Interesting Articles

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Forgotten Ministry

This article was written for the Andre House of Hospitality 25th Anniversary Newsletter.

As I pause for fighter jets to pass over, I look around. I am standing in what could be described as a fenced in gravel field. Desolate, dry, muted, and dusty, it is not much to look at. I read the line “May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace,” I sprinkle holy water on a plain gray coffin, and a chain gang of women lower the coffin into a grave. We have just buried “Unknown Man, approximate age of 45” The only sign that will mark this grave is a round brass disc saying John Doe and a date of death.

Welcome to White Tanks Cemetery. Near Goodyear, AZ, it sits in the valley of the White Tank Mountains. It is the cemetery run by Maricopa County. Any person who dies and is not claimed, is unknown, or the family cannot afford a funeral is buried here. Each year approximately 300 men, women, children, and infants are buried here.

Every Thursday morning a chain gang and a chaplain come out to say a brief service and bury the dead. Andre House participates in this ministry in two ways. First, in a rotating cycle with other chaplains, it sends one staff member to lead the prayer service. Second, every year, in November, the Church’s month of remembrance, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Andre House staff leads a prayer service to remember all who have died in the previous year.

I have had the unique privilege to lead the prayer services twice.

When I arrive at White Tanks first, I slowly walk through the cemetery. I look at the names of the infants, I look to see how many people are only remembered with a label reading John Doe or Jane Doe, and I wonder how many families do not know their loved ones have died. As the chain gang practices marching, I silently pray for all those who are in mourning and have lost loved ones. As we assemble to begin the prayer service, I remind myself that it is I and the chain gang who are stand in for the family. We represent the mother, father, sisters, brothers, and friends who do not have the privilege of witnessing this moment. As I begin the service, the chain gang joins me in each action. Together we make the sign of the cross, are moved to tears, and say the Our Father.

Although a funeral, this is not only a solemn occasion. Laughter occurs. Anytime one almost falls into a grave, after the shock, slow laughter starts to move through us. Also, one of my most humbling experiences is when the chain gang laughs at me for making a mistake. I attempted to sing Amazing Grace at the end of the last burial. I was told that if I sung, the chain gang would join in, just as they had joined me at each other part. My singing is awful and I forgot the words and the prayer service ended with a pitiful song and a group of chain gang women laughing at my attempt.

At Andre House we give witness to the lives of our guests. We practice the corporal works of mercy through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, and our personal favorite, a corporal work of mercy peculiar to Andre House, showering the stinky. Yet, one of the corporal works of mercy that is often forgotten is burying the dead.

Through these corporal works of mercy practiced at Andre House, we give witness to the lives of our guests. We recognize them as important and valuable. Yet, also in death are we called to show respect for life. No person should die alone and no person should be forgotten. Through the prayer services at White Tanks, we remember the lives of those who have died, but most important, we give witness to our belief in their everlasting life.

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