When you are a minister, you get to know your members. They are your flock. As their pastor, you shepherd them.
When you are a minister, you get to know a lot of folks in your town. Some become your friends. While they might never join your church, it doesn’t mean an opportunity won’t arise to shepherd them in a pastoral way.
When I was a minister, I got to know Bernie Marsh. She blessed my life. I hope I blessed hers.
In 2003, two years after I arrived in Port Hope, Michigan, to be pastor at St. John Lutheran Church, Bernie’s husband, Dave, died. I had met Bernie a couple of times in her diner, the 4 Seasons Cafe, where she was for years just as much a fixture of the community as was the cafe.
Soon after Dave’s passing, one of my members, a good friend of Bernie’s, stopped by to talk with me about his concern for her. She was taking Dave’s death hard, he said. She could use someone to talk to. He thought I was just the person.
I never liked calling people out of the blue—as I’ve long joked, it’s the reason I never sold vacuums door to door!—so I asked him to check with Bernie to see if she’d like to chat. He did, and she did. I gave her a call. The next morning, I paid her a visit.
As the proprietor of a diner, it’s no surprise that Bernie was a drinker of copious cups of coffee each day. So am I—and I’ve never even worked in a diner! Sitting down with Bernie in her living room—me on the couch and she in her favorite chair—we drained that pot and she put on another.
Bernie wasn’t Lutheran. She was, if I recall correctly, Roman Catholic. A bit of a lapsed one. No matter. She was a human being in need of a listening ear and a caring heart. I was glad to be that person.
We talked of faith issues every time we chatted. If you want to get to the heart of someone’s personality, just talk religion! If you knew Bernie, you knew she had strong opinions. She could even be irascible. Feisty. Never at a loss for words. Woo wee, but did I learn everything she believed, and everything that ticked her off.
And everything that was important to her.
The feisty side of her was balanced by her compassionate and caring heart. Those, who knew her well, can cover this area better than I—those who witnessed the things she did for the good and help of friends and strangers alike. If you were annoyed by Bernie’s I don’t care what anyone thinks, here’s what I think attitude, all of her good qualities melted away everything else.
You couldn’t help but like her.
That summer of 2003, I made the short walk to Bernie’s house a number of times. We never talked less than an hour. We always drained the pot. Bernie unloaded the burden of loss and hurt she was carrying because she had to carry on without Dave. She was able to make it through the week, make it to the next time we talked.
I was in Port Hope eleven more years after that. I enjoyed plenty of breakfasts and lunches in the diner before Bernie gave it up. Over the years, I saw her many times, some of them in St. John’s as she attended a funeral or wedding. We always shared a friendly greeting and a warm hug and a quick laugh. I reveled in that smile of hers which came with a marvelous twinkling in her eye.
Before today, I never told anyone of those visits to Bernie’s. I’m glad to do so now, through the sadness of her passing.
I hope I was a blessing to Bernie. She certainly was for me. I made a friend, and through those chats with her I grew as both a minister and a human being. She was one of the many lessons of my life, where I learned the value and importance of being there for another.
I bet there’s someone for whom you could be there, who simply needs a friend to listen. That’s all I did for Bernie. Sure, I had a suggestion here and a thought there to help her cope and carry on, and I made sure to share the Lord’s love for her in Jesus Christ. But mostly I listened. Mostly, I hugged. Mostly, I was just there for her.
I’ve been gone from Port Hope nearly five years. I miss so many people. I look forward to seeing them again.
See ya, Bernie. Thanks for being my friend.