by the Rev. Shirley Bowen
Executive Director of Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center in Biddeford
a Mission Enterprise Zone of The Episcopal Church
On a cold March morning I joined Biddeford’s General Assistance Director to visit the home of one of our neighbors. I had contacted the neighbor the week prior to inquire about his sister, a regular at Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center. He confirmed the rumor that his sister had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis and that she had just weeks to live. I asked if I and the GA Director could visit. He gladly welcomed us.
Even after making many home visits over the years, I always feel sadness when I enter the living spaces of some apartments in our neighborhood. I am reminded that it is hard to feel hopeful when one’s surroundings are so dark and marginal. I gave a brief thanks for the space we have been able to create at our neighborhood center, offering a “hang out” which is bright and welcoming.
The beautiful young woman we were visiting had a life so abusive and damaging, I have often wondered at her resilience. When she was 15 her mother said she would “give” her daughter to a man 20 years her senior for $500. To this day her brother cries when he tells the story, knowing that he was too young at the time to intervene. She was physically abused by this man until she finally had enough and left.
Unfortunately, the person who was “helpful” to her in her escape was an addict. Thankfully, she eventually extricated herself from that lifestyle to return home to start working. All who knew her said she worked very hard and was generous to those who needed help. She kept a motherly eye on the neighborhood children and made sure they knew they had someone in their corner.
Because of her hard life, she eventually suffered an aneurism and a stroke which left her physically and cognitively impaired. Her struggle became much worse. She was frequently bullied by people in the town and, to cope with all her pain, she often turned to drugs for self-medication. When she first came to Christ Church, it was clear that she didn’t understand what was happening in the service, but it was apparent that she felt welcome and knew that God was at the heart of our community. She always joined us in prayer. She also came to me just a few months before her death when her mother passed away. As we prayed together, I saw her cry for the first time.
When Seeds of Hope opened, she became a regular, always looking for a cup of coffee, a little breakfast and some company. She took pride in her appearance and loved giving hugs to anyone who showed her an ounce of kindness. Over the next five years, we saw a steady decline in her health and in her ability to care for herself. We made regular reports to adult protective services, but, because she refused all assistance and had a private guardian, our attempts to get her help were blocked. We were informed that unless we believed her to be an immediate threat to herself or others by the local police there was nothing that could be done. Eventually she became incontinent, incoherent in conversation and, on occasion, agitated and hostile, which only increased the abuse she received from others. Although our hands were tied, we kept feeding her and loving her until she disappeared for a period of time. It was then we heard about her diagnosis.
Seeing her at her brother’s was quite a shock. Although she was now receiving regular personal hygiene care from hospice and looked better than she had for months, she had also started wasting away. All her bones were evident and she had stopped eating. We are unclear whether she knew who we were, but we reminisced with her, got an occasional smile, and tried to calm her as her anxiety kept her bouncing around the room like a pin ball.
We quickly learned that her brother had no means to pay for her burial (they had just buried their mother a few months before). I offered to do her service, and the GA Director put him in touch with a local funeral home whose staff is excellent in working with the poor in our community. Her brother’s astonishment at the love we expressed for his sister was touching. He had not realized there was a community that had loved her for more than years.
She passed, peacefully in her sleep, and we quickly began making arrangements. The volunteers of Seeds of Hope offered to bring in food for a reception after the service. Neighbors, volunteers and community members attended her service and a large crowd of neighbors attended the reception. Her family was overwhelmed at the ways in which we encircled them, sharing the love we had for her with them.
At the end of the reception, after all the wonderful volunteers cleaned up and distributed leftover food to her family and to some of our neighbors, I sat quietly in my office and said out loud: this is church. WE ARE THE CHURCH. We are a community of souls who have come to love and serve each other. Some come from a clear understanding that the love of God is at the heart of our work; others just know that belonging means giving and sharing, and for some this is the most powerful experience of belonging they have ever known. We don’t have weekly services and we certainly don’t have pledging units, but we have sacramental moments at the times our neighbors are yearning to connect with the sacred. And we have love. And isn’t that what Jesus called us to?