By Adeline Fehribach, SCN
Our Sister, Paula Merrill, knew Christ very well;
She sat at his feet every time she sat on her stool in the clinic
listening to one of her patients sitting on the examination table.
She listened not only to where it hurts,
but also to the stories her patients needed to tell.
She listened when so many others would not listen
to stories …
of jobs lost,
and of a minimum wage not covering both medicine and food for the table,
of home violence,
and racism experienced,
of becoming hooked on pain pills
because some doctor had overused a prescription pad,
of just not being able to resist the snacks despite being a diabetic.
She listened with love, knowing that she was encountering the suffering Christ,
and then she would bring her experience of the suffering Christ to prayer
where she would sometimes weep over her own Jerusalem of Holmes County, MS,
her poor community that could be so different
if only the cry of those on the margins could somehow be heard
by those who had the power
to improve the lives of those she saw day after day.
Paula shared with us on Province board how her heart ached
for all that she heard and saw and could not fix.
And at times some of us wondered how she found the strength
to keep ministering in the 7th poorest county in the country.
She could keep doing it because the reward outweighed the struggle
for in and through her ministry she had obtained the supreme good
of knowing Christ and being found by Christ.
And in that mutual knowing she also experienced
the power of Christ’s resurrection at work within her
allowing her to do more than she could ask or imagine.
To Paula, everything else was so much rubbish.
Her sister Rosemarie said of Paula
that her attitude toward most things was, “Whatever.”
She really didn’t care one way or the other about most things.
When one is faced by such life altering poverty,
in the bigger scheme of things,
most everything else is just not worth worrying about or getting upset about.
Paula never wanted anyone to focus
on the righteousness of own her actions.
She said of the ministry that she shared
with her dear friend, housemate, and co-worker, Sister Margaret
“We just see patients and do what needs to be done.”
But what needed to be done
was often more than listening with compassion,
challenging patients who needed to stay on their diet or take their medication,
giving a shot or writing a prescription.
When one is trying to provide healthcare
in a place where over 40% of the population lives in poverty
what often needed to be done entailed:
asking pharmaceutical reps to leave more free samples,
contacting pharmaceutical companies
for discounted medications for their patients,
paying for the patients’ medications out of their own pockets
when all else failed,
and negotiating with other providers
for medical tests their patients needed but could not afford.
“We just see patients and do what needs to be done.”
What was needed was approaching the suffering Christ
with the love of Christ that impelled them to act
– and that they did very well.
“I was ill and you cared for me.”
Both Paula and Margaret encountered Christ in those at whose feet they sat
and then they cared for the person with compassion.
We also know, not from them but from stories told by others about them,
that they made sure this or that person had something to eat
and that they welcomed the stranger
and literally gave shelter to the homeless.
“I was hungry and you gave me food,
a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Many of the things they did we will never know
for neither of them liked to talk about themselves.
But, those whom they served know;
they know that they were always met with Christ-like love and compassion.
The Christ in me sees the Christ in you
and is moved to care deeply for you.
The God in me acknowledges the God in you.
Who can weigh the good that such an encounter has?
In the end Paula also shared in the suffering of Christ
and in that encounter I believe she conformed herself to his death.
As strange as it may sound to those who did not know Paula,
if Paula could meet the person who killed her,
she would not focus on what the person had done to her.
Her heart would be broken at what had happened to her friend Margaret,
and she may even have to work at getting over her anger
at the fact that her patients had lost their one life-line to a better quality of life.
But as she worked through her pain and anger at the harm done to others,
I believe she would look upon the one who caused all the harm
and see in that face the suffering Christ as well.
I can almost hear her say with compassion,
“What kind of violence did you experience that could allow you
to do what you have done to me, to my friend,
and to this community?
Who hurt you that much?
How can I help you let go of some of that pain
so that you can once again know yourself
to be made in the image and likeness of God
and be able to have compassion for other people?”
With Jesus Paula would say,
“God forgive him for he knows not what he does.”
Hopefully, one day that person will be able to say,
“I was in prison and you visited me
and you helped me see in myself what I could not see
a child of God, loved, despite my worst actions.”
Being able to look at the one imprisoned, the one who caused such pain,
and see the face of the suffering Christ in that person,
that is what Paula would do;
that is what Paula would want us to do.
Paula has already heard the words of Jesus,
“Come, you beloved of God,
inherit the “kingdom” prepared for you.”
On this side of eternity,
may we like Paula have the eyes to see and the will to respond
to the needs of Christ made manifest in those who many consider the least.
And in the midst of our pain and loss,
may we experience the power of Christ’s resurrection at work within us.