John Calvin and the Case for Refugees
Sophie Druffner, Spring 2017
Many of us are familiar with the concept of service hours, of service points, of feeling obligated to participate in a service opportunity because of a privileged, upper-middle class background. As Vanderbilt students, many of us view service as something that we can put on a resume for a future medical school or employer interview. We imagine being asked, “How have you impacted your community?” and having a ready answer to that question. But service is more than an entry on LinkedIn; service is a walking-with, an accompaniment. Sometimes the accompaniment doesn’t last long, sometimes it is for years. But each time, the walk can be powerful. As Mother Teresa showed, we can constantly be each other’s companions in the search for light and truth. Sometimes, we carry one another along the rocky path, sometimes, one of us falls. But always, we travel forward. We hold each other’s hands until the end.
I walk into the hospice, everything as usual. I put my violin case down, open it up. Violin out, chart in hand, I start walking around, asking families and patients if they would like me to play for them. A few say yes, a few patients are asleep. I continue on, walking throughout the halls.
It happens on the third hall. I check the chart and walk into the room. The patient’s name is Alan
“Father” Brown. Distractedly, I wonder why someone’s name would be “Father.” But I’m thinking too much about one of my last patients to give it much thought. As I approach the bed, I realize that the patient is asleep. He is a white man about 65 or 70 years old, lying in the hospice bed. Across the room, there is a small stand with a crucifix, a cross, and a few wooden rosaries. Thinking that he probably won’t wake anytime soon, I turnaround, and walk out of the room.
I look at the chart again, ready to check his name off. As I read his entry again, I see the words in the comments section: “Air Force Chaplain.” Then, in bold: “Catholic Priest.”
I freeze, stop. I look at that again and walk back into the room. I kneel in the corner, saying a quick prayer for Father Brown. Then I stand up, and it is the sound of my shoes on the wooden boards that wakes him up. He sees me, gestures me to come over. I approach the bed. I’m not sure whether Parkinson’s is a cognitive disease as well as a physical disease, so I’m unsure if he will understand me, but I want to tell him that I’m Catholic too, and that I will pray for him. I make the Sign of the Cross, a universal sign of Catholicism.
He looks at me, a little surprised. He lifts one of his hands off of the pillow in front of him and raises it towards his forehead. His right hand shakes severely as it moves towards his forehead. Then he lowers his hand to his mid chest, then over to his left shoulder, then his right. It takes him some time; his hands are shaking so.
I feel tears, I cannot help it. How many times did I carelessly make the Sign of the Cross, not thinking about its significance – a sign of the cross that I believe Jesus died on? A sign of salvation.
I usually ask the patients what they want to hear, but this time, I just play. I begin playing “Were You There,” an African-inspired spiritual about the spiritual presence of Jesus’s disciples at the foot of the cross. It is a song usually played on Good Friday, the day that Christians have chosen to commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus.
He looks at me; his eyebrows have come closer together and his mouth is shaking. At this point, I am crying, tears are running down my face. My bow arm remains straight, my fingers continue to play, but it is as if my heart is being pulled instead of the strings. As I continue to play, a volunteer walks in. She starts singing along to “Were You There,” and after a few moments, I can’t play anymore. Father Brown looks at me, seeming to understand. The volunteer leans over him, telling him that she has brought him new blankets and some new cards; people at the parish have sent their well-wishes. He looks at her.
I ask him if he would like for me to play anything. The volunteer smiles, pleased. “Father loves music,” she says. “He has quite a sense of humor too.” I smile, although my face is still wet. He gives me a knowing look.
Father opens his mouth.
A sound deep within him rises. “OH COME” he says. The words are loud, forceful, pushed up on a stream of air from his diaphragm. The volunteer and I jump. “Oh Come Emmanuel?” we ask. But each time he shakes his head. Then we start guessing songs, random Christmas songs that might be related to “O Come Emmanuel.” After two minutes of interrogation, he raises a shaking finger to his lips. We laugh, but the laughter is weakened by our knowledge of his impending death.
He looks at us meaningfully, and then raises his arms to his shoulders, flapping them. He says what sounds like “angels,” we confirm with his moving of his arms. The last word is harder, and takes the volunteer and I about ten minutes to understand that what sounds like “man” is actually “band”. We finally google “O Come Angels” and I ask him if it is “O Come Angels Band.” He nods, his head bouncing up and down in his happiness. And I am glad; he has been growing visibly more distressed over our encounter.
I don’t play it on the violin yet–we can’t even find the chord progressions at that moment–so we play it on the volunteer’s phone, on YouTube. And suddenly, an expression of joy develops onto his paralyzed face. It’s hard to describe; one who has Parkinson’s has extremely relaxed muscles, to the point that it requires a huge amount of effort to move them into a smile. But Father Brown wants to smile, so he takes his fingers, places them on the corners of his mouth, and then lifts his lips into a smile. Tears come into my eyes again; in these hours, they never seem to leave.
After listening to the song on the phone, I play along. Soon, a hospital chaplain comes in. His name is Father John: he is African-American and a Cajun from Louisiana. He treats Father Brown like old friends, joking about how they’re “enemies” but Father Brown starts grinning. With a look Father Brown tells Father John that he needs some time to rest, so we all exit the room so that he can sleep a bit.
In about forty-five minutes, I come back, and find Father Brown waking up. He tells me that he wants “Water.” I walk out, and ask the nurse if she can give him any water. She says no, that he would choke. He is receiving an IV line, so he has fluids, but his lips are cracked, his mouth is dry. She takes a swab, soaks it with water, and swabs it around his mouth. Then she takes cream for his lips and not so gently massages it into the cracked places. She asks him if it is better, and he says no. She adds a bit more cream and asks if it is better. He nods. I am sure that it is at this moment that he realizes that nothing is going to make it better. After she leaves, he gestures me to the bed, and indicates that he would like to hear some more music. It is around Christmas time, and I begin with Silent Night, transitioning after a few verses into “O Holy Night.”
It is when I reach the verse “O Holy Night” that something dramatic happens. Father Brown opens his mouth and with a shout – I can only describe it as shouting – sings “Fall on your knees.” The words are drawn out, the articulation imperfect (his tongue is so relaxed that it is hard to move), but the words are there. As he sings, he moves back and forth, his eyes scrunched as if he is crying. But he does not have enough fluid to cry; he is making all the motions, but there are no tears. He takes a single finger and traces it down his face, as if a single tear were trickling down his cheek.
Ten minutes later, it is clear that he is tired and he asks to rest. I leave, praying with him before I go. I know that chances are slim that I will see him again; I have seen other patients in this hospice, and I know that Father Brown is close to death. The other chaplain has also told me of the great despair that Father Brown is feeling, especially because it is so hard for him to communicate and make himself heard.
Father Alan Brown died on Christmas Day 2016.
The Path To Light and Truth
So often service is yet another thing that we can put on a resume. On my LinkedIn, I have written “Violinist at Alive Hospice.” But items on a resume cannot fully grasp experiences, especially not spiritually intense experiences like when I met Father Brown. As Vanderbilt students, we are constantly looking to have more experiences. Sometimes we forget that experiences are more than resume-items that graduate schools or future employers will look at. We forget that beneath the action, service shapes us in ways that we are not aware of.
Engaging with others turns our eyes towards the face of the man experiencing homelessness who stares at the ground as we walk to class. Or the Vanderbilt worker whom no student speaks to. Or the floormate who struggles to work through mental health issues alone. By necessity, we must be present, we must be there. Service is less of the individual “things” and more of a mindset that enables us to look for opportunities to communicate with others in both word and deed.
So let us serve as the saints served. Let us accompany, let us walk with. We can stand at the bedsides with nothing but our silence and simply be with a person. We can sit in those chairs in the nursing homes, listening to stories that we have heard many times before. We can continue to be there, to extend our hand forward, not simply as a single instance of a hand reaching out but for the purpose of continued accompaniment, walking down the path of life together. Together, we can step past the pitfalls and over the rocks. If one stubs his or her toe, we can bandage it. We can lean on the other’s shoulder. Father Alan Brown leaned on me for two hours, but he will remain with me my whole life, walking with me towards our final home together.