Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chaplain Jack Carty, An Unsung Soul

The many comments I received personally about the previous post made me appreciate again the power of stories, especially life stories gathered when someone has died, to give life to the living. I am particularly fortunate in this way, having gathered and been touched by countless such tales. The following is about an unusual friend who died five years ago, almost to the day, and is reprinted from an op-ed piece I wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. 
Some people leave an indelible imprint in your life. Jack Carty entered mine when I became pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Paul. Jack lived on nothing, an incarnation of the spirit of Saint Francis, one who possessed little but felt rich in God's grace.
Chaplain Jack Carty was a Lutheran pastor. His life work was ministry. His congregation: people in the Ramsey County and Hennepin County jails. Jack loved his work because he loved people, the people who for whatever reason had become incarcerated. Reasons did not matter to Jack. He called his flock "Angels with Dented Halos." If Jack had a dollar for every imprisoned person with whom he prayed, he would have been a multi-millionaire. Instead, he died a pauper. He would not have had it any other way. He embraced poverty. A member of my parish took a concern for Jack, seeing the holes and patches in his pants. He offered Jack money to buy new pants. Jack refused, insisting that any money given him would go to the ministry. Furthermore, his pants were an emblem of the material poverty of his service to the poor.
Jack was a fixture in the Midway. People remember the man who walked with cloth bags full of papers and God-knows-what from bus stop to church to the Arby's where he would meet with the likes of me for coffee (diet Coke for him), or with someone recently released from jail, to see how they were faring. I recall, vividly, a conversation at the Midway McDonalds when I dared suggest he pursue part-time employment to get a financial foothold. He became angry with me for suggesting he compromise his ministry to the needy for his own material needs.
Parish ministry in his younger years brought him disillusionment over church politics and pettiness. The stress and depression he felt contributed to the dissolution of his marriage to a woman of whom he only spoke highly to me. 
He did not marry again. For the last 30 or so years his parish became, as was said at his funeral, "the area covered by MTC bus lines." The world was his "parish" and I somehow became a member.
He'd call about once a month. His typical message, "The Lord put it on my heart to come and see you. I stopped by and you were not there." I would call him back, thinking, "If the Lord led you to stop by, why didn't he send you when I would be there?" We'd meet for "coffee" and he would share messages he received in prayer for me. Regardless of the uneasiness I often felt with such "messages," I always knew this was a person who prayed and cared for me and the people I served. A week ago Jack called my home. He spoke with Andrea, my wife. "Tell John I would love to have coffee soon." Two days later, the Synod office called with the news Jack had died. "We knew you had a special relationship with him. The hospital is trying to find any family of his." Jack had few living relatives, and it hit me that I was among his closest friends. My heart wept. Jack tended to call at crucial times. He could sense when things were hard, and offered his humble presence "any time." He did not presume answers or solutions, just support. I was one of his parishioners, along with MTC bus drivers, McDonalds workers, inmates and jail staff, pastors and supporters of his ministry, who came in numbers to his funeral to pay respects. One pastor friend, noting that Jack had no retirement plan to speak of, mused, "Maybe this was Jack's retirement plan." He was 65. Knowing Jack, no retirement would be preferable to the eternal rest for which he hoped.
It has been a passion of mine to realize a most simple truth: Every other person in my life is just as much a "me" as "I" am. Everyone shares the sense, the most sacred sense, that "I am a person, a being-here." Most of us live day to day, regarding others as beings that serve — or do not serve — our interests, desires or goals. Jack did not regard others this way. He felt honored, though he was not much honored outwardly, to serve the forgotten and the outcast. He cared, and had the greatness of soul to identify with other sacred souls, however troubled. Including me. Rest in peace, Chaplain Jack Carty. You are honored and appreciated by many who are not regarded as great in this world.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Springtime Tale of Death, Garbage, and New Life

This was my view just two days ago, Saturday morning. The returning radiant warmth and light of the spring-sun played upon the living and the dead in this small, humble church graveyard in Stillwater.

I was with her family to bury her.
Like every phrase we use to describe death, "bury her" feels wrong, or, at least not quite right.  Nor does "laid to rest," "passed on," "passed away," or even "dead" (and certainly not "in a better place," which bears the taste of saccharine). In the face of this ultimate, and most ordinary mystery, language--and attempts to "make sense of it"--fail.

Perhaps especially in this case.

She was 64 and died in her house. In a fire that started from a worn electrical wire. She could not escape, so she crawled into the bathroom where she died of asphyxiation.

Then came the "making sense." The media explained: "There were four-foot stacks of items; clothing, stuffed animals, throughout the house." This made it difficult for her to escape and for firefighters to rescue her. Then they quoted an expert on "hoarding," to voice the moral of the morality tale.

It's not untrue, but it's not right either. To the reporters' credit, they did not reduce her life to this. Much also was said about her love, generosity, and dedication to her work. But that's not what drew attention to the story. When I mentioned to anyone that I performed her funeral, the response often was, "Oh, the hoarder. I saw it in the news."

When viewed from this perspective, that story seems to make sense:

Yet the funeral gathering provided a fuller story:
Like the rays of sunlight shining on the dead leaves and the graves, this remarkable woman was re-membered in personal stories. The room was packed. Coworkers from two previous jobs turned out in force (with a substantial collection they had taken up). A former boss cried as she recalled how she was so much more than an employee, taking care of her children--and dog--as though they were her own.  Nieces and nephews recalled her taking them on trips with Conway Twitty playing on the 8-track. Childhood friends remembered the sassy, tough girl who never forgot them. One coworker held up an engraved snow-globe she gave her, and another a porceline cross with the "Friendship Creed." Her neighbor wept.

Everyone knew that the smoke that killed her was partly from burning items that she had picked out, not for herself, but for people she loved. For them. The Macy's dress shirt she got for a dollar. To give, and to spend time with friends and family, was her treasure. She was not a hoarder. She was not crazy, but quite sane.

To me, "hoarder" applies to people who have a million times the money they need to live on, and keep accumulating. We call them "wealthy." But this woman embodied a passage from the Sermon on the Mount: "The meek shall inherit the earth." Her love and generosity shone in the faces of those who gathered. She was simple, caring, and joyful. Her riches were relationships. The fire that took her was in tragic relation to all of it, but not the result of who she was.

Her house was on my garbage route on Mondays.
I have not verified whether our truck picked up her trash specifically. It is Monday morning now, and I will check. Her brother told me her house was not a "trash house." She was impeccably clean.

Because of all of this, I have been moved. Her life has spoken to me. Her radiance has invited new life in many people, even from the grave--so to speak. Who among us does not live with some insanity? But how many of us channel our crazy energies toward simple generosity, love and care? For this is what gives life. Like a snow-globe...