This pile of used surgical masks is my reminder that in the past month, I’ve clocked more hours in hospitals than in my office. A family health issue—one that I won’t go into too much detail here because of privacy and the reality that it is still ongoing—has me coming and going from a 5 floor rural hospital sometimes four times a week. One one occasion, due to the hospital being at capacity, I spent the night with this family member in a small exam room in the emergency department. In an uncomfortable waiting room chair and with a perpetually dying phone I sat watch. A local cable news channel loudly looped their late evening hourly set of news and lifestyle stories was my reminder of the passing of time in the semi-sterile room. The stories included a suggestion to postpone your wedding until at least the fall and a shelter dog hiking group that socializes dogs before adoptions.
With trace amounts of caffeine and sugar, I helped a human I love that was in immense pain make it through the night in a bed not meant for sleep. I offered sips of water (and occasionally lukewarm decaf coffee), adjusted pillows and blankets for something like comfort, and sought nursing staff for assistance with pain medication and general human needs. I was there, most of all, however, to sit with them. I was a recognizable face in this terrifying and lonely situation.
I don’t really know where I learned the practice of sitting with the sick, but I want to attribute it, at least in part, to the rural churches that formed and still form me. The rural church has taught me something about how Christians engage sickness and death. Sitting watch (a term I’ve heard but cannot tell you where, except for in the Nativity story) both the practical notions of physical and medicals needs along side a spiritual-emotional need of another human being present in the pain. I cannot imagine the pain my family member was experiencing, the fear that this pain might never end, or the anxiety of the treatments and recoveries to come.
The rural church deals with sickness in a humanizing way. When they see a member of the community in need, they reach out to comfort, heal, and advocate, with the resources they have. I remember church members bringing meals to families dealing with cancer treatments. When my dad had a procedure all the way in Charlotte (a little over an hour drive from my childhood home, but a million miles away for by pre-elementary mind), church members took me and my siblings for the day while my mom drove him to the procedure, playing outside and doing crafts with us, they sat watch. As a member of a church I served near High Point, North Carolina, underwent serious back surgery, the senior pastor was with the spouse during the surgery. I took their teenage children for the day. We spent the day doing very little, but being together. I sat watch with them in a barbecue restaurant and the Dollar Tree across the parking lot.
Beyond sitting watch, the examples of care are innumerable. A Sunday school class passes dozens of cards around the class each Sunday for the members to sign and offer words of comfort. A women’s groups who provide gift cards for restaurants and grocery stores as a small act of care. A men’s group drives friends to appointments, help with home repair, and offer listening ears for whatever might need to be heard.
It is not a universal truth that rural churches nurture caregivers for the sick. It might not even be a truth. Perhaps I read too much into my memories. I’m sure some members of the same churches that I cite as my educators received very different experiences. I want this to be true. As the rural church (along with all of American Christendom) is undergoing continually tremendous shifts in numbers, participation, and finances, I still hope for the church to be the place that forms people who care, comfort, advocate, and pray for those experiencing sickness, injury, and pain. I don’t have easy answers.
Sickness will continue. Not only will it continue, the pandemic let us know in no uncertain terms that it will get wore. The average population of the country is aging (in many places rural communities are aging faster. The rural healthcare system is crumbling under capitalistic and metrocentric practices. Many rural folk travel hours for “in-network” providers (particularly specialists) while juggling issues of childcare, jobs without paid time off, and transportation issues. Even if we miraculously produce even a mediocre solution for healthcare, eldercare, and palliative care, a need will exist for sitting watch, for listening, for a warm meal. I don’t even have answers yet. I have a pile of books, a collection of stories, and imaginative spirit which says that the church or something like it can and will be part of the care for the sick and dying.
Just today, a church member brought me a container of soup, just in case I needed a pick-me-up in the exhaustion of caring for my family meber. The church is still teaching and my hope is that it always will.