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Doing Together

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, Senior Editor Connecting Voices

     You are alone…invisible… indistinguishable from the trash pile into which you’ve burrowed for warmth.
     You are alone…shunned…a drug mule wanted only for your body cavities
     You are alone…illegal… a stranger in a strange new world.
     You are alone…homeless …amidst faded memories
     You are alone…helpless…an unwanted infant tossed into the trash.
     You are alone…a surly recluse with neither family nor friends.
     You are alone…and now, unnoticed, you are dead.
     Alone forever, your story unknown, untold.
     Unless you died in Amsterdam.
     Every year up to 20 people die completely alone in Amsterdam. 

     Completely alone and, yet, not finally alone, thanks to a civil servant, Ger Frits, and a poet, Frank Starik, who make sure these lonely souls receive respectful and personal burial (chapel, flowers, three pieces of music, four pall-bearers and a poem).  Frits brings the flowers, selects the music and sees each to his or her final resting place.  Starik eulogizes them.  “One of man’s essential qualities is the need for a story,” he explains.  “Our job is to return to people their stories that have somehow been lost along the way.” (1)

     People, Frits explains, are, essentially, “story machines…making and remaking their stories.”  Reconnecting those he buries with their stories is an act of respect.  “It’s their time at Heaven’s gate:  someone should put in a good word for them” – a concept deeply rooted in Dutch values, the belief that all are the same in death.   Hence Frank Starik’s poems, respectful words of farewell in which the stories of the deceased are wrapped.

     But how?  What stories? 

     Local officials know to “look for clues,” fragments of personality and personal history.  An example:  a man found dead on a makeshift pallet on the floor of a barren room had a single treasure, a beautiful picture torn from a magazine, suggesting a need for and love of beauty.   Pink Floyd records (presumed favorite music which was played at the funeral)…a neighbor’s observations (“she loved cats” or “He’s lived there for forty years!”)…Chinese food cartons…all grist for Starik’s story mill.

     “The need for a story…”  That, it seems to me, applies not only to people but to communities, perhaps especially communities of faith.  In them, and in “the naked city” of the world surrounding them, there are a thousand stories to be told…to be shared…to be cherished…to be acted upon…to restore.

     Stories such as those we of my church, the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (UCCLM), have been sharing as we move from past to future, from comfort to challenge, from stasis to change.  We as a congregation have scribed a myriad of stories through the years and have evolved and are evolving, in the process – a progression, as I read it, reminiscent of the change wrought by Jesus as he cut a swath through the customs and mores of his day. 

     Christ kicked off the new program early on, quoting Isaiah (“good news to the poor… release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…freedom for the oppressed”) and declaring that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   Or, as my daughter Karen(2) translates it, “Your story has changed, right here, right now.”  Not that this sat well with his neighbors who, in effect, ran him out of town on a rail.

     As I read  and re-read the familiar tales – the Magnificat, the paralytic who gets up from his bed and walks, the leper cleansed, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the words of the angel at Jesus’ tomb, I encounter that new story, that promise of something beyond, something more, time and time again.  They challenge me even as I draw hope from them.  As, I believe, they challenge and sustain us as a community of faith.

     Time and again Jesus was moved first to compassion – intense, gut-wrenching compassion – then to action.  As should we be.

     Time and time again Jesus butted heads with the status quo.  As should we.

     Time and time again Jesus reunited people with their stories.  As do Ger Frits and Frank Starick.  As should we.

     The question is how.  Outside our doors the answer is time-honored – food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty and welcome for the stranger.  Inside brings interesting new possibilities as new people and new stories become part of the church’s fabric, part of our story.  What can we offer in terms of “food,” “drink” and welcome, especially at this time when attendance at mainline churches is at a depressing low?  How do we reunite those who have wandered away with their faith stories, how unite those who have never had one?

     In a recent discussion, one woman suggested enticing programs to make potential members curious and wanting to know more and palpable enthusiasm that dares to celebrate the crossing of new thresholds.  Another pondered the impact of “going where they are,” showing the church’s support for – and openness to – the concerns and contributions of others.  Learning to listen and tell the stories of those outside our church walls, sharing dreams, works and ways, doing together what we cannot do alone – what a great to way to say “welcome,” to build a future.

(1) “The Lonely Funeral.”  BBC World Service, 14 may 2010

(2) The Rev. Dr. Karen Sue Hybertsen

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