Sunday, July 3, 2011
Soon, They Will Be Strangers
One of the soon-to-be former residents of Tallahassee is a guy who had been in the choir at St. John’s. For purposes of the blog, I will simply call him B. He was one of the casualties of the budget cuts which resulted in lay-offs of more than 1200 people in Tallahassee and Leon County. Those who haven’t lost their state jobs are now being forced to contribute three percent of their salary to their own retirement benefits. Some might say, “Well, that’s only fair. That’s how the private sector does it!” But then those who make that argument are clueless about the salaries paid to Florida state employees which average $10-$20 thousand dollars LESS than people in the private sector doing the same work. The retirement package was supposed to be one of the “benefits” for taking a lower paying job with the state. Now, not only are workers not getting raises for the fifth year in a row; they’re getting a pay cut. Welcome to life as a Muggle in Governor Lord Voldemort’s Florida!
And so, back to B. I saw him at the end of the service taking pictures with his cell phone of our altar area, which, admittedly, is very beautiful. I was crossing to go back into the vesting room to get out of my robe, and he stopped me to thank me.
Curious, I thought. Why would he thank me?
Among my many volunteer activities, I have been spearheading a new ministry at St. John’s called The Circle of Hope. We meet for worship and lunch every other week to check in with people who are searching for work and offer some practical help as well as an empathetic ear to the unemployed and underemployed. B has never been to one of our meetings, but like many in the congregation, has heard the announcements and knows we exist. And last Sunday, we managed to collect more than $1,100 in gift cards to supermarkets in case people run out of money for groceries. So he wanted to thank me for what I was doing. And then he started to cry.
He was leaving. He’d found a job in his field in South Carolina. And while that was good news for his employment, he was grief-stricken about leaving Tallahassee and his St. John’s community. He was grateful that for his last Sunday at St. John’s, I had administered the chalice to him.
I’ve written before on this blog about the power and meaningfulness of my role as a chalice bearer. In that space, there is me and the other person with Christ connecting us over the cup. Even though we are not alone, this does feel like an intimate act of sharing in something sacred and special. I don’t know the history, present or future of most of the people I’m serving, and I don’t need to know. In that moment of now, this is about an acknowledgement of God with us, in us and moving through us. This will be important for B as he journeys to a new community and a new life.
I gave him a hug and wished him good luck. And I reminded him that he will always have a home at St. John’s.
I imagine this same scenario of good-bye is being played out all over our fair city. People are pulling up their stakes and moving away because opportunity is no longer available here. What an irony to the Independence Day theme of “Love America: Home of the Free and the Brave!” In Tallahassee, we are free to leave… and brave enough to stay.
B’s encounter with me was important because I was not in a very spiritual place during the service. I couldn’t bring myself to robustly sing hymns about our great country, and I would have rather that we would have found hymns about the freedom offered through God and Christ than sing, “My Country Tis of Thee.” But B, in his sadness, reminded me again why I am at St. John’s, why God continues to yank me back there every Sunday, and why I serve at the altar as a Eucharistic Minister. The pomp and circumstance of the service is nice, but what matters is being a witness to someone’s hurt or joy, and then again asking God to be with us and remember us always to the end of the age.
Tallahassee is in a time of turmoil. But I believe even this rocky ride will end. And then, with God’s help, maybe we’ll see a return of our expatriate population.
Love you, B. Good luck and peace be with you!