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This is a personal story about religious differences and spiritual understanding (one of the primary themes of the Fire of Norea series):
As many of you may know, I am a hospice volunteer. I cannot relate specific details about my experiences, obviously, but I do incorporate them, in anonymous form, into my writing. After all, the powerful moments of human connection that blossom in these visits is too important not to share.
On Valentine’s Day, 2008, I was at work when I received the call that my grandfather had died. He had steadily declined after retirement and was eventually diagnosed with dementia. After he fell a few times, my grandmother no longer felt comfortable caring for him at home, and the family put him into a nursing home. Their services included an outside hospice organization and this group of caregivers had a profound impact on me.
For a year after my grandfather died, I struggled with the idea of becoming a hospice volunteer. I felt I had a duty to give back to the organization, but I did not think I could handle the work emotionally. The day my future volunteer coordinator interviewed me for the position, I fought back tears explaining that I felt I had a duty to service work and healing in the community. Currently (July, 2013), I have nearly completed a master’s degree in Religious Studies. I feel I have a deep understanding of belief, power structures, history and ecumenical service work, all lacking on that day, in that conversation. Speaking to her, I felt overwhelmed by the knowledge that religion is often as painful as it is peaceful; I felt crippled by impotence to provoke meaningful change. I could not articulate the enormity of the religious violence I felt in the world, so I swallowed my pain and simply told her I wanted to help.
Since the summer of 2010, I have provided companionship to dementia patients in nursing homes as part of an amazing nonprofit hospice group based in Charlotte. It has been an incredible learning experience and guided me to expand my master’s program to include a graduate certificate in Gerontology. The result has been a more complete and practical understanding of aging, which has, in turn, deepened the potential of my visits.
Education encourages understanding, and understanding is the foundation of any healthy relationship.
Yesterday, I met a new patient. Obviously, I cannot give personal details, but I wanted to share part of the conversation I had with the patient’s wife.
First, a little context: one of the criteria for patients accepted into a hospice program includes a diagnosed life expectancy of less than two years. The primary goal of hospice is to help the patient and family live as fully as possible in that period. There is no false expression of hope, but neither is the service morbid. Hospice embodies a philosophy of life, not an expectation of death. Our assignment paperwork includes personal information that may help us take care of our patients. This includes religious affiliation. My new patient and his wife are both Catholic, so I took a Bible with me.
He is almost completely physically incapacitated and suffers from early stages of dementia. His wife is confined to a wheelchair but is otherwise very strong physically and mentally. She explained to me that her husband is still processing the involvement of hospice and he likely associates our work with death. She said that was her first reaction, and she had to go through the initial stages of grief when the social worker arrived. Now, she says, she has accepted what is happening and she is grateful for the work we do.
“I understand it’s not about death,” she said. “It’s about comfort and freedom. It’s such a great concept, really. If a person at this stage wants to eat oatmeal three meals a day like my sister did before she died, why shouldn’t she be allowed to?”
She told me a story she had read in the paper, about a man who rented a motel room to spend his last days when he knew he was dying, because he wanted to be with his dog. “He couldn’t find a hospital that would let him bring his dog, so he decided to die in a motel room. Isn’t that awful? Why shouldn’t a dying man be allowed to spend his last days with his dog? I think hospice raises some important questions that society often ignores.” She pointed at her husband. “But you understand, you’ll have some work ahead of you, convincing him of that.”
She asked me about the Bible I carried, and I told her about my Religious Studies program. Her face lit up. She told me about the nearly 50 years of marriage they have shared together, how they had both been high school science teachers, and about her husband’s childhood in a rural Methodist church before converting to Catholicism (her upbringing) after his parents passed. “I understand why he waited,” she said. “I really do.”
She didn’t elaborate, and she didn’t have to. Growing up in the rural South, I learned that Catholicism was a cult and Catholics were all going to Hell. Things have certainly changed: these same Southern fundamentalists now support Catholic Republicans like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich as if they were Evangelicals. And Franklin Graham removed Mormonism from the list of cults when Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination for Presidency. (It sounds like the Louis CK bit, where he explains that he has beliefs and they make him feel good, but he ignores them when they get in the way of things he wants: that’s the way religion in America seems sometimes).
Frustrated, she told me she couldn’t understand why there is so much strife and competition between Christians. “We’re all the same thing, we all worship the same God,” she said. I could feel decades of painful experiences in her voice, and I understood. I wondered how many times a coworker or a student’s parent had told her she was going to Hell…maybe it was just in a look, but she would know what that look meant. Perhaps she had felt she must hide an important part of herself from others, out of fear of unfair judgment.
“It should be about service,” she said. “Every Christian can do that. I used to enjoy teaching high school science because most teenagers aren’t good at science and I had the opportunity to teach them that it wasn’t their fault. Not being good at something doesn’t make you a bad person, I would tell them. The important thing is that you take ownership of your decisions, regardless of the outcome.”
I told her she must have been a wonderful teacher, but she waved her hand. “I don’t have the patience to do what you do. We just do what we can.”
I told her that I had been afraid of becoming a hospice volunteer, but now I love doing it. I added that I had realized somewhere along the way that I have a responsibility to do it because not everyone can.
“We find our place in service,” she said. “We find love and compassion. We find Jesus. I don’t know why more Christians don’t understand that. Jesus commanded us to service, all the kings and paupers. Everybody.”
“What you do for the least of these, you do for me,” I said.
I told her a little about my past, then, growing up in a rural Southern Baptist community. I told her it didn’t work for me, this powerful relationship between blind obedience and tremendous guilt. I felt early on that there had to be something more; I felt drawn along a path to find it, and spent a good portion of my adult life on “a sort of spiritual journey.” In Religious Studies, we call that a “seeker,” and the experience is very common.
I told her I didn’t feel welcome in church and had to find another way.
Tears came to her eyes and she nodded. “Catholics and Baptists are a lot alike,” she said.
I agreed. I thought of the accusations of “cult” I had heard as a child, and pondered over why some Baptists hate Catholics so much. Reflections can be quite harsh when they shatter the illusions we’ve manufactured in the darkness of ignorance.
She shrugged and said, “And I don’t know why so many people are worried about the Evangelicals. I hear so many people who are concerned about all the young people going to churches like Elevation, but I think change can be a good thing.”
Elevation Church is a Pentecostal/Charismatic megachurch in the Charlotte area. The pastor wears designer clothes and the services are introduced by live rock bands and music videos on multiple screens. Each week, the sermons are filmed at one campus and simultaneously broadcast to the others.
She told me she had visited Elevation several times and could see the appeal. “I didn’t go for the loud music, frankly. But I think it’s good for people who just don’t go for church anymore. Anything to get them to Jesus. And it’s not just young people, I saw people of all ages.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. “I think it appeals to people with experiences similar to mine.” I told her how I’d found Myers Park Baptist Church and how I felt that I had come home. A Thich Nhat Hanh Buddhist meditation group meets in their basement. That alone was a good reason to attend a service and see what they were about. “I didn’t expect to like it, but that church is so full of love. The congregation is deeply involved in the community and very service oriented.”
She laughed. “Well, not all Baptists are the same, I guess.”
I laughed, too. “A lot of people are surprised when I tell them about my church. But it’s wonderful.”
She told me more about her visit to Elevation, then, about how she saw that they have groups for service opportunities and participation seems to be popular. “One of my friends over in Indian Trail needed some volunteers for a project and let the church know. Over fifty people showed up! She was overwhelmed!”
I told her about some of the work I do on contemporary American religion. I explained that there is no productive way to know what is happening within a given social movement while it is developing, but we can look at polling data and census information and piece together changes in social demographics and behavior. “So,” I said, “there’s no way to prove this conclusively, but the information does seem to indicate that most young Christians are not interested in politics or church authority, but, rather, in service work. Trends suggest that young Christians believe the church’s primary duty is to be involved in the community, promoting social change, and not in fundraising and telling people they’re going to Hell.”
She smiled. “I think you’re right. I hope so. Still, I know there are a lot of dead Catholics who are angry right now because they ate meat on Friday and had all that guilt about going to Hell. I mean, who cares? A little wine now and then, some good food? Why would God care about that? Church is a human thing, and humans are flawed. It’s okay to admit that churches are, too. What is important is that we help each other.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’ll leave it at that.
Jamie A. Duncan