[I’ve been writing recently about my time as youth director at the Spanish Castle Youth Center in the Bon Air area of Richmond, Va. I was hired there 40 years ago this summer, just out of seminary. If many of the teenagers who frequented the Castle were not truly “counter-culture” kids, some were counter my straight-laced, “churchy” background. But I was beginning to fit in. In, not of, as the saying goes.]

One of the things that frightened me as a newly ordained minister was death. Helping someone through the death of a loved one was a challenge I had worried about since the day I first thought about entering the ministry. Unlike many of my peers growing up, I hadn’t lost a friend or family member to death, until my elderly grandfather died of cancer in my senior year of high school. Moving toward non-pastoral ministry (Christian media production primarily), and then finding a very part-time call to youth work through the Spanish Castle — well, I thought that was a good plan to avoid the very difficult (for me) task (for me) of dealing with death.

Not only had I not encountered the tragedy of death personally, I had not taken the course of study now required of all Presbyterian seminary students: clinical pastoral education, or CPE. Since, back then, it was an elective course, I reasoned that it would not be particularly relevant to my forthcoming ministry of radio/TV production. When I found myself working at the Castle in the role of “adult advisor” (or very  low-key youth pastor to that adolescent drop-in community), it never occurred to me that a teenager there would soon die. And I wouldn’t have a clue how to help anyone through it.

It was the summer of 1970. I had been at the Castle for little over a year. I was on the seminary staff as Director of what was then called the Audio-Visual Center. The seminary receptionist summoned me to the phone. It was the mother of one of the Castle regulars calling from the hospital. Her voice shook with emotion. “Jeff, Mary Ellen has fallen from a roof in the Fan District. My pastor is on vacation, and I wonder if you could come down here and…(she paused to find the words) Jeff, they don’t think she’s going to make it.”

I remember driving quickly from Richmond’s north-side to the downtown hospital, only a ten or fifteen minute trip. Most people driving on those busy downtown streets…if they were praying, it was for a parking space. I prayed over and over, “Oh God, let Mary Ellen be OK.” Over and over. I also remember praying that I would have, find, or be given the “right words”  to say.

I found my way to the emergency room waiting area and I asked where I might find Mary Ellen’s family. They are in the meditation room, a nurse explained. That wasn’t a good sign.  I entered the room, and Mary Ellen’s mother was there with two or three adult family members. When she saw me she rushed to me, we embraced, and she said something through her sobs. I didn’t understand what she had said. I didn’t know whether she was saying that she was afraid Mary Ellen would die, or whether she was telling me that her daughter was gone.

Everyone was bereft. I just held Mary Ellen’s mother, and all the words I had prayed for weren’t necessary. It was in that room, amid the shock and sorrow, that I learned what seminary couldn’t teach me. It was enough to simply be there. For no words would calm or heal. Especially when I still didn’t know exactly what was happening. Until a doctor knocked gently on the door.

When he asked if Mary Ellen’s mother would donate her daughter’s eyes… that is when I learned that this teenager had died from her injuries. “I’m sorry to ask this so soon, but time is of the essence,” he explained.

A few days later, with their pastor some distance away still on vacation, I led my first funeral as a minister. The church was filled with family, neighbors, and Mary Ellen’s many friends, most of whom I knew from the Castle.  It was a difficult service to plan and lead, and not only because it was for a young person for whom time had not yet been “of the essence.” The circumstances of her death were a mystery. All we had been told by the kids who were with her “down in the Fan” (the Fan District is home to historic row houses and now mostly Virginia Commonwealth University), was that she had fallen from the roof of an old row house there.

What the teens were doing in the apartment, why she had bolted from the room through a third story window, how she had lost her balance and fallen into the alley below… I suspect that those who were with her knew the whole story, but I got the impression that the story would never be told. [I want to add that I am confident that the accident was investigated by the police, and apparently their report held no one accountable for any wrongdoing.]

This tragedy brought home in new ways the belief that ministries of presence are powerful signs of the work of the Spirit in our midst. Comfort, healing, and grace are gifts from God for every moment of confusion, sorrow, and pain. As the psalm says, Tears may linger in the night but joy will come in the morning. And hope in our mourning.

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