Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Guyana - January, 2007

Greetings from Guyana...

I have been extremely fortunate to meet a variety of amazing people whom have made a significant positive impact on my life. I could name teachers from Amherst High School, professors from Viterbo University and Luther Seminary, basketball coaches, neighbors, classmates, roommates, work colleagues, pastors…the list could go on and on. As I consider the variety of people who have helped shape who I am today, I thank God for helping our paths to cross, for they have taught me countless life lessons, and I am a better person for having known them.

While I could write about a variety of people whose lessons I know I will never forget, there is one person I feel compelled to mention: an elderly Guyanese woman named Mrs. Albertina Coates. Mrs. Coates is an inspiration to me and countless others.

It might be against the rules for pastors to have “favorites” in a congregation, but I will be the first to admit that Mrs. Coates has been one of my favorites from the first day I arrived at the Emmanuel Lutheran Parish. Her jovial attitude is infectious, her faithfulness and commitment is absolutely inspiring, and I love her witty sense of humor and willingness to say what needs to be said at any given time. Our conversations are more likely to resemble comedy acts than pastoral visits, with each of us taking turns making jokes and giving the other a difficult time. I remember one day I asked what it’s like to have a pastor who is over sixty years younger than she (Mrs. Coates was born in 1918, while I was born in 1978!), and she responded: “Pastor. You’re a young person. Now I don’t like rude young people, but I love wicked young people like you! You are alright with me!” As Mrs. Coates burst into laughter I nearly fell off my chair! I remember thinking, “I wish I could bottle this woman up and take her home!”

Mrs. Coates has seen a great deal of change during her eighty-nine years in Guyana. She’s witnessed the onset of Guyana’s political independence in 1966, she lived through a variety of presidents and prime ministers, and has seen numerous pastors come and go at her beloved Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Skeldon. When she was born Guyana had no cars and barely any telephones, and now she lives in a country of planes, numerous cars and trucks, computers, cell phones, and the wonders of the Internet. I remember when she spoke about all these changes and said, “With each passing year people get more fancy stuff and get more busy, and the more busy we get and the more fancy stuff we get, the more we think we need to do and the more we think we need to have!” Words of wisdom, that’s for sure.

Unfortunately, over the past months it’s become increasingly clear that Mrs. Coates is nearing the end of her long and fruitful life. Due to complications from diabetes and heart disease, she is no longer able to walk, which has prevented her from attending church and performing day-to-day functions. What I find so saddening about this situation is that, while so many people are able to attend church and choose not to, Mrs. Coates absolutely loves her church yet is physically unable to come. It breaks my heart, and there are times that thinking of her brings me to tears.

I visit Mrs. Coates frequently, we sing classic hymns (…sometimes she lets me play a few rock songs on my guitar!), I administer the Lord’s Supper, and I pray alongside her, asking God to bring her comfort in the midst of these struggles. Our time together is always worthwhile, but she and I know that pastoral visits are no substitute for gathering with fellow believers in the congregation she helped build over fifty years ago. Each Sunday when I step into the pulpit I look to the place she used to sit, I see that empty space, and I wish she were there to clap her hands and sing out as she so loves to do.

I know it’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Coates’ time on Earth comes to a close, and I know that her funeral will be one of the largest gatherings our congregation has ever seen, for she is a community-wide figure whom everyone knows and loves. When that day comes, it will be one of the greatest honors of my life to preside at the funeral and remind the gathering of God’s love and mercy for all people. Mrs. Coates is a faithful woman with an amazing heart and incredible love for the Lord, and while I am in no way worthy of being her pastor, I simply thank God for the opportunity to grow in faith alongside her.

I have learned a great deal from Mrs. Coates. She has reminded me to appreciate the many gifts of the elderly. She has shown me how to value the precious gift of life itself. She has modeled how to be thankful for friends and family. And of course, she has reminded me how to cherish the amazing blessings that God bestows each and every day.

I thank God for the blessing of Mrs. Coates, and I pray that God will continue to provide her with strength, guidance, and faith during her final stretch of life.

And as always, I thank you for the ongoing love and support for Kristen and I during our service in Guyana. We love you and thank God for having you.

With peace and love,