She didn’t look at me when she got up out of her pew in the back row of the church. But she walked deliberately down the aisle, clutching together the sides of her unzipped winter jacket with a clenched fist.
Chris* wore her coat every Sunday, even when the church was warm. Its bulk seemed to add a layer of protection — not against the cold, but the hurt. In a world filled with prejudice toward people with schizophrenia, her blue jacket ensconced her in a cocoon, safe from the sting of pointed comments about her occasionally odd behaviour.
Residents from Oliver House have been coming to worship at Knox United in Caledon Village, Ont., for years. Oliver House is the largest group home in the province for people who live with psychiatric disorders. Fifty-two people reside in an old farmhouse on a country road three kilometres from the church.
Each Sunday, a driver with Caledon Community Services picks up anywhere from six to 12 people who have asked to be taken to worship. The regulars include a man who faithfully prays for his parents each week and is part of the team that takes up our offering; another who talks a mile a minute and gives generously to our Mission & Service box from his small disability stipend; and a woman whose joy infects everyone around her.
And then there is Chris. Petite, anxious and withdrawn, she kept to herself most Sundays. Often she’d settle herself in the last pew and, Cheetos bag in hand, munch her way through the service until the passing of the peace. It took some weeks before she’d offer her orange-stained fingers for a handshake. More weeks still before she’d offer a shy smile.
This day, however, was different. I was three-quarters of the way through my sermon when Chris made her way down the aisle to the pulpit. She said not a word but stretched out her hand and offered me a bottle of nail polish. I stopped my sermon, stepped away from the pulpit, received her gift and thanked her. But Chris didn’t return to her seat. I waited, wondering if her gift was a more fitting end to my sermon than what I had prepared.
Then Chris looked up at me with tears streaming down her face. “I want you to pray,” she said. “Pray for my uncle. He’s sick.” In that moment, I felt the grace of God. This timid woman had been transformed by the love of an accepting and welcoming congregation. That day she offered not only the gift of nail polish, but also the gift of her trust.
And in the process, we were transformed, too. Week after week, I was humbled by the gifts offered by our friends from Oliver House. I was humbled by the way they led us in prayer. Now other members of the congregation have the courage to offer their prayers aloud too, schooled by the honesty and conviction of those who have spoken ahead of them. Mutual sharing. Mutual exchange of gifts. Grace abundant.
Weeks later, when Chris stood up to pass the peace, she left her jacket in the pew.
This story first appeared in The Observer‘s May 2018 edition with the title “The gift of trust.”