On Sunday mornings many of us arise to go to church and celebrate the greatest gift we have, in the Eucharist at Mass. But as you look around those pews have you ever wondered, what happened to Helen? What happened to Ed? Where is Polly? And what is Robert doing now? Is he okay? These are the missing faces of those parishioners who once graced the sacred space of our churches. Where are they now? They are homebound, they are living in nursing facilities and assisted care facilities. Many of these people spend numerous days in and out of the hospital. Their days are often lonely and isolated, filled with physical pain and spiritual isolation. Some of them may have a pet to keep them company, but many do not.
Several days ago, after what seemed like a long and difficult week, I finally went to see Polly. My visit with Polly was truly God’s gift to me. She welcomed me with open arms, even while suffering with debilitating arthritic pain. For her, the joy of seeing someone new coming to spend some time with her was astonishing. She could not express to me enough the gratitude she felt. As we talked, Polly shared with me some great stories about her life, her family and her work. She told me that she was an “old maid” and asked me if I was one too. I simply chuckled at her question. These folks have some incredible stories to share and wisdom to impart to all of us, yet they remain hidden in our neighborhoods simply because they are too sick and unable to be mobile. I am often brought to laughter and tears as I sit with them in their homes, their most personal, sacred place with God. I would encourage others to reach out to those who cannot reach us.
Shortly after I arrived here last year, I met Marilyn. I was not sure when I met her whether we would ever really hit it off. As time went on, we discovered together that we were really good for each other. When I lost my brother David to cancer last August, she was a source of strength for me when we prayed and talked together about his death. So many times she has told me that she feels like she has no role to play in her life anymore. However, I continually remind her that her role in life now is to pray for those whom she loves. What she and so many other parishioners out there do not realize is that they play a significant role in shaping our ministry. It is because of their homebound station in life that my life, and the lives of all those who visit them, are touched in a deeply spiritual way. One of the greatest things I learned to do as a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic was to tailor my prayers to their personal story and living situation. I would like to share with you a prayer I often pray with our parishioners in Elmira:
Help Marilyn to remember
that her home is her church.
It is here that she walks with you.
It is here that she talks with you.
It is here that she eats with you.
It is here that she sleeps with you.
It is here that she prays with you.
Help her to remember that she is never alone,
and that you are only one prayer away from her.
I have been gifted with one of the greatest ministry jobs I could ever have. Sometimes it is not an easy job, but it is well worth the time that I take to see those entrusted to our care. As I look into the faces of our homebound parishioners out there, I see love, the image and face of Christ, looking back at me.
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Gardner is a pastoral associates for Blessed Sacrament, Christ the Redeemer and St. Mary parishes in Elmira.