April 22, 2016

The Kindness of Strangers

Blanche Dubois might always depend on the kindness of strangers, but I am inspired by their faithfulness.

In an airport lounge, I took a seat next to an older couple. The man wore a clergy collar, so I asked if he was Episcopalian. For the next half hour, we talked about vocation. He started the conversation with a quote from Mark Twain: The two most important days in your life are the day you’re born – and the day you discover why you were born. For him, the second day was when he decided he had a call to the priesthood.

Ordained for more than sixty years, he told me about his ministry with the Cherokees and his father's experience of being mentored by David Oakerhater, a saint on the Episcopal calendar. Oakerhater’s legacy – and that of Harriet Bedell, another Episcopal saint, propelled him to compassion and commitment. Since retirement, he said he has served in more than fifty congregations, filling in between priests or serving in small congregations. He shared about receiving a call for a two-month gig at a Mandarin congregation on the West Coast. It turned into six years of service, and even though the church no longer meets, he is that community’s pastor, baptizing, marrying, and burying his flock.

Let me show you some of them, he said. And he reached into his suit jacket. I expected a cell phone (How else do we share pictures today), but he pulled out a stack of photographs held together with a paper clip. Here was a wedding. A baptism. A young Asian boy looking into the eyes of this elderly Caucasian man. That, he said, is my godson.

He is eighty-nine years old, and his companion 102. (That’s not a typo). But they were going to a conference for Episcopal chaplains. They serve as chaplains to retired clergy. And he volunteers once a week at a mental hospital, reading and exploring the Bible with a few dozen patients.

As passengers began to line up to board the plane, a young boy, only two, stood near the couple. They bent to his level and talked with him, and his face lit up as he told them in toddler-speak about his upcoming trip.

This couple talked about the legacy of Oakerhater and Bedell and others who have inspired them. I can only imagine the number of people touched and changed by these two saints still here on earth. 

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