“Ah. I smiled. I’m not really here to keep you from freaking out. I’m here to be with you while you freak out, or grieve or laugh or suffer or sing. It is a ministry of presence. It is showing up with a loving heart.”
~ Kate Braestrup
I remember sitting in a coffee shop twelve years ago. We were regulars there, Ben and I, at a place close to our city home.
We knew everyone. One of my favourite people, let’s call him Brian (not his real name) was an elderly ex-dragqueen and retired male escort. He was HIV positive, impeccably groomed and an excellent conversationalist. (People always seem to confide their life story and innermost confidences to me, and I am glad that they feel safe to do so.) I kept an eye on Brian and often invited him to dinner or brought him a home-cooked meal. Brian kept me interesting articles from The New Yorker.
Brian had recently been deep in conversation with a younger man, a man who always seemed stressed and harried and who kept to himself. But, on this particular morning, Brian brought that man – Mark (also not his real name) – to my table and introduced him, telling me to look after him because Mark had just experienced a bad night at the deathbed of someone in his community.
We became friends that day and in the months after we often shared a table and a chat over early morning coffee. Mark was clever, funny and sharply sarcastic. Slowly I came to know what Mark did. Slowly he came to know my world too. Mark was a minister on the other side of town. He confided that to me as some kind of illicit secret some months after I first met him. He asked that I didn’t tell anyone who he was or what he did. Jokingly Mark christened me ‘Sister Sinner’ because I was a practising psychic and the Bible expressly forbids that. I explained to him that being psychic wasn’t a choice, just like being gay wasn’t a choice. We were born this way, made this way. Mark agreed.
A few years later Mark abruptly left his ministry, causing a huge scandal. I sat with him over coffee that same morning as he explained why he was leaving. He was from a religious family and he told me that he had no faith, had never had faith, didn’t believe anything he taught, didn’t believe the Bible and envied me that I had a faith at all. He’d taken the job in the church for security, a clear opportunity for advancement, and a safe place for himself as an undeclared gay man. But he hated dealing with people and he hated having to serve a congregation.
I felt so sad for him. Mark had the kind of job I’d wanted for myself when I was small. He was there for all of the important events in the lives of his parishioners. He got to give them comfort, to guide and support them, and to bring them together as a community. As a child at primary school I’d wanted to be a minister but I couldn’t, because I was a girl and also because I struggled with the teachings of the church. It didn’t fit with the feelings and knowledge that I had in my heart. I kept waiting for a better version of religion to show up, but no matter where I went I didn’t find a doctrine that fitted me. In the end, Buddhism meditation practices and my own quiet faith in something bigger than this little life we live are what serves me. I have seen too much to doubt that there is existence beyond this one, although I certainly don’t have all the answers. Which brings me back to Mark, whom I haven’t seen for ten years.
I bumped into him yesterday, in the corridor of a hospital.
He was visiting his elderly mother who is recovering from surgery. He’s back working with the church, studying and writing and following an academic path.
I was visiting a long-time client who had called me in crisis. She reached out to me for guidance about how to be with her six-year-old daughter who is dying from a brain tumour. I was up at the hospital to support this woman, her family and her daughter in these final hours.
Mark and I chatted briefly. Then he hugged me and laughed in a kindly way. ‘So, Nicole,’ he said, ‘it seems you’ve got your own flock after all, although I don’t know what qualifies you. You’re a minister without a church, without a God, without a pay packet. Meanwhile, I’ve got the gold watch, the all-expenses-paid trips to Rome, the superannuation and the bright future. I think you’ve got a bum deal. Best of luck, Sister Sinner.’
I could tell he meant it in the best possible way. I’m glad things worked out for him. I’ll keep him in my prayers and meditations.
Also, Mark, I know you’ll be reading this and I do know what qualifies me. Being human. Having empathy and kindness. Being present for others. Having a deep desire to serve. Devoting myself to this spiritual path, although it may not be one that you understand, and wanting to share this path with others so that it may bring them comfort and meaning.
There are more people on my particular path than you know. Maybe it’s a path that you would finally find meaning from too.
Much love to you, Sister Sinner xx