‘Companioning’ on both sides of the grave

November 1, 2012


[Episcopal News Service] Brother Ron Fender will spend Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, All Saints and All Souls Days, commemorating Chattanooga’s homeless and unclaimed dead, first by decorating their graves with fall flowers and, a day later, with dinner and Eucharist.

While Episcopal Church commemoration of the dead is a longstanding tradition, Fender’s is among a growing number of outreach ministries that “companion” the poor, the homeless, the marginalized and alone, on both sides of the grave.

As outreach case manager for the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, Fender, a monk in the Episcopal Brotherhood of St. Gregory, offers a range of services to the homeless, including keeping vigil with the dying and also burying them.

The ministry emerged “soon after I came here,” he recalled during a recent telephone interview from his office. “One of the homeless men collapsed here at the kitchen and stopped breathing. We did CPR, got him to the hospital and they ventilated him. But after some hours the doctors came and asked me if he had family.

“I knew he didn’t because he told me many times that he was alone in the world and he was concerned there’d be no one to bury him,” Fender recalled. “The doctor said, ‘we really need to let him go’. They started disconnecting everything. I stayed with him till it was over.

With that death he realized that “I didn’t want any of them to die alone and, even if they died alone, I did not want them to go unburied without some recognition of who they were and the fact that I’ve loved them and that God has accepted them into his arms.”

That was 10 years ago. His ministry has evolved so that the coroner’s office notifies him when a body is unclaimed. The county donates a grave; local funeral homes provide their services and a cardboard casket.

He eulogizes the dead “and I try to personalize it,” Fender said. “I do always assure those who are gathered there that that person is no longer homeless. That person is at home. We are the homeless ones, but that that person is no longer homeless.”

On any given night, Fender believes “there are between 300 and 500 people sleeping outside,” he said. “Chattanooga has one emergency or drop-in shelter, and it has 42 beds for men and 12 for women, so a large number of our people are sleeping outside.”

Sacred ‘vigiling’ in Los Angeles
In Los Angeles, a three-fold collaboration of the Rev. Sarah Nichols, Chapman University professor Don Gabard, and Dr. Pamelyn Close, has trained almost 100 volunteers for By Your Side, a program designed “to meet people where they are by serving as compassionate companions to those who are dying.”

Nichols, director of pastoral care for the diocesan Episcopal Communities and Services, said the volunteers offer “the gift of authentic presence” to those in local hospitals, homes, long-term care facilities, their own parishes and communities of influence.

“Research shows that companionship and spiritual support are two of the most important desires at the end of life, yet many Americans die alone,” Nichols said in an e-mail to the Episcopal News Service.

“When facing the vulnerability of end of life, every human being deserves to have their sacredness affirmed and their spirituality honored through the compassionate presence of another person, in whatever way is meaningful to them,” she added.

It is not proselytizing or even about prayer, says Don Gabard, a physical therapist and parishioner at All Saints Church in Pasadena, whose mother’s death and volunteerism helped inspire By Your Side.

Six years ago his mother was dying of ovarian cancer in North Carolina and “she made it pretty clear to me that she wanted me to be there,” he recalled during a recent telephone interview with ENS. “I was both filled with sorrow at her death but at the same time so grateful that I could be there.”

He also volunteered at the L.A. County-University of Southern California medical center where at least seven percent of the patients are homeless and never have a visitor.

What many people really want “is to tell their story,” he said. “They may tell it to you many times but it changes because they’re making meaning of life.”

So “there is no formula to this. People have their own unique way of making meaning or finding meaning in their faith, if they have a faith.”

Gabard remembered visiting a seven-week-old child. “Her family abandoned her when they found she had a catastrophic illness that was going to take her life,” he recalled.

“They couldn’t stand to be there. What we did as volunteers was hold her and sing to her and comfort her like you do with any child. If there are any rights that are inalienable, to be held and loved as a child is certainly one of those.”

The volunteers visit those who “are ‘underfamilied,’ have no family, or are young, or in their 80s. It’s just across the board. I can’t predict who or what I’m going to see when I go there.”

For two-year By Your Side volunteer Sharon Crandall, a parishioner at the Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel, California, visiting the dying “has been far more rewarding and transformative than I ever imagined.

“I have learned that the best approach is to not have any expectations. Learning to meet people where they are in the dying process has helped me in my relationship to others and in my relationship with God,” she said.

“It also gave me the courage and compassion to care for my aunt in her last weeks and my mother-in-law in her last months. Both had the desire to die at home. I was so grateful to be able to share this time with both of them. It is a gift you really have to experience. There are no words to describe the grace of dying.”

Hope and angels in Detroit

At 4 p.m. nearly every third Wednesday of each month Carolyn Gamble, senior warden at St. Christopher’s-St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Detroit gathers, along with her 13-year-old granddaughter Kaitlyn and others, at the Perry Funeral Home.

They light a candle, read the names of the city’s unclaimed dead, pray and sing.

Like Gabard in Los Angeles, Gamble’s involvement grew out of personal experience. Her mother had lived in both New York and in Detroit and “when she died we had services in both places for her,” Gamble said during an Oct. 29 telephone interview.

When another parishioner told her of the city’s unclaimed dead in the morgue, “their bodies disposed of with no service, no nothing, it really hit home to me,” she said. “It was strange to me, I felt somebody needed to do something.”

The funeral home provides the space and the names of the unclaimed. The church has offered nondenominational services since 2008, according to the Rev. Deborah-Semon Scott, St. Christopher’s-St. Paul’s rector. In that time “I’ve lost count of how many folks we’ve had services for,” she said. “It’s in the thousands.”

She has officiated at burials for babies and centenarians alike. There are usually no ashes or bodies present. Instead, a candle is lit and there is a single long-stemmed white rose bearing a tag with name and date of birth and death, if known, for each individual being commemorated. At various services, there have been as few as 30 candles and roses or as many as 60, she said.

“They might have been in a nursing home; sometimes we have services for babies who were miscarried or died at birth or were stillborn,” according to Semon-Scott. “And we also have had services for folk for whom remains were found and they have a date of death as to when they were found. All they can do is say they were male or female and sometimes it’s pretty sketchy. It sounds grisly, but it’s a fact of life.”

The ministry began after a former parishioner heard a radio broadcast that Detroit and other major cities were facing backlogs of unclaimed bodies. “He thought how sad it was that one would come into this life and be a part of this kingdom for whatever length of time and be parted as if they had never been, and wasn’t there something that we could do about that,” she said.

After the prayers, there are hymns, “something that everyone knows, like ‘Bind us together, Lord,’” she said.

“These are human beings created in the image of the creator and all life is sacred for whatever length of time we are given – the good, the bad and the ugly. It needs to celebrated, acknowledged and thanked because they did walk the earth,” she said. “To pass into the night as if you never had been is exceedingly sad.”

Although the ministry “has deeply touched the lives of people who have been a part of it” volunteers are few, perhaps because it is misunderstood.

“We thought we’d do this once or twice a year,” Gamble recalled. “We just knew it would catch on and others would want to do it also. But, it didn’t. We’ve had no takers.”

Semon-Scott agreed. “When I claim this as one of our outreach ministries, as a mission of the church, usually the response from other clergy is ‘oh, that has to be terrible to go and do that.’”

Paradoxically, it is anything but, Semon-Scott said. “How could something one would assume is grim have a joyful peace to it? Yet, it does,” she said. “You can walk away and know that it was a good and right thing to do.”

Back in Chattanooga, Fender said he buried 26 people last year. “This year so far, it’s only 12, thank God.”

The ministry is important “because the connection between us and those who have died remains very strong,” he said. “I think that we are connected eternally through God and when I visit the cemetery and those graves I know that person is standing there with me. Death may end an earthly life but it does not end a being.

“We are spiritual beings with an earthly human experience and our connection with them is very strong. I think that as we remember them we know they are looking back on us with love and thanksgiving. I always tell my homeless friends when I visit their grave I will see you again some day.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.