Toward a heavenly welcome
I woke up earlier than usual and saw a message blinking on my phone. It was from a friend who lives on the street. “Did you hear?” I knew it couldn’t be good news. “He’s dying right now, get to the hospital.” I woke up my husband and we hopped in a cab. Just the day before we had been there to see our longtime friend Gary.* He hadn’t been able to speak or respond much for at least a week, but the news was that we should have about a month to say goodbyes. By the time we got to the hospital, a small group had already gathered, and something was certainly different. Up until that day we were only allowed in his room two at a time and had to use a phone outside the ICU to be let in. Now people were holding the doors to the ICU wide open and we quickly gowned and gloved and went in. Over the next half hour the room filled up with more than twenty people, all whispering and singing to Gary about how loved he was, how he was forgiven, and ready to be welcomed by God. We each took turns holding his hand and kissing his cheeks, praying for him and reassuring him of the peace that awaited him.
Especially in the cold winter months that preceded his and the passing of a few others, it can feel like a lot of what we do is fighting against death which lurks at every corner. We try to get people beds in shelters, into detox, and advocate for good treatment in hospitals. We get people warm socks, dry blankets and hot meals. We try to encourage the small voice in people’s heads telling them maybe they can be worth more than the life they are living.
Because of this, at Gary’s deathbed, so much of me felt like a failure. Yet, it is often in the most painful places that we find glimpses of glory. As friends rushed to the hospital and packed into every corner of the room, gathering around Gary’s bed as he took his last, slow, painful breaths, I couldn't help but feel that we were at one with him straddling the earthly and heavenly realms. We were both witnessing and participating in what was becoming Gary’s new reality. The rejection, exclusion, loneliness and mental agony that were constant in Gary’s life were ebbing away and we were the first of a heavenly welcome which would forever consist in inclusion and embrace.
*name has been changed.
Reflections on recent deaths
I have been a part of many funerals in my short time as a street pastor. One thing that has stood out for the Lazarus Rising Steering Committee is how in the last year a large part of the pastoral ministry has been caring for friends through their deaths, and being with those who are left to grieve. Just as it seemed we had emerged whole from the long cold winter, in the early weeks of spring our community took a hit, and within weeks I lost three dear friends. There are no easy answers to questions that arise when young men and women pass away from the effects of homelessness. A friend who died in March, who had himself buried dozens of his brothers and sisters, asked me not months before his own death “Why does God hate us?” The honesty of his grief and lament cuts through any attempt at broad philosophical answers to such questions. And yet, beauty emerges from the aftermath of death in our community. Even the toughest questions lead us into deeper vulnerability in our relationships with one another.
It has become a custom that when word gets out about someone’s passing, be it in the hospital, on the street, or at someone’s place, we open the doors to the Sanctuary. I remember getting a call early one morning that John* had died from a heroin overdose. I was living about a block away from the church at the time. As I made my way over it was evident that news was travelling fast. I saw a group of people making their way along Charles Street and another up through the parks. It reminded me of the way children fly home at news of the death of a grandparent. There may not be a plan yet, but people make their way home to be with the ones they love. This was certainly the case.
It is also customary that during the service for a friend we have lost, we leave time and space for anyone who was close to the deceased to share a thought, story, or memory of their friend. It is exceptionally difficult to know what to say during these times. How do you find just the right story to detail what years of friendship mean to you? But amazingly, time and again people who journeyed closest find just the right way to honour their departed brothers and sisters. There are often songs, stories, prayers and laughter resonating through the rafters of the church. In the same way that our community has its quirks, there are also usually rough edges in our grieving. Moments happen that might make someone who does not know the community squirm. People might tell stories about how they got ripped off, or someone might be extremely intoxicated and knock things over. Yet even in these messy times when we come together to grieve, I am always overwhelmed by each person’s capacity to care for one other.
The messages we tell at memorials are often the same. We as a community need to take care of one another. Death is always painful, often filled with indignity, but when we care for one another in death we reveal and receive the love of God.
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.