“How do you maintain such a positive attitude while doing this work”? I asked a caregiver as she gently brushed Linda’s hair.
She responded, “I’m doing what I am supposed to do and I love these people!” Her love and sense of calling are evident in the way she treats others with respect, dignity, and compassion. She goes to great lengths to preserve the dignity and modesty of those whom she undresses, bathes, and dresses.
She adds, “These are precious children of God, too!”
In a world that honors the politically, economically, academically, and religiously prominent, the humble caregivers who give their lives in ministry with the vulnerable exemplify an alternative model of greatness and power. They embody true servant ministry and sacred vocation.
These caregivers have become my heroes, my models for ministry! Since God has chosen the most vulnerable, pushed aside, and powerless as incarnations of divine presence and mission, those who care for “the least of these” are participating in the most sacred of vocations. They are literally the “last who become first” and “the greatest” in God’s new community.
One of the most egregious injustices in our society is our failure to properly affirm, honor, and compensate those who serve among the most vulnerable: the children, the frail, the mentally ill, the cognitively impaired, the imprisoned, the immigrants, the poor, and homeless.
Many of these servant ministers—childcare workers, teachers, nurses, social workers, nursing assistants, housekeepers—live in or near poverty themselves. Many work long hours for minimal pay with limited or no benefits. Many are single mothers who work multiple jobs. They get limited vacations and little time off.
I’ve been privileged to serve in a variety of vocations within the church. My first job in the church was as a teenager when the little congregation hired me as janitor. My vocational journey in chronological order has included janitor, student, pastor, bishop, and seminary professor.
In 2009, I faced a new vocational direction. Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia, a disease of progressive cognitive impairment.
Believing that God calls within life’s contexts and circumstances, I felt that my priority calling would now be the care of Linda.
So, I relinquished my full-time faculty position at Duke and we proceeded to move near our daughters who would share in their mother’s care. She would need lots of emotional support and attentiveness. The years ahead would consist of persistent losses, receding memories, declining capacities, and growing dependency.
Though the journey is filled with grief and multiple challenges, my vocation as caregiver continues to be filled with abundant joy, profound experiences of divine grace, and opportunities for growth in discipleship and mission. I have never felt more engaged in a sacred vocation.
One of the remarkable gifts has been the opportunity to learn anew the meaning of servant ministry. My image of servanthood and sacred vocation has sharpened. The towel and basin are prominent Christian symbols, reminding us of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.
Yet, there is an even more poignant expression of servanthood: that of a caregiver tenderly washing more than the feet, but the whole body of a vulnerable, frail person, even as that person resists mightily.
May we learn from these who embody true servant ministry by participating in God’s presence among the vulnerable and the marginalized. Let us honor them and treat them with gratitude, compassion, and justice!