For the past six years, I have served as the Executive Manager of Impact1890, a grant-making organization that provides funding to organizations that assist older adults who are aging in place. While grants have supported many different programs, all address the most urgent needs of older adults who are often forgotten and isolated, particularly in these days of covid-19. When I retire from this organization at the beginning of January, I will miss working with so many dedicated, tireless individuals who care deeply for people who often fall through the cracks.
One organization that Impact1890 has funded is GraceInside, which is based in Richmond, Virginia. One of the unusual and troubling aspects of the Commonwealth of Virginia is its failure to provide funding for chaplains to care to the spiritual needs of individuals incarcerated in state prisons. If an offender is to receive any spiritual guidance or solace, it is through the efforts of GraceInside.
Another unusual aspect of the Virginia penal system is the presence of a correctional institution devoted almost exclusively to geriatric offenders. More than 600 older men are confined to Deerfield Correctional Center in southern Virginia, an area of the state that is poverty stricken and nearly depleted of hope. Some of the offenders will live long enough to return home; many will not. A large assisted-living unit and an infirmary provide care for the men who are the sickest, but don’t be fooled by the term “assisted living unit” — it is nothing more than a large room in which many cots are bolted to the floor with little space between the beds.
Nearly two-thirds of the deaths in Virginia prisons due to covid-19 occurred in Deerfield. These days, the chaplain whose work is funded by Impact1890 must provide his words of hope and healing through the telephone, an iPad, or a written note, because chaplains are considered non-essential and cannot enter the prison.
A few weeks ago, I informed GraceInside that Impact1890 would once again provide funding for the chaplain at Deerfield. In his response to that news, the president of GraceInside compared the news of the grant to “a brilliant light in these very cloudy times.” I was taken aback by the strength of his words.
How many of us need a brilliant light in these cloudy days? I certainly do. As a nation, we are experiencing uncertainty as we wait to see the implications of the election. We feel anxious, not knowing what the next announcement of the day’s covid-19 numbers will be. We’re concerned about jobs and economic hardships. And what about the upcoming holidays? Will we be able to meet in person with friends and loved ones or will a FaceTime call be the best we can do?
Although we may feel lost and alone without any light shining into our lives, Scripture and tradition remind us again and again that there is a bright, intense light to lead us. The children of Israel were led by a blazing pillar of fire by night. The Magi were led by a brilliant star, illuminating their way to the Christ Child. Christ became a dazzling light while transfigured before Peter, James, and John. Martin Luther admonished each of us to be Little Christs, bringing that clear Light of Christ to the world and to our neighbor.
On Wednesday of this week, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., held a Service of Healing, Unity and Hope to give the nation a break from the frenzy of the election and to quietly reflect on how to move on from here. At the conclusion of her homily, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, urged everyone in their own way to be those Little Christs and “let the Light of Christ shine through us.”
Instead of thinking about how much I need a brilliant light to guide my way, Bishop Budde inspired me to turn that around and think about how I could be the Light of Christ to others. I won’t be able to illumine the way of the 600 older offenders in Deerfield Correctional Facility, but I may be able to bring some Good News to my neighbor who recently had surgery. I could text or call a family member who has become estranged. I could offer words of companionship and understanding to a friend who is undergoing a challenging time. I could volunteer my time at a food bank to help provide nourishment to people facing difficult financial circumstances.
When looked at in this way, I no longer focus on my situation. I instead turn my eyes to the desires and wants and needs of others. Each of my actions, while perhaps individually only a flicker of hope, is a way to let the Light of Christ shine through me. When combined with the acts of our siblings in Christ, what we do can become “a brilliant light in these very cloudy times,” giving hope and healing to this suffering world.
Let us pray...
O Source of all Life and Hope, hear our prayers as we call upon you during these uncertain times. Be our guiding Light as we discern how to live our lives in community even as we try to better understand our differences. Help us nurture the little spark of light within each of us so that we can become Little Christs, letting the Light of Christ shine forth to others. Amen.