Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

A deacon and Hospice: 'I never could have done what I did on my own'

by Deacon John Riherd, for the Inland Register

(Web exclusive - August 15, 2016)

I was in the second year of the deacon formation program in Spokane. The second year term was almost finished and summer break would soon be arriving. It had been a very solid year and each of us in the program were all very positive about the final year of formation prior to ordination. Up to that point I had the utmost confidence and trust in our formation team.

And then, out of nowhere, it seemed, the team announced that each of us in the program would be expected to spend several months in a city-wide, non-parish activity or ministry with a not-for-profit charitable organization. A list of organizations was provided to us. We were encouraged to consider the work as a form of ministry we might later want to pursue.

A representative from each group spoke to us about their respective organizations and answered questions. I thought to myself that I was already busy enough with my parish work, and family, and was no way I could take on another assignment. Besides, it was summer, and summers in Spokane are beautiful and meant to be enjoyed outside and “at the lake” (a term in Spokane that means any one of the 50 or so lakes close by without having to name a particular lake).

I was still fairly comfortable with what the team was doing until their next suggestion: One of the team members said that we should make our decision with respect to ministry based upon an organization or ministry in which we thought we could never do what was being asked of us. In other words, we were to choose the task that was one that we least wanted to do. What? I thought. Do the one that was least appealing to me?

I had never had to make that type of decision since I received my draft notice back in the ’60s.

Yes, I was assured, I was to pick a ministry that did not appeal to me and then see what happened.

We were assured that choices really formed us in many positive ways and we should just trust that “the process” would work. What process? Being miserable for a few months was not, to me, a process. I was told that I needed to be “open to the challenge.” I kept wondering why I needed to be changed since I was already doing good works and thought myself worthy of moving on. I would keep my head down and do what was necessary.

Every organization on the list seemed so easy – except for one – and each would present no challenge for me. And yet, there it was: Hospice of Spokane.

Hospice? Isn’t that where people go when they are dying and suffering from cancer and all types of terrible terminal diseases? I pictured the tubes, smells, darkness and death. That was my list of positive reactions to hospice work.

So, I chose Hospice. It was, after all, only for the summer until fall classes resumed. With gallows humor, I thought to myself, I can survive that. I knew I would find a way so that it would not be too difficult.

Being dutiful and not wanting to miss a golden opportunity, I called Hospice of Spokane to set up an interview with the head of volunteers. The person was way too nice, and soon I was accepted. Since I had not received training to work closely with their clients, my volunteer service was, thankfully, limited to a support capacity. I would not be working directly with the hospice client (patient). That was good news, I thought; I would not need to get close to the clinical side of Hospice but, at the same time, would be working for Hospice, as I had agreed to do.

I quickly seized upon the job of doing lawn mowing for one of the clients that had no one else to do the work. I had spent my summers as a youth mowing yards and shoveling snow, and I still enjoyed lawn work at home. How difficult could it be? Show up. Mow the yard. Leave. Then come back the next week. Just keep doing it all summer.

Hospice provided me with the name and address of the client and a brief summary of her condition. I arrived at her house the next Saturday, full of determination and with the expectation of a short project so that I could return home and finish my own projects. I parked in the street in front of the house, got out of my car, and was struck by the terrible condition of the yard and the house. The yard resembled the African savannah more than a lawn.

I went up to the door. I knew my client was in the final stages of breast cancer. I expected a caregiver to politely and quietly answer the door and then direct me to the garage, which I had seen was at the alley in the rear of the house. I assumed that the mower was in the garage and that it would have a bag attached and ready to go. I figured I would still be done and gone in no time.

The day was already very hot, so the main door was open. The house was quiet and dark. I knocked once or twice on the screen door. No answer. I didn’t want to disturb the client, but I needed to introduce myself and get permission to mow the yard. I rang the doorbell.

And then I heard it. Fear stabbed at my inner being. From what I later discovered was the kitchen at the rear of the house I heard what sounded like the noise from the hound of Hell. A deep, loud, guttural snarl and roar that increased in volume like an approaching hurricane announced the coming of a beast. It almost skidded off its feet as it rounded the corner and in one unbelievable effort launched itself at me. Only the feeble screen door was my protection. What made his effort all the more remarkable was that the beast was missing one of its hind legs. Perhaps that added to its anger.

In any event, he bounced off the screen door and kept up his steady angry barking and began frothing at the mouth. I don’t think he had eaten any meat for several days. He must have thought that someone had put me on the front porch as his next meal.

Fortunately, a voice from the kitchen called the dog back and it released its claws from the screen. The dog kept its angry stare on me, just daring me to step into its space. A small, frail woman came into view. Then I noticed the strong odor of smoke and cigarettes coming from the house. It was such a hot day that the pungent smell that poured out of the house almost made me gasp for air. Without waiting for her to say anything, I quickly introduced myself and told her why I was there. She grabbed the dog by the collar and asked me to come in. The beast kept glaring at me, but his mistress was fully in control. It was terribly hot and stuffy inside the house, and I was introduced to smells that I did not recognize and did not want to experience again. But in I went. The client pushed the dog out the back door, where it sat on the small porch, continuing to keep me in his threatening stare.

After a brief conversation we decided that I would go back out through the front door and then she would let the dog back into the house. I would then go around to the back yard and then into the garage to get the mower.

Our plan worked beautifully until I got to the back yard, which was surrounded by a chain link fence. The fence had successfully kept the beast in the back yard, immediately obvious because I didn’t see one square inch of yard that was not covered in dog droppings. There was no way to mow the yard without first cleaning up the entire yard. So much for my plan for a quick in and out and then return to my own projects.

I carefully stepped my way to the garage to find a shovel or some item to use as a scoop. Finally, after several days of work, the yard was cleared and I could safely mow what was left of the grass. All I needed now was the mower.

I found the mower under some garbage bags. I pulled the machine out into the light of day and realized that it looked fairly new. Fortunately, I had brought a can of gasoline with me. I emptied out all of the old gas from the mower and tried to clean out the carburetor as best as I could with fresh gas. I refilled the tank, primed the engine a few times, stepped back, and pulled the starter cord. On the third try, the engine sputtered and then roared to life. Saints Briggs and Stratton were smiling down on me. It was several days later than planned, but I was now going to do what I had come to do: I was going to mow the lawn.

And so, for the next several weeks, I showed up each week, went to the garage to get the shovel to clean up after the dog, and then mowed the yard. I even edged all of the sidewalks and the side yards. By the end of the summer it was the best-looking yard on the block. I was really proud of that. I could, I told myself, be a Hospice volunteer after all. I worked hard and did what I had been asked to do.

It was about that time that I learned from the volunteer director that the client had died. I did not even know her condition had worsened, since I made no effort to visit with her when I showed up to mow her yard. It did not occur to me to do that since I was doing what I wanted to do, and my first visit had been so unpleasant. I never knocked at the door to let her know I was there to mow, nor to just say hello to her. I avoided her and got to know her yard. I missed the point of my assignment by avoiding the parts of hospice that initially repulsed me. The yard was thriving while the person was dying.

God spoke to me and showed me how I was able to keep busy and be blind to a greater need.

I decided to volunteer as a Hospice chaplain. I went through the formal training program, going out to be with clients in their homes during all phases of their care. I was then mentored by the full-time chaplain, a female Episcopal priest, for a few months. Working with the chaplain was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. She admitted to me that she enjoyed her ministry as a deacon more than as a priest, and her ministry with hospice clients bore that out. Those things that I most feared – the smells, the tubes, being present to the suffering – never occurred to me. I welcomed every assignment I received because I knew I was chosen to do this work. The formation team was right after all: The least-appealing assignment became the most fulfilling I could have asked for.

I continued as a volunteer chaplain for several years and recruited a couple of fellow deacons to join me in the ministry. After moving to Portland, Ore., I served as a volunteer chaplain in a residential hospice for a few years. I grew from a caretaker of a yard to a caretaker of sheep – God’s sheep, caught in the final stage of living. I was doing what I thought I could never do. I heard God’s laughter when I thought about my first halting efforts along this road.

What became evident to me was that I was never the one ministering with the dying. It was the Holy Spirit working through me. I never could have done what I did on my own. As I look back on those years, and recall the things I did and said in some very difficult and trying times, I know the words I spoke and the actions I performed were not my own, but were those of the Holy Spirit. I was simply there, practicing a ministry of presence. The most important thing I did was to get myself out of the way and let God do what needed to be done.

(Deacon John Riherd was ordained for the Diocese of Spokane in 1999.)

(IR photo courtesy of Deacon Riherd)

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