This post is an edited version of a remembrance I gave at a memorial service yesterday, October 27th. This has been such an awful week, bombings, shootings, so much hate. It makes saying goodbye to those that do good in the world that much worse.
My first post MSW job was in an urban emergency room, work that broke through so many of my illusions about American life. It was place where anything and everything could happen and as such helped me learn who I was, what I believed, and what would be important to me in approaching my professional life going forward. One thing I learned was how to spot those that the writer of Hebrews spoke of when he cautioned, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
The first time this happened was with a distraught mother. The exact circumstances escape me, but we were in my office, knee to knee, and she was crying and repeating that God would take care of her. The waiting room was over-flowing, my pager was ringing, I wanted to help her. I also wanted to answer the doctors and nurses who judged my performance. I affirmed her faith and sat with her tears, but my mind was elsewhere worrying about my delayed response to other crises. As I spoke her words back to her – “Yes. God takes care of us.” – she looked up, stopped crying, and spoke. “Yes. But He needs your hands.” An angel unaware, calling me back from my distraction to focus on what true helping means.
Academia is a lot different than an emergency room. But as a social work professor, I still serve many masters and only some of them “count” toward tenure, promotion, the coveted chair, or whatever the next big recognition is that says we have made it as scholars. So when I received an email in 2012 from someone asking to talk about a tutoring program in a trailer park, my first impulse was to press “delete”. Indeed, I recall mentioning the email to colleague who said, “Like you have time for something like that… not!” But that mother in the ER had taught me well and this email from a retiree who could be doing anything, but was dedicating herself to a group of Latinx families, a population marginalized over and over in the current environment, continued to nag at my conscience. I said yes to coffee, and met Carol, an angel unaware who once again showed me the importance of being God’s hands in a troubled world.
There were so many things that struck me in that first meeting. Her cheerfulness and joy in working with a group of children and parents far from her own prior teaching experience, her faith that I, a stressed out associate professor, mother of two, had something to offer the situation. Her consideration and understanding that it would take time for me to figure out how to help, and her willingness to put our heads together and take it step by step. We met with the principal at Margaret Pollard Middle School. I introduced her to the good folks at El Futuro , an organization she came to love as I do. Eventually we got MSW students involved through field placement. The Learning Trail became an official non-profit. Some law students and professors joined the effort. This sounds like a smooth process. It was not. It has been full of fits and starts and this year we were poised to our collaboration to the next level. We met just weeks ago with this year’s students, a new field instructor, and supervisor to plan.
Carol’s death is devastating because it was her commitment and confidence that has inspired me and kept me going with this effort even when I felt overwhelmed and too busy. Her persistence called me back, again and again to what true helping means. She reminded me through word and deed that when we are kind to strangers we host angels unaware.
I saw her last on September 27th, exactly a month ago today. After lunch we walked to the parking lot together. I was too busy as always, said a hurried good-bye, and rushed off upon arriving at my car. Now, I wish I’d lingered, had the second cup of coffee, chatted in the parking garage for five minutes more. I wish I’d made time to send a follow up email, tell her how much I loved working with her. But I did not. I rushed onward to the next thing unaware that I was leaving an angel behind.
For those interested, here’s another post on our collaborative work from 2014.
Photo Credit: Skylar Searing