Toward the Alleviation of Suffering

When I was heading out the door to a doctor appointment yesterday, I stepped into the living room to find one of our elderly neighbors sitting in a chair and being tended to by Pastor Mom.  The poor woman had gashed her hand on a protruding nail.  Applying peroxide with a cotton ball, Pastor Mom urged her to go get a tetanus shot.

We have a very tiny congregation and I don’t recall ever seeing this woman in attendance.  But that doesn’t matter.  Pastor, doctor, mother, friend — the minister does it all, churchgoer or not, no questions asked.  Not only that, but she’s always on duty.  And I do mean 24/7.

Case in point:  A few nights ago, my wife and I were awakened from a sound sleep by someone walking around the perimeter of the parsonage, banging on the outside of the building as he went along and yelling “Pastor!  Pastor!”  It was just past two o’clock in the morning.

Apparently, the guy didn’t want to ring the doorbell and wake everyone in the house.  Needless to say, that little plan did not work.

Next thing I knew, one of our former neighbors (he recently separated from his wife and moved in with some friends in another neighborhood in town) was sitting in the kitchen.  He is an ex-con whom I first met in November when he completed his most recent stint in jail.  Apparently, he had gotten drunk with a bunch of his cronies and woke up in a ditch, soaked to the skin.  We gave him one of my shirts to wear while my wife and Pastor Mom got dressed and drove him home.

Thus is life in the parsonage:  Never a dull moment.  The reason, of course, is that there is never any shortage of suffering, misfortune, poverty and hurting people desperate for even the tiniest bit of succor derived from any source available.  And the church is a symbol of help, from God as well as from man.

I ended up briefly discussing this subject with my doctor in the examining room yesterday.  He told me that nearly all the doctors in this particular clinic had been there for more than twenty years, and likely would make thirty years before they retired.  Nurses and receptionists come and go, he said, but the doctors remain forever.  The reason for this, he told me, is their dedication, the fact that they take the Hippocratic Oath seriously.  He must have been referring to the portion of the oath that states “in every house where I come, I will enter only for the good of my patients.”  We agreed that the need for affordable health care in our community is enormous and that the doctors of this clinic go along way toward filling that need.

While at the clinic, I took time to thank the nurse for the friendliness and efficiency with which he has treated us during our first two visits to the clinic.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when he immediately credited everything he does to the help of God.

I will say this:  If you ever feel down about your own problems, just sit in a doctor’s office for a couple of hours.  What you will gain is known as “perspective.”  The suffering you are likely to witness will help you to realize how trivial your own troubles are by comparison.  Yesterday, I sat inches from a man younger than myself whose left leg had blown up to four or five times normal size and was wound in bandages from ankle to calf.  Prayers of thanks to God just came pouring out of me.

And then there are the questions that the clinic staff has to ask you.  Embarrassing questions like whether your spouse is beating you up and whether your living situation places you in danger of physical or sexual abuse.  I’m sure there are laws requiring them to do this, but the fact remains that too many of our neighbors are silently suffering from these very things, just outside our vision, day after day.

Stepping on the scale, I was so pleased that I had lost weight for my second consecutive doctor visit.  When I expressed to my doctor how happy I was about this, he asked me whether I was experiencing starvation.  Initially shocked, I quickly realized that he has to ask such follow-up questions because there are too many in the community in desperate poverty who quietly suffer from constant hunger.

Which brings me to our latest project.  In conjunction with our church family, I hope to take a lead role in providing a meal, free of charge, once a week in our church fellowship hall.  Anyone who wishes to eat with us would be welcome.  We see ourselves as preparing hot soup from leftover food items donated to us by merchants.  And we will likely be making a whole lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

And who knows?  Perhaps if we are truly fortunate, and have enough volunteers, we might be able to do this more than once each week.  But helping to alleviate suffering in the community requires the participation of the whole community.  Despite our good intentions, we cannot do this alone.

The hardest problem we face is getting businesses to agree to give us any food items that they would otherwise discard.  I refer to goods that are about to expire and fruit and vegetables that are starting to turn brown or that have soft spots or that otherwise are no longer pretty enough to display and sell.  We have already secured commitments from several people to chop vegetables and cook.  But from whence will the food come?

Being unemployed, I have little but my time and labor to contribute.  I pray that, if God is with us, He will soften the hearts of our local grocers sufficiently to allow us to feed the hungry with items that typically feed the dumpster.  There is so much food waste going on in the United States, while at the same time there are millions who go hungry every day.  Please pray with us that we will be able to bring the two ends together and make a difference in the lives of local families suffering from perpetually empty stomachs.

This past Christmas, as we do every Christmas, we prepared food boxes for some of our poorest local households, many of whom share living quarters with extended family, including scores of  children.  These are people would otherwise have no Christmas dinner.  Some of the food was donated by kind volunteers, but much of it was purchased with church funds or money out of our own pockets.  As I was helping to sort the bags of pasta and rice and potatoes and the cans of beans and pumpkin and applesauce and soup, I could not help but wonder how these families would eat on the day after Christmas.  And it was then that I decided that I could not in good conscience leave these desperate neighbors to their own devices the other 364 days of the year.

We realized that, before we could even think of starting anything, some basic infrastructure had to be taken care of.  We needed to get electricity, air conditioning and heat installed in the fellowship hall, for example.  We needed to get our leaky gas line repaired.  By dint of volunteer efforts and timely donations, those expensive operations are nearly at the point of completion.  Then, by chance, while I was in a job interview in downtown Sacramento recently, my wife found a grocery store selling ten-pound bags of potatoes for three dollars.  Slowly, many things seem to be falling into place.

It may be little more than a dream, but, with God’s blessings, we hope to begin ladling soup and passing out sandwiches sometime in July or August.  This would be one small step toward alleviating the needless suffering all around us that we can no longer ignore.  Whether this turns out to be a dream fulfilled or a dream deferred will depend on the support of our local merchants and volunteers.

Please pray for us.

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