I was expecting a call like this, on a Monday after the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage. Our office manager buzzed me. “There’s someone on the phone who would like to speak with a pastor about a religious matter.” Sigh. “I’ll take it.”
“This is Reverend Beth Neel. How may I help you?” I usually don’t refer to myself as Reverend Beth Neel, but when strangers call and want to talk about a religious matter, I do like to be clear about my role and authority.
“I’d like to come speak with you about a religious matter.” We agreed on the time of 11:30.
Here’s what I assumed: that this woman, who self-identified as Presbyterian, wanted to talk with me about either the SCOTUS ruling or about what had happened in Charleston. I confess that normally I try to pass this sort of thing along to one of my colleagues, but it was just me in the office today.
At 10:15 I ran downstairs to look at something in the building, and when I came back up to my office, she was waiting for me, 45 minutes early. I took one look at her, wearing her down coat on a day when it was supposed to get up to 90, carrying two laden shopping bags, smelling a bit of stale cigarette smoke, and I knew that the SCOTUS ruling was probably the last thing on her mind.
She did mention it, sort of. She said when she got off the bus in Portland and saw two men holding hands, if her mother had been with her and had seen that, she would’ve had a fit. So much for hearing a proof-text about the sin of gay marriage.
We talked for an hour. She poured out her life story without any self-pity, talking about her family, her mom and dad who married and divorced three times. Her sister, who married the wrong guy. A Mexican restaurant in the Memorial area of Houston; did I know it? Her work at a car dealership. Her time in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Seattle. When she worked at a hotel run by East Indians, and their conversations about the Gideons Bibles and why her boss would need to talk to Jesus if he wanted her to work on Sundays.
After an hour, I asked her what her religious question was. “Religious? I don’t believe in God anymore. I’m so tired I just can’t believe in anything. I don’t know if I can go on.” Turns out she had no where to stretch out and sleep; at her age, sleeping under the bridges wasn’t an option. She tried to sneak in naps at Denny’s or Shari’s, but that’s no rest at all.
“Can we provide a motel room for you for a couple of nights?” Sure. We did, and gave her something for some food. Should I have done more – connect her with social services, give her a ride to the motel? Should I have done less – tell her we couldn’t help but that I’d pray for her?” She was grateful for what we offered, said yes with dignity; she didn’t ask for anything more and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that she really wasn’t looking for anything else.
Her name was Joy, and I don’t know if there was a higher purpose to Joy showing up in my office this morning. Was it to challenge my assumptions that gay marriage is on everyone’s mind? Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?
Maybe there was no higher purpose. Maybe there was just a child of God who needed a little help today. And so Joy came in. And so Joy left.
2 thoughts on ““May I come speak with you about a religious matter?””
Beth, you are really an amazing woman and pastor. You did just right, she wanted someone to hear her. Last week at the grocery I encountered a woman about my age who was wandering about, looking lost. She asked where the cat food was and wandered off again, but her daughter caught her, holding a purchase, and helping her mom with the cart. My heart swelled, remembering helping my mother and dad. So I told the daughter I knew what she was going through and that it was very important. Tears came to her eyes as she told me her mother had early stage Alzheimer’s and that her oldest child was just diagnosed with cancer. I knew about that one too, but I just listened and when she looked ahead for her mother, I told her I’d pray for her. God knows who she is, even if I don’t know her name. So thank you for Joy. I appreciaged that story! Hug Gregg for me!
Here’s your key point, Beth–when you say: “Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?” It is the latter–and it’s hard to keep to it. My calling went a different way; I may’ve been able to pastor, but “OC” and “Staying on time” would have doomed me–I’d have “flown off the handle.” I know it’s a careful “dance” between the JOYS that come to the door, and the work and machinery of the organized church. If we could convince the “Joys” to come in on Sunday–that’s what we wish and want–and hope and pray they’d fit in and our church would accept them. I happens sometimes, actually, but the effort can be Herculean. We need someone on the staff to “to pass this along to,” but the buck has to stop somewhere if we are to be inclusive in this diverse age–even inclusive of those on our membership rolls.