Fill Your Heart With Faces and Names, For You Live in Mission Territory

St. Louis Martin (1823-1894) was hospitalized for three years at Bon Sauveur in Caen while suffering from dementia—an episode that his daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries, would later refer to as “my father’s martyrdom.”
St. Louis Martin (1823-1894) was hospitalized for three years at Bon Sauveur in Caen while suffering from dementia—an episode that his daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries, would later refer to as “my father’s martyrdom.” (photo: Register Files)

“What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved,
to point him out, to make him known?”
Pope Francis

As a young Evangelical, I came to see missions in terms of bringing together the unreached and the written Word of God, and so nothing fired my missionary imagination more than Wycliffe Bible Translators. From back then up to today, they’ve unquestionably been on the front lines of that effort, going to far-flung areas and isolated people groups all over the world, and then doing whatever’s necessary to put those people in contact with the Good Book – even if it requires developing and teaching a written language for the groups who don’t have one. 

It was my great privilege to spend a college summer with Wycliffe in the Philippines, and I got to see firsthand the life and work of missionary translators in the remote reaches of Mountain Province. As you can guess, their work was slow – how do you even begin to package the concept “camel” for a rural Filipino, or, worse still, “snow?” The process often requires years – even decades – of labor before biblical translations are ready for publication or distribution. Consequently, when I was invited to visit a different province for the dedication of a completed New Testament, I jumped at the chance.

The celebrations went on for days, and they included everyone: Village insiders and outsiders, Christians and non-Christians, Protestants and Catholics – even the local bishop came. There was feasting and tributes and music – large gatherings of men, women, and children filled tents for various revelries from dawn to dusk. At one point, the organizers asked me to give my testimony to the assembled crowd. I balked – “Why me?” I was a complete outsider, and I spoke neither Tagalog nor the local dialect. “Speak from your heart – we’ll translate for you,” was the reply. “You’ve come a long way because of your faith, and that’s testimony enough.”

A flash recollection of that long-ago scene coincided with a recent humbling epiphany. I was at South Bend’s Sanctuary at St. Paul’s, a Catholic long-term care facility where my entry-level nursing students help provide care as a part of their training. We were meeting with Carole McCollester, one of St. Paul’s lay chaplains, and she was sketching out for us how she engaged in spiritual care. “Among other things, I lead Bible studies three times a week,” she told us. “One in the assisted living area, one for the skilled nursing floor, and one in Good Shepherd, our memory care unit.”

I did a double-take – the memory care unit? That’s the specialized wing of the nursing home serving those with advancing dementia, and I was trying to envision how a Bible study would work out there. As my students experienced in their time on that unit, the residents are pretty confused, and nursing care generally amounts to maintaining a genial latitude while ensuring safety. Smiles and affirmative nods are the order of the day, particularly when hearing the same story over and over again.

But Bible study? On the dementia unit? I’ve been hanging around St. Paul’s for years, and I guess the prospect never occurred to me.

While it’s true that progressive dementia doesn’t necessarily preclude the pleasures of reading, the later stages involve memory lapses and mental fuzziness that make the activity more frustrating than it’s worth. And so, when it came to Bible studies on the Good Shepherd unit, I was glad Carole could clue us in. “I taught theology at a collegiate level for years,” she explained, “so I admit it was a challenge to consider how I’d do a Bible study with someone suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s.” Almost by definition, we envision Bible study as an intellectual endeavor, so it’s excusable that we might overlook those with jumbled cognition as potential participants.  

Nonetheless, Carole was inspired to ask around – to find out how others provided spiritual care to those suffering from dementia – and she adapted not only her approach, but also her expectations. The result? “Those Bible studies on the memory care unit are now the favorite part of my week,” she declared.

Here’s how Carole boiled down her adaptations – two key points:

1.Treat them with respect which means, in this case, do not treat adult residents as children. When Carole goes to the memory care unit for Bible study, she begins with prayer and then reads the Scriptures aloud – just as she would for any residents who’d have difficulty reading for themselves. Plus, at Good Shepherd, Carole includes a bit more paraphrasing when she reads, but that’s no different than what the Wycliffe translators were doing in the Philippines – or what my translator did for me when I gave my testimony.

2.Love them thoroughly. After reading the Scriptures in an accessible manner, Carole might offer a reflection, but often she just resorts to music and familiar hymns to reinforce the biblical message. “Music is always therapeutic,” Carole comments. “Like now, in Advent, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ – they’ll all remember that one and join in.” The simple reading of Scripture and some singing might not seem like a Bible study to the rest of us, but it’s always a precious gift to the residents – and one associated with the giver. “They’ll tell you every time it was the best service, the best Bible study ever,” Carole commented. “They’re always very appreciative. In the end, it’s the love you bring, and everybody gets that.”

Under other circumstances, all that would sound trite, but in Carole’s telling, it sounded revolutionary, radical – don’t you think? Respect. Love. Plus simply being there – in the far-off world of the Alzheimer’s unit. Those elements put Carole on the missionary front lines right along those Wycliffe Bible Translators in the most distant corners of the planet. The realm of dementia is utterly foreign to those of us who’ve been spared that debilitating condition, and so passing through the doors of that memory care unit at St. Paul’s is just as drastic as hopping a freighter for the Far East mission fields.

Moreover, Carole’s humble description of her apostolate was a fabulous object lesson for my nursing students as well, for effective nursing entails translating the nurse’s impetus to care and serve into actions suited to the recipient’s actual needs and situation.

Come to think of it, it’s a great description of the whole of Christian discipleship: We receive Christ and then go to others, translating the Christ we’ve received into words and actions such that others may also receive him. “A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, and then, as if to underscore the two-way dimension of missionary contact, he added this: “We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

To wit: Christ himself is the translated Word – and the translated Word is always people. Look around – there he is! We needn’t travel far.