Unexpected Visitors

Things have been going well at my new job as pastor. I’m enjoying the work and I’m enjoying the steep learning curve that comes along with it. Things have been by-and-large steady, no major crises or anything like that which has been a really good way to start off. Throughout this summer, I’ve been relying on knowledge as well as a variety of skills I picked up in seminary but there have been other things that have happened that there’s just now way you can really be prepared for. They’re the kinds of things you have to learn in the moment (or not learn in the moment as the case may sometimes be) and with the help of those in your faith community.
This past week things have been really kicked up a notch, we’ve had a couple unexpected visitors that have really forced me into a different space of “preparation.”

Last week a young man, 28, walked into our office and asked if we did funerals at the church. I had arrived on my bike only  minutes before him and was still standing with my right pant-leg rolled up, my helmet on, and breathing heavey from being out of breathe. This first question was not something I anticipated on my bike ride to work that morning and it wasn’t something I was ready for.  But I was even less ready for his second question, “will you perform the funeral for my mother?”

I’ve never officiated a funeral and I guess I expected that the first one I would do would happen in some far off distant future when I was “ready” and it would be someone I knew. Well, I took my helmet off, settled in a little, and after suggesting that if they had a minster that knew the family that would be better, I realized this was a family I was to for and that it was no mistake they were there. So last week I spent a lot of time thinking about death, working with this family, and finally, spending time with them on Sunday during and after the funeral. Being with this family I’d only known a week on their day of intense grieving was very powerful for me and an experience I felt honored to participate in.I learned more last week in a crash course in preparing for a funeral and helping others grieve than I could have done in a quarter at Fuller (though a couple of books from seminary proved very helpful).

Our second unexpected visitor was a homeless lady (who said she went by no name) showed up at our meetinghouse yesterday. We talked for a little while, she sang me a Quaker song (tis a gift to be simple), and began to weep. She said she doesn’t fit in anywhere, and feels a deep sense of loneliness. She also said she felt selfish for thinking about how lonely she is. Then she said she needed to sleep  and wondered if she could sleep on the floor of the foyer, I brought her into the santuary and offered her to sleep on a pew.

After she went to sleep, I began calling around to find a shelter for her. I called 5 or 6 shelters in Vancouver, the emergency shelter hotline (repeatedly), and a couple other organizations and a church. No one could help, everyone was book, or they just didn’t answer the phone. It was extremely frustrating. I spent more than an hour on the phone, along with the help of a Friend in our meeting, and between the two of us we could not find her any shelter. This whole time I’m thinking, “I have no training for how to help homeless people! What am I am supposed to do to really help this woman?”

So we decided to at least feed her something good, so Emily cooked up a wonderful batch of polenta and ratatouille, along with some desert. Emily, L and I along with our visitor ate together in the fellowship hall of our church building. It was fun, albeit a little intense; the lady certainly is dealing with some form of paranoia. When we could get her off her cycle of conspiracies she was very pleasant, tender and had a great sense of humor.

A couple in our meeting who saw my facebook message, “We are eating dinner at the church building with the homeless lady. Come join us.” Did in fact drop by and since we had no place to send her they outfitted her with wool socks, a fleece, and a rain jacket. We also packed her up with some basic food items.

I felt terrible knowing she would be sleeping out on the streets but wasn’t sure what else to do.

I realized at least a couple things yesterday through this situation. Every situation is completely different and there is no way to really be prepared for each circumstance. I can only be present in that moment and listening for the Light of Christ there and then. I learned that I need to be open and compassionate and willing to “do to the least of these,” and that bureaucracies can certainly be helpful at times but are often just a distraction from us doing the work ourselves.

I am also struck by the simple fact that in Camas and Washougal there is nothing for homeless people and I find this a deep need. There is a charity but it only helps people with addresses. There’s nothing, as far as I know, available if you’re on the streets. And from one conversation I had with a women at a shelter, the shelters are even more full this year and some have up to a 3 month waiting list. This woman dropping by made me aware of something I’ve been asking since I moved to Camas, what does this town need? I think the surface has now been scratched. I look forward to working through this question with our meeting.

(The image is borrowed and is CC-licensed.)