It’s not what we learned in seminary, this social distancing.
Chaplaincy is about connection, relationship and moving closer to someone who feels alone and isolated. In our chaplaincy to people experiencing homelessness in Waltham, that “moving closer” is often a literal action: shaking hands or hugging, sitting next to someone on a bench, standing in line together at the soup kitchen, driving to a court hearing. Welcomed touch is so important in a ministry for people who have been made to feel untouchable.
For instance, I remember asking Frankie if he’d like a hug at the end of a particularly emotional conversation where he had gifted me with his vulnerability. He was a big man, easily six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than I. Just a few months before, he had walked out of prison for the first time in 12 years.
“Sure,” said Frankie, standing up from the little metal table at McDonald’s where we had been talking. Our hug was quick and perhaps a bit awkward for him. Still, I felt him sigh… and then a good deal of weight come onto my shoulders, briefly.
“You know Becky,” he said as I pulled away to look at him. “That’s probably the first hug I’ve had in 12 years. No joke! You have no idea what that means to me.” He wiped his eye.
So suddenly…. here comes this virus. For the last three weeks, we are having to, not just abandon touch, but enforce a six-foot distance between us. We had to abandon the hot breakfast COTW volunteers had been offering five mornings a week since Thanksgiving. Instead we started meeting our community in the McDonald’s parking lot on those mornings, to visit and hand out five-dollar gift cards.
Initially, before the severity of things set in, I felt creative about ways to offer my presence without putting myself or others at risk. I threw two plastic garden chairs in my car and went to visit our community members who are recently housed. I brought an assortment of drinks and snacks to choose from while we chatted and had fun. But as time goes on, the fun has faded and I’ve had to quarantine myself at home, writing, zooming and talking to our beloved folks over the phone. Their voices sustain me, as does the generosity of donors, old and new, who keep our McDonald’s card ministry going.
Fortunately, Chaplains on the Way is not about any one chaplain! Justi, Korte and our ministerial intern Alan, still show up at McDonald’s with gift cards for breakfast. They listen to the fears of our community and are inspired by the courage and persistence they see. Justi and our colleague Chris are leading the charge to communicate with the Mayor and others in Waltham about the urgent needs of residents experiencing homelessness, who have no place to quarantine and no place to go if they get sick.
And so, dear friends, we are making a go of it…spreading love and not the virus.
Many blessings for your health and safety, as you do the same.
In great gratitude
Rev. Rebecca Sheble-Hall
Executive Director, Chaplain
Chaplains on the Way