BY JIM SMITH
When visiting a local liquor store to purchase wine, I am immediately greeted by staff when I open the door. I hear a loud and hearty "Hello!" or "Welcome!" Most often, staff are quite busy ringing up customers, yet without fail they go out of their way to look to the store's entrance and call out their greeting. I have to say, it feels pretty good. It's why I come back to that store.
I carry no illusion that with their "hello" these good folks are thinking "Look! A beloved child of God, unique in all the universe." No, to them I'm just a guy willing to spend some money in their store. So why does it feel good? Because it touches into a universal human desire to be known and to know, to be loved and to love. A simple hearty "hello" can stir a truth buried deep: "I am somebody," in the words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson; "I am "beloved of God," in the words of faith. And as God's beloved, we are all worthy to be seen, to be known, to be loved. I'm smiling as I write, because it would likely confound those store employees to hear this. "Gosh, we're just here to sell wine," might be their response.
Yet it is just as true for them. In their daily encounters, who will see them, acknowledge them, in such a way that the spark of their beloved identity is stirred and awakened? It might just be a customer at the counter, someone who looks them in the eye, smiles, asks how they're doing. In that simple moment, a connection is made.
I was walking the halls at one of our skilled nursing communities when I came up behind an elderly woman walking slowly with the help of a nurse's aide at her side. With one hand, the aide — a young woman probably in her early 20s — was holding on to the belt wrapped around the elder's waist, and with the other hand pulling the woman's wheelchair. Then in a frail, somewhat frightened voice, the resident said, "I have to sit. I can hardly breathe." Immediately, the aide helped the woman into the chair; the aide hunched on her knees, placed her hand on the resident's hand, and with her own eyes met the woman's unsettled gaze. The aide said not a word in those moments, yet her expression spoke eloquently. "I see you. I'm here. You'll be all right."
That afternoon in a planned presentation to the staff about our core value of respect, I described to the group what I had witnessed earlier between the young aide and the resident. As I finished the description, I met the aide's eyes and acknowledged her for her simple, extraordinary service. There is little doubt that at her core, the truth of her own dignity and beloved-ness was stirred.
You may be familiar with this Gospel snapshot (Luke 5:13-25): The scene inside a packed house, Jesus standing beside a paralyzed man on a stretcher who has just benefited from an outrageous act. Because of the crowd, the man's friends — his caregivers — have punched a hole in the roof and gently lowered the man to the feet of Jesus with ropes. Jesus looks up at the caregivers as they peer down from the edges of the gaping hole. Moved by their faith, he proclaims the paralytic's sins to be forgiven and for the man to be healed. Jesus affirms the faith of the man's caregivers as the reason for the healing. He sees them and affirms their place in the crucial ministry of compassionate care.
Inside or outside a pandemic, our caregivers must be seen. Do we see and attend to their grief when a beloved resident dies? Do we acknowledge their moral distress as they watch a patient diminish during months of isolated lockdown? Do we pay attention to and affirm the simple words and gestures they use to honor the dignity of those in their care? Do we greet them with warmth and appreciation, whether in the break room or in an email? Do we ask for their opinion and ideas and value their response? Is our culture grounded enough in care for the caregiver, such that we are consistently attentive in these and other ways?
Burrowed deep within each caregiver is that spark of the Divine, that beloved identity. Every encounter with our caregivers in which we lovingly embody the message "I see you" is a sacred moment and helps stir that beautiful spark into flame.
JIM SMITH is director, mission integration for Benedictine, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit with 33 senior care communities in five states.
Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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