Set Apart for the Gospel
In June 2003, I was appointed to United Methodist Women national mission institution the Spofford Home in Kansas City, Mo., as the chaplain after serving in the local church for 15 years. The position of chaplain had been vacant for one year following the tragic death of previous chaplain in a plane crash. I was also the first United Methodist clergyperson appointed to the position. Little information could be found that assisted me in defining my position beyond the job description. I also thought that as a United Methodist ordained clergyperson I knew about one of our local agencies, Spofford. I was wrong. Spofford is not just a "children's home" as I had believed but is an intensive residential treatment facility serving children with severe emotional and behavioral problems between the ages of 4-12.
I had to help children like Peter*, a boy who had been physically beaten by his parents, realize that they do not deserve to be abused by anyone, let alone by their parents. Peter will always haunt me. One of the first things I started when I took the job was spiritual assessments of each child. One of the questions I ask is if a child is afraid or scared of anything. Usually I hear answers like scary movies, spiders, snakes and such. My heart broke when I asked Peter if anything made him afraid or scared and he answered, "My parents." Knowing he was a victim of physical abuse, I inquired, "Because of the physical abuse?" Peter nodded and said yes. "What do you do when you are afraid or scared?" I asked. "I just lay there and take it," Peter replied.
I wanted to gasp at Peter's answer, but I had to struggle to focus and ask the remaining questions of the spiritual assessment. Peter's reply will forever disturb me at my core, with the image of him lying and enduring beatings from those who should take care of him and keep him safe.
Nothing had prepared me for this.
I thought I was in way over my head. My world was turned inside out and upside down, because I no longer was just a supporter of Spofford and children who had been abused, neglected or lived with mental illness—their world was going to become my ministry and a huge part of my world. I chose not to be overwhelmed but do what I have always done when I face an inconceivable challenge. I renewed my calling as "a servant of Jesus Christ," but more importantly I renewed my calling of being "set apart for the gospel" as an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As I faced a world of unimaginable suffering of God's most precious children, I was awakened to a new dream that God had for my life, a dream that I never imagined.
God's way is not always smooth. However, I was a social worker before being ordained and worked several years as a social worker and director of a family homeless ministry. My ministry at Spofford has been the hardest thing I have done yet, but it is without a doubt the most rewarding work I have ever done.
I struggled through the years to balance the clinical (social worker) and the spiritual (chaplain) in my work and the ministry. Sometimes the social worker in me overshadowed the minister, but my private devotion time with God confronted me with the reality of my role in the life of the children I serve at Spofford. I am a chaplain, a spiritual advisor and teacher to children who have been abused, neglected or have a mental illness and have had little or no opportunity to develop their spiritual being. This was not Sunday school.
Over time I developed the Spiritual Life Program at Spofford that aims to embrace and enhance the spiritual life and being of the children (and their families). I sought to foster the spiritual growth and the sacredness of each child. The program was designed to create a spiritually nurturing environment by being a real presence to these suffering children, supporting them, providing a safe and stable environment where children matter, offering programs that lay a formation in values and faith skills, celebrating important moments of their journey through symbol and ritual, and supporting them. Spiritual care is a process of being authentically who we are with children and calling them to be authentic on their own spiritual journey.
As a social worker, I embraced the social work purpose: to help people achieve their potential. It was the core of my work as a professional social worker. When I went into ministry, I could not stop being a social worker, so I learned to incorporate that purpose into the theological basis of my ministry in the local church and then at Spofford. My purpose at Spofford is to help these fragile children of God, who have no self-worth or value of themselves, to realize and achieve their potential as God created them through the divine–human encounter.
Faith can be a strong coping skill for suffering children. Personal spiritual convictions can be the strongest and most enduring foundation on which to build morally and ethically. People of high moral character are more likely to make right choices. For almost all of the children served at Spofford, they have yet to be taught or develop spiritual convictions, let alone be allowed to become the children who God created them to be. If given the opportunity to experience something of the grace and wonder of God, they can begin to touch the goodness of God within themselves that calls them to make better choices for their lives. A seed of spiritual transformation is planted and nurtured with grace, especially the unconditional love and acceptance and forgiveness of God each child has thus far expressed a desire for.
While I am haunted, I am also blessed watching these children transform before my eyes. Like 5-year-old Maggie*, severely neglected at an early age but starting to thrive at Spofford and under the care and support of a foster family. One day Maggie was attending one of the small groups I conduct, a healthy life skills groups to teach and expose residents to various basic life skills that instill values and build character that can help residents in making better and healthier choices, thus better and healthier behaviors. Residents lie on the floor on bean bags, can take their shoes off, have a blanket, a stuffed animal and have a little treat. Little Maggie was laying on the bean bag, one hand behind her head, one leg crossed over the other, and watching the movie Hermie: A Common Caterpillar with the others in the group. Hermie, longing to be better than he thinks he is, learns in the end God is not finished with him as he is transformed into a butterfly. Just as Hermie is being transformed, Maggie looked up at me and said matter of factly but with purpose, "Miss Elaine? Jesus died on the cross." I replied, "That's right, Maggie." She then added, somewhat questioningly and stuttering just a bit, "And then, and then, the Holy Spirit … the Holy Spirit took his spot."
I, too, became transformed and reminded that God can touch even the most fragile of little souls and transform them. Such deep theological truth out of the mouth of a 5-year-old, who never had any spiritual or religious teaching but only saw it lived out at Spofford through staff and volunteers who have answered God's call—set apart for the gospel of God—to be his hands and heart through their gifts and graces and their presence and prayers.
God of all children, we thank you for such sacred places of healing of hearts and minds and spirits of precious children and people. For those who dare to live their faith out so others can become more of who you created them to be. Thank you, God of creation, for all who are willing to live among the pain and suffering, the tears and broken hearts, of your precious children and plant your seeds of transformation.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
The Rev. Elaine Fahrmeier is a chaplain at Spofford Home in Kansas City, Mo.