Rev. Sayer speaks about Eloise Thwing

Published 10:05 am Friday, February 18, 2011

Editor’s note: The following is the full text of the speech given by Rev. Tony Sayer at the tea held Sunday, Feb. 13 honoring Eloise Thwing, who recently retired from Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry.

Someone wiser than I once said that there must be as many ways to become a saint as there are saints.  But here is one way to become a saint.

Start in, of all places, Miami, Florida.  Begin right away, by growing up in a loving home, raised by parents – Gordon and Frances Thompson – who are themselves thoughtful, decent, and hardworking people.  Grow up in the Methodist Church, hearing the stories of Jesus, singing the hymns, praying the prayers, and taking into your heart the gospel message of love, forgiveness, and peace.  Grow up as well in a time of financial uncertainty, social unrest, and impending war.  Though you aren’t at all conscious of it, all of these experiences will play a part in your becoming a saint.

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In all these years work hard, study hard, and learn as much as you can.  Above all learn, as the prophet Micah says, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  Accept that you can’t understand everything that is going on in the world, but that perhaps you can make a difference for the good.  Get it into your head and heart that a big part of life, and perhaps the key to life, is being of service to others.

Enter the University of Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital School of Nursing.  Become a nurse and spend several years daily helping people at the point where their bodies and spirits are most vulnerable.  Learn how to care, not as a sentimental feeling but as an intentional and disciplined practice.

Meet and fall in love with a mechanical engineer, a bright, charming, capable man who has a rare and persistently unpronounceable last name (as in fact has happened here tonight).  Be grateful that he loves you for all sorts of reasons, and not least because of your compassionate heart.  Marry him and move with him as his career takes him to Long Island.  Bear a son who, like his mother, grows up dedicated to helping others – who spends his life as an administrator helping a Vermont hospital do the best job it can to offer effective care to its community.

Upon your husband’s retirement, take a friend’s advice and move together to Columbus, North Carolina.  Fall in love with the climate, the natural beauty, the pace of life, and the people.  Together join the little Columbus United Methodist Church.  Become involved in United Methodist Women, in Church Women United, and in the larger community.

Begin to see, along with all the good things about Polk County, another side to life here.  See that many families are struggling to get by and living in inadequate and unsafe housing.  See that each night many of our community’s children go to bed hungry.  See ignorance and underemployment.  See that terrible poverty coexists alongside great wealth.

Compassion consists first in seeing.  This act of seeing the poverty around you, of seeing what so many other people genuinely do not see, or pretend not to see, or would prefer not to see, is a part of what it means to become a saint.

So does resolving to do something about it, and Church Women United gives you the opportunity.

In the midst of this, your husband falls ill.  After 47 years of marriage, he dies.  Shortly before his death he asks whether you will stay or leave after he’s gone.  Tell him you will move up to Vermont to be close to your son.  “Don’t go,” your husband says.  “Eloise, your heart is here, in this place, in what you’re doing.  Stay and see it through.”  These words are among his last gifts to you.  They are his last great gift to Polk County.

And so you stay, and shortly the Outreach Ministry comes into being.  You accept your pastor’s offer of a small classroom – a space that from day one is too small for the work of the ministry – but you and your volunteers turn it into a labyrinth of desks and filing cabinets, and the work begins.  You bring the community’s compassion together by accepting help wherever you can find it, mobilizing the gifts and talents of countless other people, and making people feel good about doing good.

Shortly before the next Christmas, that pastor of yours walks into his church to discover that every pew in the sanctuary is piled high with Christmas presents.  “They’ll all be gone by Christmas Eve,” you promise – and they are.

Soon the Outreach Ministry has its own building – a space that from day one is too small for the work of the ministry – but the work goes on.  More people are helped, and they are better served.  But you are not content simply to offer a little assistance to people in need.  You want to make a more significant difference.  Thus Ashley Meadows comes into being, and so does the Dental Clinic.

This is a part of how you become a saint.  When people tell you that something is impossible, you simply ignore them.  When someone tells you no, you just don’t accept it.  You act as though they have told you yes, until they finally give up and do say yes.  Thus we learn that being a saint involves not only deep compassion but also – let it be said – monumental stubbornness.

But here is what is even more basic to becoming a saint: doing something that is not in itself extraordinary, something that is actually fairly simple, but doing it over and over again, day after day, for twenty years… treating people in need with kindness and with dignity… never giving up on them… and letting them know, even in the midst of distress and hardship, that there is always hope.

All of us are capable of a little kindness.  Kindness is, in a sense, ordinary.  It is the doing it so faithfully, so consistently, day after day, year after year, that makes it extraordinary.

Eloise, I want to say something directly to you.  I know that your great hope has been that you might never have to give up this work that has meant so much to you – that you might continue working until you simply dropped dead in the midst of it.  This too is a part of what it means to become a saint: to find your greatest fulfillment and happiness in serving others.  Eloise, don’t worry about what lies ahead.  That compassion of yours is still pouring out of your heart like a river of living water.  Like a river finding its way to the sea, your compassion will find new outlets and opportunities.

And to all of you, and especially to the leadership of the Outreach Ministry, I want to suggest that the example Eloise has given us offers us some necessary wisdom.  Her example encourages us to approach the work of compassion in a particular way, holding together two things that are often in tension with each other.

One is to focus on the daily work, the daily encounter with those in need, doing it the best we can, doing it in the right spirit, treating each person and each family with courtesy, fairness, and respect.

The other is to step back and try to get a look at the larger picture, challenging ourselves to admit our limitations and to go beyond them.  What are we missing?  What is the real need, and how can we meet it?  While never neglecting to offer simple charity, how can we rise to do justice for and with our neighbors in need?

I know you join with me in thanking God for Eloise.

I thank God that Eloise came to Polk County and found herself at home here.  But when you look at the story of Eloise’s life, there is really nothing overly dramatic or amazing about the way it unfolded.

I invite you at some point to spend some time reflecting on the unfolding of your own life – reflecting not so much on the turning-points, the births, the deaths, and so forth, but instead on the slow, gradual, quiet ways God has shaped and strengthened your convictions and has equipped you to offer your gifts and talents to the community.

Offering our own gifts in service to others is really our best way to honor Eloise.

Someone once said that there must be as many ways to become a saint as there are saints.  May each of us, like Eloise, find our own way of becoming a saint.