Last week I met a woman, named Beth, whose example lodged itself deep inside my mind. It so struck me that I have shared it, as best I can, five times since we met.
Beth runs Place of Promise, a Christian non-profit with a residential program “designed to help those who are hurting, lost, and broken to choose and find Life.” The Web site describes it as, “a place reaching out to those who no longer want to wear the labels they themselves and society have given them. Instead, each one who comes to live at Place of Promise chooses life with a promise that they can be treated as individuals with goals, futures, and hopes.” The organization is staffed by a small and dedicated group of people including Beth and another woman who has been there since its inception in the mid-nineties.
Beth told me a bit about the years before the organization became official, when she and her husband opened their Roxbury apartment to people who had no place to go or who were too sick to care for themselves. They adopted a teenage neighbor whose grandmother and caretaker had died. At one point, they had 10 people living with them, their adopted daughter and their (then) two biological children. It was the early years of the AIDS epidemic and, as a community nurse in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood particularly hard hit by the disease, she encountered and cared for many people who had little or no hope of recovery. Beth understood her mission as caring for her patients and neighbors as best she could. For her, that meant approaching them as whole persons and addressing their physical as well as spiritual needs.
Conventional definitions of “professional boundaries” and “work-life separation” simply don’t fit her story. Though she sometimes works incredibly long days, and has for the past several decades, she has not burned out—the dreaded and much discussed scourge of so many direct service workers. Somehow, her lamp is still lit. Perhaps this is connected to the fact that her work and her sense of mission are grounded entirely in faith. She says that as a young nurse, her prayer became “less of me and more of Christ,” and that, over the years, she has gotten better at distinguishing her plans from those that come from God. She notes that things turn out far better when she makes space for God to do God’s work.
Beth and her family’s commitment to their particular mission has come at a cost and she shared that there were times when she thought it was time to give it up. One afternoon her second child came home from kindergarten to a shootout across the street from their apartment and was thrown to the floor by the bus monitor who saw bullets flying. At times, her parents’ objections to her family’s choice of neighborhood and her line of work forced her and her husband to take a stance that was directly opposed to their families’ wishes. Each time they returned to prayer and asked for the grace to understand where they were called to be. The answer they always came to was in the midst of the struggle and striving of the inner city.
I was terribly inspired and also a little startled by Beth’s clarity about her call. I am in the process of discerning a call to religious life and certainty has not been a mainstay in my process. Still, her approach of total surrender and trust seems to produce good fruit and, perhaps most telling, she seems glad to be doing the work, 40 years in. She is not gleeful and admits to having seen a lot of horror as she has walked with people in the midst of addiction and pain. Still, she remains certain of God’s goodness and grateful for the opportunity to reside squarely in the center of God’s plan for her, as she understands it.
I am apparently not the first to notice how radical Beth’s sense of mission is. Her neighbors admitted that when she and her family, all white, moved into mostly African American Roxbury in the early 70’s, a time of great racial tensions, and she began visiting people in their homes, nursing and opening her home for community prayer, they decided that she must either be a saint or crazy. Years later, they lovingly told her that they had concluded that she wasn’t a saint, so she must be crazy! I think most saints probably caused some raised eyebrows in their day, driven by a deep sense of purpose and of God’s abiding love.
As I pack up my belongings and begin my goodbyes in Boston in preparation for a move to Philadelphia, I recall Beth’s courage to trust. I am moving to a new city that I have only briefly visited to further explore a tug toward religious life that I do not fully understand. At times I am afraid of getting a yes or a no answer to the question that lingers in my mind, and I sometimes catch my breath thinking of picking up and beginning again in a new place. “What if’s” arise though they are beginning to loose their bite. I am tired of them and something inside whispers, “so what?” So what if the path is different than you planned? So what if you don’t understand? Walk on. Trust. See where you are needed and where you feel joy. Go there. You don’t need a map, just gratitude and an open heart. Beth didn’t have one and she has found her way into a life very well lived. I’m hoping to do the same.