was not possible to separate Sharon and faith.  She was a deeply spiritual person, and hers was a simple and profound spirituality.  But broad opportunity and liberal education were not part of her reality.  And the chasm between Mrs. Dandridge and Sharon had been made permanent by Richmond culture with the tincture of race.  Mrs. Dandridge was white.  And Sharon was a person of color.  White and black, and at that time, the two did not mix at the heights of Richmond society.  As I watched Sharon go about her work, I found myself in awe of her.  She was gentle and kind in a way most 20-year-olds are not, but she had an edge to her, too, that I would not want to find myself on the wrong side of.  Her work was her job, paying minimum wage but with meager benefits, and with a young mouth to feed at home, a job with benefits was all that stood between her and disaster.

One January afternoon as I stood praying outside Mrs. Dandridge’s room preparing for my turn in the arena with her, I listened as she cussed at Sharon who was cleaning up Mrs. Dandridge after a bout of incontinence.  I heard the word come from somewhere down deep in the recesses of Mrs. Dandridge.  I’m sure she had heard it more times than she could have named growing up in the segregated South, but in her right mind she would never have uttered it.  There is a word so foul in its meaning that it cannot have come from God, a word that I think even God shudders at.  I will not repeat it here, but suffice to say that it begins with the letter “N”.  My grandfather threw it around when he was drunk.  I found it hard to scrub off of my soul even as a child hearing him say it.  And it clawed its way up out of Mrs. Dandridge with a ferocity that day…not once, but at least ten times in rapid and vehement succession.  Sharon came out of the room with an anger on her face that that I could feel, and she turned the corner and ran smack into me leaning against the wall.  “What the heck are you doing standing out here like a fool?!?!”, she said.

“Yes”, I replied. “…Like a fool. Standing…and praying.”

“Well, you need to pray for me ‘cause I can’t take much of that foolishness and I need this job!”, Sharon said. “And you better pray for her, too!”

As I mentioned, I was taught that my job was to care for the pastoral needs of the residents, but in this moment, the second of two paradigm shifts began for me.  I wasn’t just here to care for the residents even if that’s what my job description said.  I was also there to care for the caregivers.  I don’t know why I said it to Sharon that day.  While I admired Sharon, I didn’t really know Sharon.  Different worlds.  Different races.  But I said, “Sharon, maybe we can pray together.”  And I said without thinking it through, “I don’t think this is just a job for you.  I think God called you to this ministry.  I think you are called to this no different that I am called to what I do.  And I can’t do what I do without getting prayed up first.”

She looked at me, hand on her hip, for what seemed like an eternity.  And then her expression changed,,,softened.  And she reached out her hand and took mine in hers, and said, “Okay.  Let’s pray.”  As we stood there in the hall praying out loud for each other and for Mrs. Dandridge, two other CNAs came and joined us, forming a circle with hands joined…a foothold of God’s Kingdom there in the hallway of the Dementia wing.  We prayed together to hear the voices of character of those we cared for despite the voices of affliction.  We cast the “N” word into the depths of hell from whence it had crawled into Mrs. Dandridge’s affliction.  We prayed for strength for those called into the ministry of care.  And we prayed for an anointing of this ministry.

When we were finished, our little group agreed to meet each morning for prayer before work.  Within about six months, that little informal prayer service has grown to more than thirty people from all over the facility.  People who had never spoken to each other, became hallway prayer partners.  When I would see a CNA in the hall or the cafeteria, I would call them “Minister”.  “How’s the Kingdom today, Minister Michelle?”  That would almost always elicit a smile.  And I would often see the CNAs and their co-workers and supervisors – nurses, social workers, white and black- holding hands in the hall and praying before going into the rooms of their charges. In a short period of time, there were measurable changes.  Care improved.  Instances of theft by staff dwindled to a rarity.  Evaluations by outside agencies improved drastically.  Lost days due to illness and lateness became rarities, too. Though the voices of affliction could still be heard daily echoing through the hallways, many, many people were listening hard to hear the voices of character that could also be found present and whole even in that place.

What began as a tiny mustard seed of two people praying for each other in the midst of sea of affliction grew to become a large bush that gave shelter to many – the Kingdom of God emerged in our midst.


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