Anxiety creeps up my neck. I’m in a last minute dash—fidgeting with uncooperative AV equipment before the start of Bible study. Do I have time to run off hard copies for the group?
I silently pray as the chairs fill up. I glance at my watch.
I’m teaching a five-week series: The Parables of Jesus. Jesus didn’t need PowerPoint to capture a crowd. But I’m far less qualified and visual aids would be helpful. The projector finally jolts to life with picture and sound. Phew!
I scan the room. Residents have assembled—about twenty or so. Some of them I know well. Others are new to our community. Friendly chatter and laughter fill the air.
I’m happily stunned by the intellectual and religious diversity assembled. There are the expected attendees: Catholic Eucharistic ministers and church members; Protestant Christian educators, clergy, and church goers. Among those gathered include Jewish residents—both secular and religious, an atheist, a couple of agnostics, secular humanists, and a spattering of open-minded skeptics who never had much use for religion whatsoever.
Despite the differences all of us have gathered in friendship and community to listen, learn, question, discuss, share experiences, and gain new insight.
That’s not so unusual here.
I serve as the chaplain of a continuing care retirement community. Within our campus are residents living independently in their own apartments or cottages and those who need assisted living, memory care, or long term skilled nursing. The average age is about 86 years old. Our community is not affiliated with any one supportive denomination or house of worship. But the residents do function very much like members of a faith family.
These neighbors often gather for dinner, concerts, daily walks, yoga class, and chats in the hallway. You can usually find them sharing in the grief and joy of their neighbors—encouraging one another and sharing life. The fact that they continue to gather in this manner when the topic of study is the Parables of Jesus is truly a gift to their chaplain. In this sense, it is an unlikely gathering.
Bible study in this setting presents unique challenges and opportunities for ministry and education. Some residents have been attending Bible studies since they were children and have given their life in Christian ministry. Others have very little acquaintance with religious life. Attending Bible study is a new experience. Some are seeking encouragement in faith while others come with curiosity seeking intellectual stimulation and lively discussion.
Some view Jesus as a wise and ancient rabbi. Others believe he is the Messiah. Still many others have formed no opinion of him at all. How does one feed such a diverse crowd with any sense of theological integrity?
I was ordained to “the ministry of Word and Sacrament.” What does that look like in a secular setting that resembles parish life in so many ways?
I suppose I could’ve made it easier on myself.
I could advertise these studies in a quiet way, using lingo only church people understand. I could add that all are welcome, knowing full well that only the church people will attend. Technically that would make me faithful to the vows of ordination. But the still small voice within me nearly writhes in protest against that notion.
The Voice whispers… Invite them all. Be open. Listen to them…listen to Me. Be a bridge. Are you anxious to face the atheist with a PhD? Do you tremble to talk about Jesus and his disciples with a survivor of the Holocaust? You don’t know exactly how to do this, do you? They did not teach you this in seminary. You just know you have to do it. It’s ok. I AM will teach you. Trust. Invite them all.
And so I do. I invite them all. And they come!
Inclusion and God’s wide embrace has become a vital and joyful piece of my ministry as a chaplain in this community.
One of the ways I do that: I offer two Chaplain Round Table Series a year. Open to the entire community. One is usually a Bible study. The other is a topical discussion based on a book. Our most recent discussion series was based on the book Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving. We tackled issues of systemic and personal racism. We allowed ourselves to be challenged, convicted and urged toward action and greater understanding. Attending that series were a similar cast of characters who attended the Parables study. But I always draw new and different faces depending on the topic or study.
Together, we listen and learn. We explore. We allow story—Bible, book, or personal—to speak for itself. As a result the Holocaust survivor and the atheist social worker join with the Eucharistic minister and agnostic psychologist…they begin to understand and speak a similar language. The language of Gospel at its most basic level: A language of love, hope, forgiveness, and grace; a language that compels responsibility to and for our neighbors near and far; a language of healing, acts of service and restoration. The language of community.