I was intrigued by my new patient. She had come to the nursing home for short term rehab and I quickly realized that she was a Christian. She was reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, there was a well-worn Bible on her bedside table, and old-time gospel music sounded from her CD player. I also spotted a crucifix around her neck and an Alcoholics Anonymous prayer book. What an eclectic mix of spiritual tastes! Her family asked me to make sure that she was taken to Mass on Sunday mornings as her faith was very important to her.
Whenever I entered her room I found her listening to gospel music with her Bible close at hand. She was typically in a contemplative frame of mind, often gazing out the window, nodding her head in rhythm to the music. Her face would break into a smile when I greeted her and I detected a gentle, sweet temperament. However, because of her short-term memory deficits, it was difficult to build a relationship with her as she did not remember me from one day to the next.
One quiet evening I asked her to tell me about her faith. Given her memory deficits, I’m not sure what I expected to hear, but I was definitely surprised when she settled back against her pillows and said, “Well, it really got started after the war.” She looked up at me and added, “That would be World War Two.” I suddenly realized that I was in for a story.
“My husband was a war hero. He was a navy fighter pilot who was shot down two times by the Japanese. After the war, when he was stationed in Mobile, Alabama, I was pregnant with my first child. One day I had gone into town to do some shopping and when I got on the bus to go back to the base, I couldn’t find a seat. There was a mix of military people and civilians on the bus, but no one offered me a seat. I walked all the way to the back of the bus and in the last row, next to a black woman, there was one seat left. I asked the lady if I could sit next to her and she agreed. As soon as I sat down I could hear people start to mutter, and then the bus driver exploded. He pulled the bus over and started yelling, “‘You can’t sit next to that n……. Get up and find another seat.” I got up and walked down the aisle, but no one would give me a seat. I could hear muttered comments, “You ain’t no better than that n……. You deserve to sit next to her.” Finally I had had enough. I told the bus driver to open the doors. I said out loud to the whole bus, ‘I don’t want to be on this bus. You are all a bunch of sinners.’ I got off that bus feeling awful for that poor lady I left behind. I don’t know what happened to her, but I felt bad because I didn’t mean to bring trouble on her.”
When I got off the bus two young black men followed me off. I was pretty upset and they stayed with me and got me a cup of coffee and helped me calm down. As it turned out, these men had a friend whose father was a leader in the civil rights movement, and a few days later I got a phone call from him. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. He invited me to come to his father’s church in Atlanta. It was the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I took the bus there and afterwards his mother (Mrs. Alberta King) invited me over for lunch. I became good friends with Martin. He would call me whenever he was in town and we would meet. I was devastated when he was assassinated.”
She went on to tell me that the incident on the bus was the beginning of learning to really trust God. She became passionate about civil rights and justice for the oppressed.
Frankly, I was a little dubious, so much so, that I double-checked her chronicle with one of her eight children. After her son confirmed the essential parts of her narrative (some of the dates are still a bit fuzzy), I kept mulling it over and over until I finally had to ask myself, “What is it about this woman’s story that has prompted so much of my attention?’
It didn’t take much reflection to come to my conclusion: I have always associated Christians who are passionate about social issues, with a weak, watered-down faith. It has been my experience that people with a bent toward a social gospel have little passion for Jesus. He seems to be a mere figurehead in their social endeavors.
But this was not the case with this elderly woman. She spoke tenderly of Jesus, her Lord. Her eyes filled with tears when she said, “I don’t know how people manage without Him.” The unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit shone through.
I am humbled to recognize that I have wrongly stereotyped Christians who are different from me. With this little glimpse into this woman’s life, I saw an admirable mix of a passion for social justice fueled by a passion for Jesus. I feel privileged to have met this one who is a sweet fragrance of Christ. She has challenged me to ask myself, “How do you smell?” and frankly, I think I need some new perfume.
Holy Spirit, please spray me!