At first, I thought I was just tired. Dropping cups, tripping for no apparent reason, and even falling down my basement stairs caused me no alarm. As a newly ordained pastor I worked long and hard hours. Fatigue was inevitable. I even joked about the double vision I experienced in the midst of delivering a sermon — in a matter of minutes my congregation had grown to twice its size! That same afternoon, I vowed to get more rest; but when my swallowing muscles suddenly shut down while sipping a drink, I knew something was terribly wrong. That “something” turned out to be myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes transient weakness in various parts of the body.
Symptoms worsened rapidly and I went into a myasthenic crisis. After a four week hospitalization, family, friends and my congregation loved me back to wellness. Two weeks out of the hospital, and with the MG now under control, I returned to my work at St. Michael’s.
Though there were many new challenges for me to face, the most difficult was my inability to drive. Because most of my work as pastor took place in hospitals, homes, and the community, I wondered how I might best use my time and energy dependent upon public transportation and limited by the MG.
What resulted from that challenge was a gift that continues to unfold. To begin, I met with my co-pastor, along with members of a pastoral support group from the church. Together, we brainstormed possibilities. For visits to those who were homebound, volunteers would accompany me. Not only did I have traveling time to be with these parishioners, but for the people who were homebound there was the much welcomed visit of someone else from the congregation. Other volunteers offered to drive me to and from places where I might need to do a visit alone. Part of the money from my business/ transportation allowance was used to pay unemployed parishioners and people from the community to drive. Through this arrangement I met several people who later joined the church.
As I began to learn how to live with the MG, I used fewer drivers and more public transportation. I gathered so many illustrations for my sermons from this travel time that parishioners have asked me to publish a collection and call it “The R8 Chronicles.” This travel time became an actual part of my ministry.
Because my bladder was weakened from the disease, I became familiar with every public restroom in Philadelphia. Through these “Suburban Station” trips to the restroom, I met a number of homeless women who were using one bathroom in particular to bathe and change their clothes. As a result of my restroom encounters with the women, I developed the idea of “unshopping.” I would take a shopping bag with me each time I passed through the station, fill it with clothes, and set up a little “boutique” in the bathroom. The goal was to “unshop”—empty my bag rather than fill it. Soon parishioners began to do likewise. I also began to hire the street musicians whom I would meet during my travels to supplement our music program at the church.
In thinking of the process with which I approached the problem of not driving, an important step was for me to identify the need. I then shared this need with a supportive and creative community. Together we looked at available resources, and I let myself be opened (albeit, not easily!) to the help that was offered. My motivation (that of being a good pastor) was strong; and even in my most discouraged times I held the belief every problem offered some sort of opportunity. For me, this was a matter of hope (seeing the God in all things) as opposed to optimism (seeing the good in all things.)
I am currently in the process of writing a proposal to SEPTA (Southeastern Pa. Transit Authority) to create Rest Rooms—places of hospitality right in the bus and train stations for homeless people to bathe, change their clothes, have a cup of coffee, and maybe even chat with mental health professionals. Parishioners have offered to prepare food and be available for conversation. I have also begun to meet monthly in the concourse with parishioners who work in town for lunch together and Bible study.
I still live with MG and I still can’t drive; but in 2002 I will be celebrating my tenth year of ordination as a pastor in the Lutheran Church. A little creativity coupled with a great deal of grace has helped to make this one of the richest decades of my life.