At the Intersections: Ministry & the Margin

Many good people work at the intersections … of feminism and Christianity, of ministry and justice, of religion and politics, of gender and society, of race and inequality, of everything and then some.  I’ve invited a few people to tell a story from their work at the intersections, and will be sharing their stories here from time to time.

Today’s story comes from Rev. Jenn Moland-Kovash.  She is an ELCA pastor serving a congregation in the Chicagoland area.  She loves people’s stories, and shares this one (in which the names have been changed) about one dimension of her ministry.

The last time I talked to Stephanie, it was December of 2010.

We talked on the phone about the upcoming holiday and her kids – beautiful toddlers with curly red hair who had her round cheeks and their dad’s clear eyes. I remembered them from the summer before when she and Jim had stopped by the church and had the kids with them. The youngest squawked in the background, and I heard the sound of plastic containers hitting each other – cheap, safe toys from the cupboards. We laughed together about the struggles of parenting young children, as two moms will do. She told me about her partner’s recurrence of cancer and the treatment schedule the hospital had established – a university teaching hospital that was an hour’s drive each way and not near public transportation.

She had been clean at that point for two months and three weeks. She told me with a laugh, “It just doesn’t sound as impressive as saying you’ve been clean for two years.” She was in that place of being disappointed in her relapse but proud of where she was currently.

They needed some assistance – not a lot, she said, just a little to get the kids something for Christmas (We don’t need anything, but we’d like to get something for them.) I administer the congregation’s assistance fund, and had helped them in the past with rent and utilities. I arranged for them to pick up a gift card to Target, and I wrote them a check for some gas to help Jim get back and forth to his appointments. They responded as if I’d given them the world; I felt like I was sprinkling an ocean. Right before Christmas, Jim called again just to wish me a Merry Christmas.

I had wondered about them occasionally, hoping that they were doing well – hoping they didn’t need whatever assistance I could provide.

Jim stopped in this week because he couldn’t make a payment on a loan that was due, and before I could ask, “How are Stephanie and the kids?” he said, “Stephanie died last summer. From an overdose.”

I held myself together as I talked with Jim about what he needed and how to navigate the corrupt world of payday and title loans. But when I got back to my office, I sat at my desk and wept. The truth is that I complain a lot about the burden of this fund that I oversee – the encounters with the rude and the unsavory, the accounting details, the stories I’m told (some unbelievably true, others simply unbelievable)and the clawing, desperate need people have when they come to me. I struggle to understand systemic poverty, political policy that impacts assistance programs, and the many factors that a family like Jim and Stephanie consider when making decisions – rational or not. I wonder about the children – the ones I get to meet who are red-headed and wave to me from their car seats, and the ones whom I simply hear in the background of a telephone call.

But in the midst of these encounters, both the frustrating and the benign, there are also moments of holiness – moments when I know that the change impacted on my own life by this part of my job is not temporary, nor fleeting, and through my tears I am incredibly grateful.

 

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • http://Www.kewp.blogspot.com Katherine Willis Pershey

    I am really grateful for your courage and grace and wisdom here. You’re a fine pastor, Jenn.

  • Kay Sterner

    Beautiful piece, Pastor Jenn. As stewards of some amount of income, all of us, it can be truly breathtaking to think about the impact our funds have.


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