Compassion in Action

By Deacon Michael Schlaack

He looked much younger than his true age would suggest.  Unlike the rest of the clients at the local warming center in downtown Flint, Michigan, “Craig” was clean in appearance and sober.  He was one of about two dozen people, many of them drug and alcohol addicts, all of them homeless, who huddled in the center on this cold, gray February afternoon.  Many clients were dozing on a padded bench or murmuring quietly amongst themselves. The security guard at the desk reminded us that this is not one of the best neighborhoods in town.  Flint, like many large, once prosperous cities across the mid-west, has been suffering economically.

“I’ll be 65 years old next month” Craig proudly announced.  “Can you believe it?  I look better than most of these kids sitting around this place.”  The truth is, he was right. “I don’t belong here,” he sighed, thoughtfully.  “I know I don’t belong here.”

This wasn’t our Compassion in Action (CiA) ministry team’s first visit to the warming center. The purpose of our CiA team is to provide a “compassionate presence” to those who may not have someone to listen to them.  The souls at the warming center certainly fit that description.

How Our Compassion in Action Ministry
Got Started

The seed was planted for our compassion presence ministry back in August of 2013. Two members of my parish and I attended the OCA Parish Ministries Conference in Arlington, Virginia.  We came to the conference looking for ideas to expand our ministry outreach into our surrounding communities. 

Our parish, St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church, is a small OCA parish of about thirty families located in Fenton, Michigan, south of Flint.  We are a “commuter” parish: many of our members drive up to an hour each way to come to church.  With a dispersed group like ours, we needed a ministry that did not require the participants to drive all the way to Fenton to participate in activities.  It also needed to be the type of ministry that could fit into everyone’s busy personal schedules and family commitments.  I was looking for a ministry that was unique and could meet a need in our local area that was unaddressed by ministries of other churches and outside social service agencies.  “Compassion in Action: Parish Ministry Training” (CiA) appeared to be a perfect fit for our parish. 

At the conference, I had the privilege of meeting Arlene Kallaur and Nancy VanDyken, who filled me in on the objectives of CiA.  I was especially intrigued by the concept of a ministry that did not ask for parishioners’ money, donated goods or physical labor, but their time and attention given to a hurting person.  We knew of many opportunities to provide food, clothing and financial support for people in need, but there were few, if any, that focused entirely on the person.

It was obvious that this sort of ministry would require deliberate planning and training on the part of the parish, so I took the names and information home with me to discuss the opportunity with our priest, Fr. Paul Jannakos.  His support, as well as the support from the parish council, would be critical for the successful launch of CiA at St. Mary Magdalene.

Before “selling” the CiA ministry to our parish, I had to wrap my mind around the concept and figure out how we could apply the principles of compassionate presence for our particular situation.  As indicated earlier, we are a commuter parish so our implementation would need to accommodate the participants’ schedules.  Also, due to the unique nature of the ministry, it would be critical to have training to learn skills as well as set standards and expectations.  I did not want this to be a “one and done” situation, where the ministry could not be sustained by the parish.

After discussing the overall CiA objectives with Fr. Paul, I took the proposal for the new ministry to the Parish Council and received their support.  My next steps were to get the word out to the parish to introduce the new ministry and set a date for a meeting with people who expressed interest.  I was told by Arlene and Nancy that training would be available to our parish as a part of CiA development.  I wanted anyone who was interested to understand that they would be expected to participate in the local training.

I was pleased with the initial reaction at the organizational meeting.  Ten people attended and two others who couldn’t attend expressed interest.  We discussed the objectives and methods of the ministry and I emphasized the need for training.  This was a sticking point for some potential members: they felt that they already knew how to talk to people, so why did they need to be trained?  Fr. Paul and I had decided that training of each volunteer, as the Compassion in Action ministry development package required, would have to be an integral part of participating in our CiA ministry.  This requirement caused a few people to reconsider. 

Another requirement we decided upon locally was that each parishioner who volunteered would serve at a facility located near their home or place of work.  While we planned to do group ministry work, too, we felt it was vital for each person to find a place where they could use their CiA skills and serve on a regular basis.  This meant each volunteer would need to take the initiative to find a local hospital, nursing home, hospice or other facility where they could perform their compassionate presence (CiA) work.  This requirement is not a part of the CiA ministry structure provided by the OCA; it is the application and “working out” of that structure in our particular parish’s life.

Training

Training Day - Lay volunteers with (l to r) Dn. Michael, Fr. Paul Jannakos and Chap. Fr. Timothy Yates.

Training Day - Lay volunteers with (l to r) Dn. Michael, Fr. Paul Jannakos and Chap. Fr. Timothy Yates.

With our resolve and planning in place, I contacted Nancy VanDyken, our OCA mentor, to arrange for training at our church.  As part of the Compassion in Action development structure, the OCA’s Department of Christian Service and Humanitarian Aid, in partnership with the Office of Institutional Chaplaincies, provides a trainer and makes arrangements.  Fr. Timothy Yates came to Fenton to present the training on July 11, 2015.  Five people eagerly attended the 4-hour training course.  The information provided was instrumental in helping us learn the unique skill of compassionate listening – something most of us don’t do very well.  We learned the importance of silence when working with people who are going through a personal crisis; people need an attentive ear to hear their problems, not advice or judgement.  It requires a focused, concerted effort, one that can only be successfully developed through training and experience.  We discovered quickly that there was more to being a compassionate listener than just owning a pair of ears.

To ensure our ongoing training and skills improvement after this training session, Fr. Timothy introduced several tools and how to use them.  These tools help us improve our skills and understanding in our ministry visits with people, and are also used in our volunteers’ ongoing mutual support and encouragement.

The result of using these tools has proven crucially beneficial for our volunteers personally and has improved how we minister.  With these tools, our volunteers have become more comfortable and more confident in their role in the compassionate presence ministry.

Finding Places to Perform
Compassion in Action

After the training, the volunteers all went out to find a place to perform CiA work within their local communities.  This proved to be more challenging than originally expected.  Most of us thought that local hospitals, nursing homes and hospices would welcome volunteers who were willing to spend time with residents and patients in their facilities. We soon learned, though, that getting into the facilities often presented some challenges. Here are some of the requirements we encountered:

  1. Institutional specific training:  Nearly all the residential care facilities and hospitals require some level of training or orientation before being permitted to minister in the facility.  Since some of our participants had full time work or family commitments, extensive training requirements proved to be a hindrance at some potential ministry locations.

  2. Background checks:  All hospitals and residential care facilities required a state criminal background check.  Some also required finger printing at a local police department.  Many facilities covered the cost of the background check and finger printing, but some did not.

  3. Work scheduling: One local hospital required a minimum number of hours per month from their volunteers as well as strict scheduling.  This type of location was unsuitable for volunteers who do not have a lot of flexibility in their schedules.

  4. Special certifications: In some situations, the institution or facility required the volunteer to complete specific certification requirements in areas such as first aid, CPR, abuse counseling, etc.

  5. Team Member Safety: Safety of the ministry team members must always be a primary consideration.  If the ministry location is in a “bad part of town,” it is important to ensure that the team members do not go alone and consider pairing up with another volunteer.  It is also important to ensure they are not at an unsecured facility.  The local warming centers and soup kitchens where we have served have security guards visibly present at all times. Safety also extends to not meeting alone with an individual. 

  6. Follow the rules of the facility: The facility’s rules need to be learned and followed.  The best way to ensure that your team is invited back is to know and follow the rules.

While most of these requirements were not overly onerous, they did add some additional considerations for volunteers.  It is important to understand ahead of time the institution’s requirements before committing to serve at a certain place.

Clergy Support

As we moved from the “forming “to the “norming” stage of our ministry, two things became obvious.  First, clergy support was needed to help guide the group and to provide legitimacy to the ministry, especially when seeking entry into some facilities.  Having a priest or a deacon make the initial contact with some facilities provided the institution’s management a greater level of confidence that the ministry will have oversight.
  
However, it was also important to us to have the ministry lay led.  Rather than the priest giving directions, organizing meetings and scheduling ministry visits, we felt that the lay faithful need to be involved and take ownership of the CiA ministry.  This did not mean that the clergy were completely hands off, but rather that the entire parish had some ownership with the success of the ministry.

Love in Action

Below are reflections of some of the encounters our CiA team volunteers have had with people whom they serve.  It is easy to see how a “compassionate presence” can have a positive effect on both the minister and the ministered.

T.O.: “I have been visiting P for a few months now.  P had a stroke several years ago.  She is able to speak but most times does not.  There is always a sweet smile at the beginning of the visit and sometimes some words.  She and I have made a connection over the joy of being a parent and grandparent.  In the time I spend with her, the world falls away or a least is reduced to her small room, filled with family pictures and small tokens of love.  I have learned to sit in the silence with P when there are no words.  I have found that the silence is not so much silence as a quiet place to think about God’s love for all of us.  I pray for peace for P and in that prayer, find peace for myself.  I look forward to these visits where the daily worries and cares fall away and where I am refreshed as I feel God’s love for P, for myself and for us all.”

H.D.: “After one traumatic event upon another began taking a toll on a CiA care recipient, her world became a sad and gloomy place. It was difficult for her to find even the smallest sparkle of light.  Then one day, after visiting with some time for listening/healing and prayer, the recipient expressed her desire to change her surroundings.  I believe both the recipient and I experienced joy when she was able to put aside some of the grief in her life and come out and “smell the roses” again. She has slowly incorporated being outdoors again, interacting with others, and bringing God back into her life.” 

M.S.: “Since I have had frequent conversations in the past with my neighbor, “R”, there was no surprise that she stopped and talked.  I was a bit surprised that she shared with me the situation with her husband and the difficulty she’s been having with his sister.  R seemed genuinely appreciative that I took the time to let her voice her problems.  I was (with great difficulty!) able to refrain from giving advice or some words of false comfort.  Her parting remarks seemed to indicate that she appreciated someone asking about her and her husband and actually taking the time to listen to her problems.  When she left, she seemed much happier and jogged the rest of the way around the corner with her dog.  I had never seen her do that before.”

The Future of CiA in Our Parish

As St. Mary Magdalene moves into its third year of Compassion in Action, we find ourselves at another crossroad.  As with all parish ministries, we are now at the point that we must consider “refreshing” our focus and methods.  We had a change of lay leadership and are now actively looking for a new leader who will take the reins and lead the ministry into the future.  We had an internal training session in July, 2017 to provide training for new and existing members, as well as for others outside of our parish.  This experience helped to hone our teaching skills and materials for future trainings.

We always have opportunities to share the love of Christ simply through our willingness to “be there” when someone needs a non-judgmental ear to listen.  Sometimes the greatest thing we can give someone is not a sandwich or a bowl of soup, or money, but just our undivided time.  Like the homeless man in the warming center, many “Craigs” live near us and need to tell their story.  The one thing they have in common is the need for someone to see them as God’s image bearers and acknowledge their humanity; not to try to fix or judge them, but to provide a Christ-like presence in a life so often devoid of love.  Providing that Christ-like presence has been the objective of the St. Mary Magdalene’s CiA ministry.  With CiA we have been able to reach out to those who need someone to be present in their time of loneliness and need, all the while changing our own personal perspectives on those people, God’s people, who are often forgotten in our communities.

“Deacon Mike” Schlaack is a 2010 graduate of the St. Stephen’s Orthodox Theology certificate program and was ordained to the Holy Deaconate June of 2011.  He is currently attached to St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church (OCA), in Fenton, MI, where he has been a member since converting to Orthodoxy in 2006.  Deacon Mike has been married to his lovely wife, Susan, for over 37 years and they have three adult children.  When not serving God’s people at his home parish, he is an Information Technology department supervisor working for a major southeast Michigan energy provider.  He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in computer management, and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Systematic Theology.  In his “spare time,” Deacon Mike enjoys woodworking, motorcycling, fly fishing and most other outdoor activities.