We’re Going to Pray for Gary

Donna  had been trying to get my attention for a few moments: tap-tap-tapping on my shoulder, pausing for 30 seconds, then tap-tap-tapping again.  When I finally turned away from my conversation with Jeanine on the other side and faced Donna, she said with some urgency, “We’re going to pray for Gary.”

There were at least fifty of us in the church hall. Conversation was lively. Several booming male voices rose above the others: men  whose conversations rallied back and forth across the large space. Pastor John stood with me for a moment before making his decision about which of the large round tables would be best. As we approached one, ten friendly faces looked up and I was well into a conversation even before sitting down. At our table,  conversations were more intimate; we all leaned in and listened closely. And when the call to pray came, it took no time for everyone to be holding hands and listening closely,

“Dear God, we’re praying for Gary…we don’t know where he is…” Laurie was leading the prayer. Rumor had it that Laurie had been ordained as a minister in the Methodist church, though this wasn’t her job now. She paused for a moment before adding, with a bit of a quaver in her voice, “we hope he’s ok…” There was a brief silence and then everyone in the circle squeezed hands and let go.  Some “amens” were said.

Conversation continued in the line going up to get food, though to be clear, not everyone was talkative. “What kind of meat is it?” I asked, pointing to the patties. “Beef” one of the kitchen workers responded quickly, “Yeah, it’s not pork,” another added. Beef patties with onions, bowtie pasta salad and a mixture of corn and kidney beans. For desert: apple pie with a dairy topping, cheese cake, and danish.

Donna had brought her own lunch, turkey on whole wheat. She held it up for others at the table to see. “I got it at Cub foods for $2.00” she said, “they put it on a special table for same day sale”. Those within earshot nodded approvingly. “Which Cub?” someone asked. “At the Har Mar Mall,” Donna responded. “That’s what I thought,” another chimed in, giving a knowing nod, “not the one in Midway”.

“So, what does he look like?” I asked, keeping my eyes peeled for Gary. “Not very tall,” Donna said, “white hair…” she paused, “…well that’s not saying much…” she laughed and several others at the table joined in. “He has a beard; kinda looks like Santa Claus–except now, he doesn’t have a beard during the summer,”” Donna continued. Laurie added, smiling, “You’ll know when you see him…he’s kind of in charge here.” Others at the table nodded.

I realized that I hadn’t seen Pastor John for a while when I looked up and saw that he was at the front of the hall again. “Hello everyone,” he said and paused as the hall gradually became quiet. “I’ve just been on the phone with Gary’s family,” there was a catch in John’s voice when he continued, “Gary died yesterday. He was out biking in Stillwater and got hit by a truck.” There were quiet gasps, I heard someone say, “Oh no…” Someone else said, “What was he doing in Stillwater?” At our table, Donna said, “He was trying to lose weight…he had high blood pressure.”  People had finished eating by this time and at our table at least there was a kind of tenderness and even intimacy that had come from this sudden experience of shared loss. We helped each other pile empty plates onto a tray, squeezing crumpled napkins and other trash along the sides. Soft “thank you’s” were exchanged.

I found John in the church sanctuary where he was talking with his wife Andrea on the phone. He looked up when I opened the door, put the phone down and shook his head. Gary Bernard Michel was dead at the age of 67. He had been out on a long bike ride and was in Pine Springs near Stillwater when he was struck by a pick-up truck. “I’m so sorry, John,” I said.  John was caught in the moment, he rested the cell phone in his lap, “He was such a character,” he began, “very private…wouldn’t even tell me his last name at first.” Then remembering his wife, John lifted the cell phone to his cheek, “I’ll call you back later, Andrea,” he said.

I came in, gave John a long hug, and felt, what could have been a sob, but ended up being more of a hiccup, pass through his body.  “He was a medic in the army during the Vietnam war,” John said. “Volunteered to go to Vietnam, but ended up at an evacuation hospital in Germany. Worked as a nurse when he got out.” John paused, “His friend was a medic in Vietnam and came back just shattered…” John gestured with one arm toward the church hall below us, “He’d been doing this for a while. Nobody asked him to…he was here every Thursday.”

Pastor John and I talked for a while about the people who came for the community meal on Thursdays. There were some who were members of the church—but mostly not. Gary had become a member—but hadn’t started out as one. The people who came were all kinds of Christians: Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Lutherans. And there were Muslims who came. Usually the same people each week—sometimes there were newcomers. “It’s not just about the food,” Pastor John said, “it’s a community.”

This day, the community had lost one of its own. There was some confusion when at the end of the meal, shopping bags filled with food for the week were distributed. “This was Gary’s job,” Donna explained. Gary would take the list of everyone who had signed in for the meal and read off the names one by one, making sure that everyone went home with a bag of food.  The confusion came when a different voice began reading the names. No one listened. Names had to be repeated, shouted through the hall, before people began coming forward to get their bags.

Today something big had changed. I could tell, though I had never been to the community meal before and had never met Gary.  Donna could tell, Laurie could tell. Even before the news of Gary’s death was shared, the two of them–and everyone at our table–was ready with a prayer.

A Graduate of MSU

‘I’m a graduate of MSU,” Richard said, and paused. I was curious. Richard had never mentioned attending Michigan State University before.

Our conversation had started on what would have been a sleepy summer afternoon in 2009 — except that no afternoons were sleepy with Richard Andersen. He and I were beginning to plot out the work we would do together at Lutheran Social Service (LSS). Richard had brought me on as an assistant to help him do outreach to Lutheran congregations across Minnesota on behalf of LSS. I was his assistant, I was in many ways, his apprentice–except that he insisted that we work as equals and partners. During nearly two years, Richard, Patrick Burns and I crisscrossed the state, organizing events, speaking in churches and engaging volunteers. We spent hours together in his Honda CRV, talking, as one does on car trips, about everything.

I learned a lot about Richard. He was open, honest and unsentimental about his life. He spoke with pride about his successes at Thrivent Financial, his adventures as manager of The Original Pancake House, and his work helping to build the Arc Retreat Center in Stanchfield, MN during the late 1970s.  And yet, I don’t remember Richard mentioning Michigan State.

I do recall Richard talking about his college years–I think it was Augsburg? “Patrick and a friend had gotten a hold of a locker,” Richard remembered, describing an early encounter with his husband, “they put the locker on a dolly and wheeled it right up to my door.” Richard smiled. “Patrick got inside the locker–I think he was wearing a little cap or something, like a lift operator–and then knocked on my door. When I opened, he looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Going down?'” Richard sighed, “That was nearly fifty years ago. That man has been keeping me laughing ever since.”

After Richard graduated from Seminary, he served in a small rural congregation. He loved the work. He talked about the old ladies in the congregation who baked him cookies and worried that he wasn’t getting enough to eat. Then there was a conversation with the then bishop of the Southeastern Synod of Minnesota. Richard was gay. The Bishop knew. Perhaps there was a suggestion of something along the lines of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”.  But Richard wasn’t buying. And so Richard was not ordained for the Southeastern Synod and did not continue to serve. Instead, he worked for Thrivent Financial and The Original Pancake House.

Then thirty-two years after he graduated Seminary,Richard was finally ordained. His desire to be a pastor had never waned, nor had his love for Patrick; but the Church had changed. Richard could openly be Patrick’s partner, and officially be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  After the ordination service, Richard was at the reception, positively giddy with excitement, using his aebleskiver iron to fill platters with the traditional Danish apple desert for his guests.  For all the times that Richard and I had spoken in churches or met with clergy, never once did I sense a tinge of disappointment, bitterness or anger. It was important for Richard that he be ordained, he was thrilled when it happened and that it could happen. It would be another seven years before he and his lifelong partner Patrick could be married.

“I’m a graduate of MSU,” Richard said, and then explained the acronym, “Make Stuff Up.” I laughed.  Richard didn’t crack a smile.

Richard was a person with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. He was a seventy year-old who could say “awesome” and sound like a teenager–because at that moment he actually was. He was someone who loved to smile: a smile full and heavy with love and life. And though he loved to laugh, Richard was not a jokester. Rather, there seemed to be a reservoir of seriousness and sadness that lay beneath his smile. For someone to be as compassionate and loving as Richard was, there would almost need to be a resonance of personal hardship. Maybe some of that resonance is what his “MSU” degree was about.

I never heard Richard use the expression “School of Hard Knocks,” though I suppose that he could well have.  The “Make Stuff Up” quip had a similar kind of seriousness. When the church door closed on both his ordination and his relationship, Richard had to make stuff up. He had to find another way to be in service, another way to live out his faith, another way to love and live in his relationship. I suppose making stuff up is what most who paddle outside the mainstream become very good at.

Richard and I parted company when my temporary position at Lutheran Social Service ended up being just that. He had called me into his office, told me that he wasn’t going to be able to keep me on staff,  and then immediately begun to cry. He said, between tears, “I feel like my right arm has been torn off.” It was, all things considered, perhaps a little melodramatic. I got another job. Richard got another job. And yet, in the moment, that we both had a good cry helped us move on.

And now we have parted company again. This past weekend, Richard Andersen died after suffering a massive heart attack. Writing this remembrance has brought back all the love and appreciation that I feel for him, and with these feelings, many tears.

And yet, memory too is life-giving. I never did share with Richard his faith in heaven or an afterlife. As a Jew, it is memory that is life giving and so in giving thanks for Richard, I say זכרונו לברכה, “May his memory be a blessing”. I know that I am one of many for whom Richard’s life has been a blessing and so it is my wish that it continue to be so also in memory.

My dear Richard, your memory will always for me be a blessing. May it be so for others…and may you rest in peace.

“A Gentle Lion”

Maya Missaghi is an attorney practicing in the area of what often is called, “Elder Law’.  She helps people write their health care directives and wills; she helps set up powers of attorney and assists in negotiating the transition from independent living to assisted living. Maya is passionate about what she does, grounding it in a deep conviction that, as she writes, ‘…elders deserve care and respect, so that is what the Twin Cities should provide for EVERY elder, regardless of background, language or circumstance.”

Maya Missaghi is an advocate in the classic (Roman) sense: one called (ad-vocare) to represent the interest and perspective of another. From its Latin origins, “advocate’ becomes in 14th century French “avocat” a purely legal term equivalent to “barrister”, then in Middle English, used with religious and political overtones to mean “protector”, “patron” and “intercessor”.

I can imagine Maya protesting here that I’m laying things on a little thick. At the same time, it seems clear in seeing the work she does, that she has a level of personal investment that comes from a lifetime of living with-, listening to-, caring for-, and loving the elders in her family and in her community. Paraphrasing her loosely: Every grandma is somebody’s Grandma.

What touches me about Maya’s work is how she ties personal experience and motivation to professional achievement.  In writing about her grandfather’s last years in life, she notes, “It was quite nice..for all of us to see the lion-like patriarch diminished to such a gentle soul–who, of course had been there all along.” She reflects, “I hope to preserve and pass on his strength of character…and that I too become a gentle lion in my old age.”

I write this blogpost not just as a referral, but as a reflection. To advocate for someone means to ensure that their story is told well, their perspective portrayed accurately and their interests represented adequately…Maya and I do this each in our own way. What underlies advocacy, what is required to speak for another, is first to listen carefully, and second to be boundlessly curious, asking, “Is this what you said?” “Is this what you meant?” “Is this what you want others to understand?”

If you would like to learn more about Maya Missaghi’s law practice, click here. You can contact Maya at [email protected] or by calling 952-237-9602