When a minister shows up in a new church, she or he gets to meet people where they are in their lives. The minister meets the 89 year-old in a nursing home and does not know her as the loquacious teenager she was once. The unassailable process of aging is why I want so badly to hear the stories of the people for whom I am minister. I only get to meet people as they are now rather than as they used to be. Perhaps it's my own entry into middle age that adds some urgency to my thoughts. I still feel mentally about 25, and I'm surprised when a 20 year-old waiter treats me like I'm a dinosaur. I think, "Who are you calling 'sir' in that tone of voice? Wasn't it yesterday that I was the kid waiting tables?" So, I try to work hard at understanding my church people are more than the person I am meeting in the present; each of us carries our past selves along with us.
I was reminded of this truth by something I read in the Missouri-Mid-South Conference United Church of Christ newsletter this week. Rev. Davida Crabtree is our acting Conference Minister. When I met her at the Conference Annual Gathering, she asked for Louise Wallace's address. Louise played a very important part in Davida's life and she wanted to visit Louise when she passed through Kansas City. This is what Davida wrote:
"I stopped in Kansas City to visit Louise Wallace, a great "saint" of the UCC, member at Country Club Congregational UCC. Louise was a member of the national Executive Council from 1965 to 1971 and nominated me to serve on the council, then the youngest person ever to serve! Later we both served on the first Task Force on Women of the UCC and Louise was co-chair. It was through her leadership that the Antoinette Brown Award for women in ministry was established, and through her church that the pewter medallions for the award were funded. I hadn't seen her in a number of years and was delighted to be able to have a conversation with this amazing elder (96!) among us. I just love Louise, and don't know anyone who doesn't!"
I have lamented many times since coming to CCCUCC that I did not know Louise in her more active days (which weren't that long ago). Those new to the church may only know Louise as the woman in the wheelchair who has trouble hearing and seeing. They may not knowshe has done so much for God's justice in our church and denomination and beyond. She helped to create the Department of United Church Women at the National Council of Churches and traveled the world speaking up for women's rights. Because of her work with NCC, she sat in the ninth row at the famous March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. She was the president of Planned Parenthood in Kansas City. She organized a task force in the United Church of Christ on women in ministry that opened up the UCC for female clergy. The "Antoinette Brown Award" for outstanding female clergy give at each national meeting of our denomination was created by Louise (Antoinette Brown was the first ordained woman in America-ordained in 1851 by our Congregationalist ancestors). Louise's story is an amazing one.
Similarly, this week I have been thinking about another one of our amazing members, Russ Hawkins. Russ and his wife Helma have bravely shared with our church about Russ' diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer's Disease. Russ is now frustrated by memory loss, but you can still easily see the same gregarious and caring nature he demonstrated for decades as a United Methodist minister. Russ and Helma have shared with me Russ' history of getting into trouble by standing up against racism, sexism and homophobia throughout his career. A number of times, a bishop had to move Russ from a parish, because white church members complained about his efforts to integrate a church or because homophobic members did not appreciate his welcome of LGBT people. I have known many retired United Methodist clergy who remained UMC while swallowing their frustration over the denominations' battles over LGBT rights, so I was surprised when I found out Russ was a retired UMC minister who is a member of a UCC church. Russ told me that he grew fed up with his denomination, because his own two gay sons would not be fully welcome in it. He chose to join a church where all his children would be welcomed with open arms.
I attended a workshop this week for clergy on how to care for people with Alzheimer's Disease and to support their caregivers. I am grateful to Helma for telling me about it. The information presented was terrific, and I stand in awe of the staff of the Alzheimer's Association who do so much for people affected by the disease. One of the handouts they offered contained a list worth passing on:
Fourteen Spiritual Needs as We Age
2. A need to transcend circumstances
3. A need for support in dealing with loss
4. A need for continuity
5. A need for validation and support of religious behaviors
6. A need to engage in religious behaviors
7. A need for personal dignity and sense of worthiness
8. A need for unconditional love
9. A need to express anger and doubt
10. A need to feel that God is on their side
11. A need to love and serve others
12. A need to be thankful
13. A need to forgive and be forgiven
14. A need to prepare for death and dying.
(The list comes from Aging and God: Spiritual Pathways to Mental Health in Midlife and Later Years by Harold G. Koening.)
It seems to me that this list contains 14 good reasons for being a part of a faith community as ALL of us grow older.
Grace and Peace,