One of the principles and strengths of the Justice & Outreach Year (J.O.Y.) of Formation program is that we, as a community of people with a deep desire to be of service, avail ourselves to the possibility of being stretched. The various social justice themes explored throughout the ten-month program are often experienced differently. Some issues sit more comfortably for one person while that same topic may prove to be a challenge for someone else. There is a fluidity to this tension; it rises and falls for each of us on any given weekend and to varying degrees. As a lay community committed to being formed as servant leaders, we support and carry one another through these growing pains. Such was the case when the J.O.Y. program explored the issue of Health and Elder Care in early February.
On a snowy Saturday morning, program participants gathered in the foyer of Samaritan Place, a Catholic assisted living health care facility in the Stonebridge area of Saskatoon. Some of us were familiar with Samaritan Place, or with long-term care facilities like it, either through our community field placements (a feature of the J.O.Y. program that invites participants to grow through a regularly scheduled volunteer commitment) or through a personal experience of having journeyed with a loved one through their transition into care. Some of us were quite comfortable working and visiting with people who wrestle with dementia, limited mobility and declining health. Others felt the tension of being confronted with infirmity and with, what may be considered, a loss of control.
It was in this very human response of conflicting emotions that we were greeted by members of Samaritan’s Leadership Team and invited to enter an initial process of prayer and reflection. We were gracefully directed through an exploration of the parable of the Good Samaritan in a way that oriented our minds and spirits to consider who our neighbour might be and how we might be called to respond to need with compassion. This is the philosophy and vision that Samaritan Place operates from; that each resident is an individual of value and dignity, worthy of a home where they can receive compassionate assistance and friendship in maintaining a full and abundant life. As participants of the J.O.Y. program, as followers of Christ and as members of this humanity, we explored how we are called to participate in that offering of friendship.
We were invited to sit with and meet the residents of Samaritan Place. We met people who were full of early morning energy and were ready for a day of activity. We sat with others who were slowly nursing a cup of coffee and fighting the urge to fall back asleep – clearly not morning people. We had lively conversations with people who were curious about who we were and we sat with those who preferred to be in silence. Some residents enjoyed a good laugh with us while others were having a difficult morning and preferred not to entertain company that day. We encountered people who were struggling with confusion and anxiety and we witnessed the tenderness of staff who patiently answered repeat questions and gently tried to assuage any fear. We discovered what is was like to extend friendship to someone who perhaps couldn’t reciprocate in any obvious way and we were invited to search for the beauty and meaning in simply being present without expectation or validation.
The temptation of any service-focused initiative is to busy ourselves with the work of “doing”. We tend to default into helping others by tidying things up, organizing schedules, performing tasks that might otherwise go undone, and while this is certainly a necessary aspect of service to some degree, the more challenging and often the most needed element is to simply be present. When we refrain from performing a function we open ourselves to real encounter without distraction. It is often an occasion for tension and discomfort because it asks us to meet someone’s fragility with our own vulnerability and we begin to discover how we are all frail. Yet it is precisely within this space of mutual self-giving that both parties begin to participate in the transformative power of Jesus’ healing ministry. Service is both given and received.
What is unfolding as we continue to journey through the J.O.Y program - and as we discovered in our encounters with the residents at Samaritan Place - is that authentic service necessitates an acknowledgement of our own limitations. It is much more comfortable to ignore the elderly and infirmed because it permits us to ignore our own fragility – our own temporality. To be of service is to set aside our own defensive sense of separateness and open ourselves to the healing gift of friendship. We are being stretched, indeed. And yet, we carry and support one another through this ongoing process of outreach growth and justice formation. We continue to learn and be molded by the Potter into the servant-leaders we are called to be.