As Thanksgiving approaches, I find a favorite movie has begun playing on television over and over again, Miracle on 34th Street. This year, I have been reminded that miracles can happen over and over again in real life as well – whenever people choose to love one another as Jesus asked.
This past All Saints Sunday, I was given permission to share a sacred story. It was a tale of a suffering saint, not from long ago, but of one in our midst. Our sister in Christ, Rachel[i], a long-time member of our congregation, a baptized and believing child of God, was in desperate need. She was alone, fighting mental illness, and at risk of becoming homeless.
Rachel is well known to many if not all in our congregation. She has been a congregational member since the 1990s, although she has attended on and off since that time. Of late, she has especially stood out. Visibly, she has grown weaker and distant. Flowing conversations have become more and more difficult. Recently, one might only be answered with a short phrase or a single word. Due to medical issues, she is often seen getting up and down during our worship – going outside the sanctuary to the rest room or for water – and then returning. To be frank, her demeanor, appearance and behaviors could easily put one off or prove annoying.
This situation is sadly not unusual. She shares a story with many who are without family and suffering from mental illness. It is a story that began perhaps before birth, as her mother is said to have suffered from both mental illness and addiction. (Such issues are believed by some to often be partly genetic.) Yet, Rachel also reportedly suffered severe abuse in her original home from others who should have loved her. It is quite a testimony to her tenacity and gifts that she escaped that environment to become a valued employee where she worked and love a family of her own.
Still like many with similar histories, married life proved a challenge. When her husband allegedly became abusive, she decided to divorce him and start again. Unfortunately, he was able to use her mental condition and lack of financial means against her. She lost her children to his custody, and the now adult children – seemingly not understanding mental illness nor family systems – continue to blame her for the dissolution of their family. There is no meaningful contact or support.
Although she had tried hard to provide for herself and for her children, life seemed to work against her as new problems and challenges arouse time and time again. With this, her mental illness seemingly began to take control of her life. She had lost family, and she now lost friends. She eventually lost her job. Initially, a neighboring family tried to help her, but they, too, ran into problems of their own in the difficult economy. They couldn’t help her any longer.
All along, members of our congregation were walking beside Rachel. Certainly, I offered pastoral care and counseling. On top of that (if not more importantly), she received help with food, shelter, and rides. People tried to be patient with her and relate to her; always welcoming her into our assembly. Several sought to be like family to her inviting her to share in holidays and celebrations in their home. Despite our congregation’s current financial challenges[ii] and being a relatively small congregation[iii] for our area, our council managed to quietly pay for her room for several months while she was staying with her neighbors. We also provided assistance with necessities. Our president captured the council’s collective feeling when he said, “She’s been our sister in Christ when it was easy and times were good. We can’t pretend she isn’t our sister now when it is hard. We need to help her.”
Indeed, Rachel is not her mental illness. She is the person who always volunteers to help others, especially children. She heard of a need for children’s sandals and shoes overseas from a veteran she knew, so she initiated a collection through our church. Hundreds of youth in Afghanistan benefited. She is always ready to help us with property needs, vacation bible school, or mission work despite her current limitations. She is one who walks miles to join us for worship or events if she cannot get a ride. She insists on donating money for our shared ministry even when she has little and is told to use it for her own needs. As another person who knew her well said, “Some people love this church, but Rachel LOVES this church. It is her family.” Rachel is our sister, Christ’s sheep, and remains a beloved part of our family of faith.
As with family, Rachel had given the local social services permission to cooperate with me in meeting her needs, but we were confounded as to what could be done when Rachel finally became homeless. The local county only had funds for short-term housing (2 weeks), and our congregation struggled to find the money to pay the discounted rent with her neighbors never mind at a hotel or apartment. It appeared Rachel would be moved into the sometimes rough Richmond homeless shelter system. This put her at further risk of being far removed from her church family, being set back and delayed in her disability claim, and starting anew with a different social worker in an overtaxed, urban environment.
As I pondered this situation, I recognized the great challenge before us to get the money we would initially need to care for Rachel – $2500 for the first few months of housing using the county’s vendor. It was the safest place, easiest transition, and best rate we could hope for, and yet we don’t have that kind of money lying around. As I prayed about it, it struck me that perhaps I was looking at this problem the wrong way. Yes, it is an enormous problem in many respects, but what if we just tried to address the need bit by bit, step by step, and day by day? We could have a special appeal in our church and ask friends in the greater community to help Rachel. If we just looked for fifty people to offer fifty dollars (about the cost of a family eating out in many cases or to attend a family outing), that could cover the initial need. For those who couldn’t give, they would be asked to pray, help Rachel in concrete ways when possible, and welcome her in our assembly.
Symbolically, fifty is a number of freedom and new life, and that is what we want for Rachel. Leviticus 25 describes a Year of Jubilee when debts were to be forgiven, forced servitude was ended, and people began fresh. We now had a chance to help free one of our own sisters in faith – just 50 people and $50 at a time. We would call it our 50 X 50 Campaign, multiplying the love we ourselves had received as individuals from Christ and assuring Rachel that she is not alone.
Announcing this at worship on All Saints Sunday, I was nervous as to how the congregation would respond. I was heavy in my heart because I knew well what was at stake. In past police, hospice care, and mission work with at risk youth in South Dakota, I carried too many memories of those who didn’t make it through such times. Yet our hope is in a God of steadfast love. It is a love of miraculous, healing power that often works through the lives of ordinary people in unexpected ways.
So, I took the risk and made the appeal trusting that “all things work for the good of those that love God,” and God answered through his Holy People. Despite our attendance being lower than average that morning[iv], over $4000 was raised to help Rachel. We have never collected that much money in any appeal that fast before, and I dare say, never for anything as important. Since then, money is still coming in. In a world where too many people wonder if anyone could love them as they are, Jesus spoke love to Rachel that morning. Through us, he is still speaking.
Over the past few weeks in worship, we heard once again about the Beatitudes and how we should love one another. We were urged that we should be patient with and support the weak. We were reminded – both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians alike – that saints are needed for earth and not just for heaven. I can’t say how this particular sacred story about Rachel will end in the immediate future, but I know Jesus and his people are in it for the duration. We have to be, because that’s exactly the way Jesus asks it to be.
As church, we should never focus on how weak we are or the size of any challenge ahead of us. We just need to seek to love, and Jesus will do the rest. Thus, we are told that we can rejoice and do all things through Christ who strengthens us – even miracles – one relationship at a time…even from a small, old building on Atlee Road.
As Rachel’s needs are long-term and many others’ suffer as she does, donations are still being accepted for our benevolence and charitable work. If you would like to help, please send your tax deductible donation (noting “50 X 50” on the memo line) to:
Messiah Lutheran Church and School
8154 Atlee Rd.
Mechanicsville, VA 23111
In hindsight, the above story is reminiscent of this song. Originally written at the time of the recent “Great Recession”, it reminds us all to love one another and boldly be ambassadors for Christ. We are never truly alone (Matt. 28:20)! Enjoy…
[i] For the sake of this public message, the woman’s name has been changed to provide for some privacy. It is a story shared with permission.
[ii] Although our financial situation has improved these past few years, it is still not unusual for us to struggle just to pay bills some months.
[iii] Messiah’s average attendance is about 95 with a bit over 200 members.
[iv] Attendance was in the mid-80s on November 3, 2013.