Ever want to share an experience, but when you try, it’s like you’re back in grade-school writing a theme called something like “Why It’s Important to Help Others”?
For weeks, I’ve been trying to synthesize my thoughts following a three-day outreach project I did with Caroline, my daughter. It would have been simple to post a dozen pictures of the team sorting food and clothes, delivering meals, making crafts, praying with people. I could have come up with a few quick captions. But my fear is that sometimes pictures AREN’T worth a thousand words or at least not exactly the right words.
My pictures do highlight some miracle-working Houston ministries, but mostly, those pictures show our team doing our “team stuff” really well. And that’s OK—it truly was pure joy to serve alongside our friends. But as much as those pictures mean to me personally, they can’t really tell the stories of the people we served (and out of respect for their privacy I’m not sharing their faces). Nor do they explain the internal shakeup that happens to us—if we’re lucky—when we move into places of deep need and realize in even greater ways that we’re united by those needs.
Regardless of which days we worked with which partners, I would have been motivated and inspired by them. However, the order of our outreach days was extra meaningful to me because I’ve also been studying passages about hunger and bread in the book of Matthew—looking at Jesus’ ministry through that lens, so to speak. (Take a peek at hint: it’s not about the bread for more thoughts on that.)
As we moved from one day to the next, it was as though I was also looking at the very idea of hunger itself—not through one lens, but through a series of them.
We began with the first lens, so to speak: a high-level view while we loaded food onto massive conveyor belts at the Houston Food Bank. Then, on day two, we moved in closer to more personal, albeit brief, interactions with NAM Meals-on-Wheels recipients. We finished our mission journey with intensely-concentrated, individual attention to nursing home residents on day three. It was like I looked through a microscope at a thing called “Hunger,” but I gradually increased the magnification power until I was looking beyond physical hunger altogether into the elemental, soul-level hunger to be known and valued and loved. And it was at that point that I met Pauline.
Heading to the nursing home, we discussed how to show value and respect by taking time to listen to residents’ stories. We encouraged each other to learn one or two things about those we met. However, one of the first people I met would make meeting that goal tough, at least in terms of my idea of what it meant to learn someone’s story.
An attendant wheeled a silver-haired woman into the craft room, parked her wheelchair beside us, and told us her name was Pauline. The first thing I noticed was her soulful, melancholy expression. The second thing was her silence. For awhile, Caroline and I weren’t sure she was able to talk at all. The craft was to decorate a heart-shaped, cardboard prayer box together. Caroline took the lead, gently asking questions about what materials she and Pauline should use, but Pauline just looked at us with her big brown eyes in an almost apologetic way.
Or—and I am smiling as I think back—maybe it wasn’t exactly apologetic. It could have been a look of resignation at being wheeled into yet another craft session with us earnest, eager volunteers.
At least that’s probably how I’d feel since I am the least craft-savvy person I know. If I’m blessed to reach Pauline’s age and strangers start asking me questions about decoupage, I’m not really going know what to say either. Still, though, I sensed that she simply wasn’t able to find the words, and yet she still showed us some grace by trying to participate, finally pointing to some colored scraps of paper.
My goal shifted from hearing her story to finding other ways to transmit love. Caroline did a great job of simply talking through the project, leaning in close, making eye contact. I sat on Pauline’s other side, adding a little commentary, giving some gentle touches on her shoulder and arm. As we finished up, I thought it would be nice to write Pauline across the lid. We showed her the finished “work of art.”
That’s when she lit up like a Christmas tree.
“I’m Pauline! That’s my name!” she said, running her finger beneath the word, cradling the box. Caroline and I looked at each other, startled, and then, we grinned. But when we looked back at Pauline, she’d set the box on the table and seemed melancholy and resigned again.
I again picked up the box, showed it to her, and ran my finger under the name.
Fourth of July fireworks were beaming from her eyes again.
“That’s me! I’m Pauline!”
We repeated the process a few more times until she began to seem tired and distracted. She said one other thing to us after awhile: “Can I leave now?” Again, it startled us, and we had to smile.
We asked if we could pray for her before she left. She said nothing, but she eagerly held out her hands to us, bowed her head, and held on firmly while we simply thanked God for her life and asked for peace and blessing that day.
Later, I accompanied her as she roamed the halls, rolling herself along in her wheelchair by using her feet or the handrails. The attendants said she did that every day, up and down the halls. She still had the box with her in her lap, and if she saw her name, recognition would dawn, but if she didn’t see the name, she’d eventually set it down and leave it behind until I brought it to her. Then she’d announce to me, “I’m Pauline! That’s my name!” I would grin and say, “Yes, you are! That’s you!”
So now I’m here trying to figure out what I saw through that microscope and make sense of how I feel about it. Things like hunger and poverty and old age and loneliness are still there, but I don’t know, there’s something about connection, isn’t there? And though I first thought I didn’t learn Pauline’s story, somehow that connection was there. In fact, now I’m thinking that maybe she told us one or two things about her story after all.
When she beamed and said her name, she was telling us this:
I’m still a person worth knowing. There is still a bright-eyed girl named Pauline inside of me, and I know who I am.
When she gripped our hands firmly during that prayer, maybe she was telling us something else:
This bright-eyed girl, me, Pauline, still knows to Whom I belong. That matters, too.
The truth is I can’t really know if that’s what she was telling us, but I do know this:
I am Pauline, or will be someday, and if a mom and her daughter come to visit me when who I am and Whose I am are all that are left of my story, maybe that will be enough.