The Saint I Knew

Fourteen years ago I worked for an outpatient counseling agency in Schenectady, New York.  Schenectady is a run-down industrial city, the one-time headquarters of General Electric, with the remains of eroding municipal splendor sprinkled among urban blight.  Our agency was located in the blight, in the midst of neighborhoods swamped by poverty and crime.  We counseled alcoholics and drug addicts, most of them sent by probation and parole officers, so that our clientele actually represented the entire range of malfunctioning humanity—hallucinating schizophrenics, guys in the last stages of AIDS, a prostitute slit from lip to ear with a box-cutter, a baby rapist, people who killed people intentionally, people who killed people when they were drunk, men who wanted to be women, and more than a few teens who did nothing but play video games and smoke weed.

The clinical director was a Black woman named Maria.  She was a highly-skilled rehabilitation therapist, who handled a never-ending stream of objectionable clientele with continual good humor.  She wasn’t married and never dated.  She liked to drive fast in a specially-outfitted Toyota.  She received occasional bouquets of flowers from smitten drug dealers, who showed up for counseling simply because they respected her.

Every now and then, Maria and I had a drink together.  We’d decompress and talk about the different forms of craziness encountered during the day.  During one of our Jack Daniels confabs, we reached an agreement.  I’d counsel everyone deemed to be assholes, and she’d counsel everyone deemed to be whiners.  Assholes didn’t bother me; I developed an immunity while working as a pastor.  On the other hand, I could no longer stand complaining.  Our arrangement worked well, and Maria invited me to her ordination.

Maria was an Episcopalian and being ordained as a deacon.  This was a big deal, because Maria spent her vacations working as a missionary in the Sudan, where she provided care to homeless, starving families.  Her deaconate was the church’s recognition for her work, whether in the Sudan or in Schenectady, and her work was how she expressed her love for God.  She believed that loving other people was how you loved God.  As Jesus said, “When you love the little ones, you love me.”

One year, Maria returned from her Christmas vacation in a mosquito-infested section of East Africa.  She was in good spirits, worked a full week, and left early on Friday to visit her parents.  The following Monday she wasn’t at work, reportedly ill at home, and then we received a call that she was dead.

Maria developed a high fever on Friday night, was taken to the hospital on Saturday, lost consciousness on Sunday, and died on Monday from a variant strain of malaria.  The hospital didn’t identify the illness until after post-mortem reports.  Suddenly, this effervescent, loving spirit was gone, off to join the God she loved.

I’ve met a lot of people, prior to Maria and since, who claimed to love God.  Many are more than willing to tell you about it.  Some make a show of it.  More than a few make a living at it.  Most seem to think it involves repeated expressions of heart-felt appreciation, or the continual praising of God’s better qualities, or some kind of affectionate feeling, as if the Creator requires affirmation, encouragement, and emotional gratification.

Far fewer people express their love for God in the way they treat each other, especially the least popular among us, even though that is the one thing God requests.  According to the scriptures, God is not looking for adulation or romantic attachments.  All God asks is that we love each other!  There’s no need for love songs, waving of hands, pious prayers of thankfulness, or even open recognition.  Just treat everyone with love.  Jesus says that’s the only way his true followers can be identified.

And Maria was one of those true followers.  She loved God by actually listening.  She loved God by doing as God asked, cheerfully, because that’s how you feel when you’re doing something for someone you love.  You don’t ask if the love is deserved.  You don’t ask if they’ll pay it back.  You don’t seek your own interests.  You simply do as love demands.

That’s what I learned from Maria, before she died.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

One Response to “The Saint I Knew”

  1. Once again (it happens more often than I comment), you’ve written what I needed to read. Excellent post.

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