By Arne Vainio, MD
(This article was written in 2015.)
My wife Ivy and I traveled south in the middle of these troubled times. She has family she found about 16 years ago when she wanted to know our family histories after our son was born. She knew little about her father except that he was a respected member of the African American community. I think when people start looking for their heritage, there’s always a secret hope it involves a Scottish castle that’s just a little bit haunted, but instead she found poverty in central Florida.
She found her brother first and he was happy when Ivy first told him she was his sister, and he took us to meet their sister right away. Her sister is revered in this impoverished community in the heart of the city. She is about to turn 83-years-old and she has dedicated her life to the church and to her community. She has taken the homeless and the lost into her home over the years and has taught countless students to play the piano. The last time we were visiting I took a photo of her hand next to the keyboard of her old upright piano. That piano has been played hard over the decades and the keyboard is broken and beaten and the veneer is peeling off in sheets, but it’s been with her too long for her to simply discard it.
She and her husband started a small church on a corner and they dedicated their lives to that church and the surrounding community. He died long before we met her and she has been carrying on the work they started all those years ago.
The night we arrived was her birthday celebration at the church and Ivy and I were brought into the front row to sit with her and their brother and their great niece. This was a powerful evening and I have never seen deeper faith anywhere. The singers were in the front of the church, but the congregation also sang and the songs came from all around us. Afterward we all shared a meal together and we were welcomed into the community with open arms and open hearts.
I would live to be that generous.
The next morning we were invited back to the church service and it started with Sunday school. The Preacher’s wife led the women’s session and Ivy and her sister went with them. Stormy and I went to the men’s session and the Preacher was leading that session. We walked in as he was telling them when he counsels couples, he has to be careful not to put himself above anyone else.
“The last thing I want is to have someone respecting me instead of the other person in this relationship. When somebody is meant to be saved, it has always been someone imperfect sent to do that work and I realize my own imperfections. All of you can do the same thing in your day to day lives. If you see someone hungry, don’t just give them a couple of dollars or even just buy them some food. You need to sit with them and eat with them and listen to them. In helping someone else lies your own salvation.”
In listening to him, I was reminded of a night I was on call and an elder was reaching the end of her life at three o’clock in the morning. Her entire family had gathered and many of them could not accept the fact there was nothing further we could do for her. She was Catholic and a priest had been called. Some of the gathered family were angry at death coming, but you can’t really be angry at death.
Death doesn’t respond to that anger.
But you can lash out at the people involved. That includes the hospital staff and it included me as the doctor in the room that night. The priest was young, but he able to see this and he invited me to stand with him as he gave her last rites. I stood next to him smug in the knowledge that my religious beliefs were somehow better and more true than his.
I have never been so happy to be wrong. I watched a roomful of people go from angry and hurt to accepting to loving and forgiving and I could feel it as he was performing the ceremony. Her last breaths came easier and she died peacefully with her entire family surrounding her.
I watched the sunrise from the atrium in the hospital as I was leaving to go home to get ready for clinic. The hospital is on the hillside overlooking Lake Superior and the sky went from starry darkness to hazy purple and then orange as the sun melted the night and as it rose over the lake, a streak of brilliant red light crossed the water directly toward me.
I told this story to the Preacher and I did not want to hide the fact that our beliefs are different. I expected resistance and I expected condescending and I received none of that. Instead, I was again surprised with the beneficence and understanding of a truly good man.
“I know we’re different, Dr. Vainio. I know we have different concerns for the people we serve. I know we have different faiths. I also know that only in working together can we make a difference for those around us, those who believe us and those who look to us for answers. I am so grateful our paths have brought us together and I want you to know I will always respect and pray for you in your work.”
We stood and shook hands, then we hugged. I could hear the congregation singing in the sanctuary and I knew he had to put the finishing touches on his sermon.
“Dr. Vainio, you should go in and sit with your wife. The congregation and the singers have been waiting for this day.”
I walked into the sanctuary and the singers were in full song and the congregation was standing and singing with them. I walked to the front and I sat between Ivy and Mother Shaw.
Ivy leaned over and smiled at me. Mother Shaw had her bible in her lap and she reached over and took my hand and we sat together as family as the congregation sang around us.
This was love and devotion and goodness in its purest form and I’m grateful this is the family Ivy found when she started looking all those years ago.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at email@example.com.