Last week I happened to be ‘out and about’ in the town where I live, and where I used to be the Anglican Priest.
I met someone whom I had previously known as a worker at a Community Residential Unit.
I used to go to the Unit to visit the staff and residents whom I knew, and to collect palm branches from their tree for Palm Sunday each year.
So this former staff member said to me as we reconnected “You know, you were the only religious person who ever visited us.’
“Well thanks!” I replied. But then I became curious. I wonder what she could have meant?
Clearly, she appreciated the visits. Whish is a blessing. Once, while very new in the town, I was at the hospital. A woman whose mother was ill saw me in my cassock (because I had come to give communion to a member) and asked me to go to see her mother, who was sick. So I went into her room. “No, no, go away!” she called out! Clearly she did not appreciate even my best intentions. So a visit to a stranger, or a ‘secular’ place is not automatically welcome. Some people think that the Church only cares about them when there is money to be asked for. Which is not the case, but if suspicion is the name of the game, then any approach to a person who is not a regular member is going to be met with disapproval.
So there’s step one. My intention to offer care was received as such an offer.
But what was it about a religious person’s visit that meant so much?
I keep coming back to the deep disappointment and longing that lies behind this expression of appreciation.
Think of just how big are the promises that connectedness with god makes! “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is absolutely nothing I can lack, want or feel the need for! And “If God is for us, who can be against us? We are the custodians of such lavish promises of care and right relationships.
But all of us grow up with a sense of lack, because we are brought up by human beings as parents, and not by God. Yet Christians say “There is a kind of care that is available to you that can transcend your sense of neediness”
Is not this what St. Augustine says when he is describing his own life? “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You, O God?’
Now it is true that no amount of ‘caring’ can make up for the lack of care that we received as a child. There is only grieving, and moving on.
But when this person says to me ‘You are the only religious person who ever came to visit us.” I think that she is pointing up the difference between what the Church puts in its handouts about God’s love and care (which she would love to believe in) and the perceived lack in the Church’s witness to that very love and care. When that witness comes close to crossing the borders between those who are Church members and those who are not, risking the suspicious response ‘Go away, you only want money!” then clearly some people appreciate our efforts. Which is nice.
But there is also another side to this coin. I remember once there was a person who would come to the door of the vicarage and ask for money. They would always have a story to tell as to why I should give it to them.
But the degree of debasement that this person (and many like him) would go to in order to make me feel sorry for them was more of a problem to me than the fact that they had asked.
One time, I said to the person who asked “Look, you do not have to keep on spinning me a yarn like this. It distresses me to see you grovelling so much. And besides, if you came to Church, and were a member here, you would have this money as a right, not because you have grovelled to get it!’
This is what I wanted to say, sort of, to the person who appreciated my occasional visits to the Community Residential Unit. I wanted to say “Look, If you felt uncared-for, you could have had all the care you needed, had you been a member of the congregation. Had you come, and asked the residents to come with you, then you would not have had to do with the occasional times that I came around. You could have had this kind of care as a right. Many people are unaware of the real and tangible benefits of being a member of the Church. As the old Dunhill cigarette ad used to go about joining the ‘Dunhill Club’ ‘Membership has its benefits.”
But then too, I ask myself, would the congregation in that town have been enough of the ‘Body of Christ’ to really experience that the needs of one are the needs of us all? Sometimes we are just ‘Town X at prayer’ or hide our needs from members of the Church because we do not want to be seen as weak, or in need, or desirous of care. (My dog is great at expressing her need of a pat and a hug!)
So a simple expression of thanks raises deeper questions about our expression of need, the Church’s witness to God’s love and how congruent is what we do, with what we promise.