It has been a week…an amazing grace-filled, wonderful and hard week of being among and caring for members of my wider Quaker community as their pastoral counselor. Each year I take a vacation week away from my regular job to fulfill a similar role of caring for people of all ages within my spiritual community of fellow Quakers. Non-Quakers would understand the setting easiest as an annual conference of people from around New England. We call it our annul Sessions of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers).
People often think that being present to hundreds of people and attending to their spiritual and emotional well being in such a setting must be challenging. And while that is sometimes the case, there are also many moments of sheer joy, wonder and grace, too, that come about unexpectedly in ways that one could not anticipate in advance.
How way opens
Looking back, for example, one minute I was helping an older Friend to find his way around a somewhat confusing campus and an hour later found myself listening to a child tell me that their family pet had died the week before. Then, shortly thereafter in another building, I was sitting, listening, and being prayerfully attentive as a middle-aged woman shared her journey through excruciating grief and loss.
Later that evening I found myself helping an older Friend to steady her difficult walk up the stairs from the cafeteria and then down a long hallway to her chosen workshop. Just before releasing her arm so she could take her seat, she said, “Thank you. It felt good holding someone’s hand again.” That was it. One moment, one hand, and all that it took to make it happen was being present at that moment and time.
On being present
“Being present,” in actuality, is no accident and no small matter. It is also a stated part of my function at our annual gathering of New England Quakers. In addition to other responsibilities, part of my function as the pastoral counselor is to remain unfettered by prescheduled programs so that I can remain available at or near the time when help is needed most. That’s the goal at least, which I believe I met over ninety-five percent of the time.
“Being present where you are” is perhaps the most important tool to have when doing this work. And while that concept sounds like a no-brainer, in today’s fast paced American society it is seldom taken into consideration by people who organize and lead programs of various sizes. Some twelve years ago a woman at one of our annual gatherings said to me, “Everyone is so busy running about doing important work that there’s no one to talk to.” Her comment stayed with me for another year until I eventually coupled the woman’s comment with my own concern that we needed to take better care of one another within our week-long community. Finally, after a time of seasoning among our leadership, the role of pastoral counselor was born.
Ministry of wheels
These past two years the program has provided me with a golf cart to quickly cover the campus of Bryant University where we meet and to help me cope with a nagging back condition that I’ve been dealing with over the same period of time. But the Spirit, which moves and calls us to work in mysterious ways, had additional plans for me, too. As one observant rider said near the end of the week, “So Kevin, how’s the ministry on wheels going this year?”
I chuckled, but knew too he was right on with his question as follows:
One parent hailed me down for a “ride” but what was just as important as a lift was her need to discuss a struggle she was having with her child within the children’s program.
Another parent, shortly after stepping on board, told me that he was dealing with his dad’s anticipated death, and wondered aloud how best to prepare his family. We parked the buggy and talked for some ten minutes or more, exploring approaches and methods that work and some that don’t. It’s unlikely that our paths would have crossed if I had not said, “I’m going your way. Care for a ride?”
A teen, waving one crutch in the air, flagged me down for a ride to the dining hall, saying, “This leg isn’t healing fast enough for me.” I learned that she had badly broken it three months ago and might need corrective surgery.
One man hopped on and quickly needled me by saying, “Must be nice riding around all day in a golf cart?” “This little buggy allows me to be where I’m most needed and quickly” I said. “To me,” I added, “It’s beginning to feel more necessary than nice.”
Another young adult told me in route to his dorm that he was discouraged and depressed, having finished college and was still unable to land a decent job. After arriving at his dorm we sat and talked about possible actions he could consider. As I rode off it struck me that the golf cart made it possible for him to open something up and for us to share if only for ten to fifteen minutes late one evening.
Early one morning I came across an older man who was sitting on a wall catching his breath. It was shortly after seven AM, the sun was shinning and it was already getting hot. He didn’t ask for a ride but I stopped and suggested that he hop on. As we began to move he said, “I think the cancer’s gonna take me this time,” as if I was supposed to know that he was ill.
There was more silence than talk as we rode along, and I decided to avoid the congested areas of walkers hoping that no one else would ask for a lift just yet. I veered off and took a longer route, passing the Interfaith Center with its fountains, flowers and reflection pool along the outside of the building.
We made our way up to the dining hall and stopped. My rider, pale and smiling broadly beat me to the first sentence, saying, “Thank you. This was wonderful…and have a blessed day.” Simple words, perhaps. But it was clear that in his words to me, that he was giving and receiving something more.
On the way in to breakfast I chatted with a young adult who was interested in working with children on retreats. On the way out I walked and then sat with a mom who was struggling to reconnect with her daughter whom she hadn’t seen in years. After the woman left I stayed watching dozens of people slowly make their way to their morning programs.
The air was still and the low morning light created moving shadows that rippled atop the pond as they crossed the narrow footbridge in the center of the campus. These people, many of whom I knew, dedicate their lives to everything from social justice issues here and abroad, to working for peace, protesting war and protecting the environment. But here, for a moment at least in the shadows and shapes that rippled before me, they are all one people of whom I care deeply about.
Trading wheels for wheels
Just after lunch a child told me that I could keep the ring of beads she had made for me earlier in the week. I kept them hanging on the little squeeze horn that I had taped to the side of the golf cart. I told her that I would keep the beads, and the toy horn, and bring them with me again next year. She was satisfied with that plan, gave me a hug and said goodbye.
By mid afternoon the annual conference was over and I was on the highway headed home. The traffic was snarled approaching Providence and for a short while I was going nowhere sitting in the middle lane. The outside lane, however, was inching slowly past us when I saw the truck carrying the golf carts we had rented all week come up alongside and then slowly move ahead. It made me smile seeing them riding along, resting, white and gleaming in the late afternoon sun as they too moved onward to their next destination.
Knowing that I had been faithfully present to my New England-wide community of Quakers over the past five days, I was now looking forward to getting home and being “present” to a good long nap!