Next of Kin

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“I hope you don’t mind, but I put you down as my next of kin. I don’t have anyone else,” my neighbor informed me Friday night as I picked him up from the hospital.

What might have been just a neighborly act suddenly became something much more. Here was a lonely, isolated man asking me to be his family, to be his next of kin. He had no one else. All his family were gone or lost. He had no children. For over a decade he has lived alone with his little dog. Up until a year ago last August he was an able-bodied, financially independent man. Then with a slip and a fall his entire life changed.

Knocking his head on the kitchen counter, my neighbor laid on his floor for three days. No one knew of his accident until someone stopped by for an unknown reason. His dog sat by his head waiting. He spent the next six weeks in the hospital. He suffered permanent neurological damage to his head, leg and hand.

In early spring I had been told about this neighbor as someone who might need some help with yard work. I tried multiple times to meet him but it never worked out.  I was able to tell some of the men in our missional community about him and they were able to connect. On Wednesdays, and other times over the summer, a couple of them would take him a hot meal and talk with him. Sometimes they would take him shopping or help with yard work. Last Wednesday it was time for he and I to finally meet.

Our initial meeting was brief, so it was with surprise inside but a calm face outside that I accepted the kinship of my neighbor that Friday night. However, it wasn’t until I was helping him settle into his place that night that I realized the full scope of what this man needed.

“I have a DNR [Do Not Resuscitate order] on file at the hospital. You can make whatever decisions you think are necessary,” he informed me.

This man chose me, a near complete stranger, to be his end of life proxy. He had no one, absolutely no one he trusted other than me. He might have chosen one of the men with whom he’d built up a relationship over the last few months. Instead, he chose me.

I’m not afraid of the responsibility, but I am intrigued by his decision. What seems to be the only reason he would choose me over the others is that I live in the neighborhood. I’m not coming from outside to help him. I know the men in our group treat him with utter respect and dignity, giving him little reason to adopt a charity-receiver posture. They are friends. Yet they don’t live here. They are from outside. I’m here. This is my home, just like it is his.

Friday night I laid in bed thinking about my neighbor, his isolation and loneliness. I also thought about our missional community which is very much family. We talk like family, adopt each other like family, and look out for each other like family. We aren’t perfect at it, but we have each other’s backs. Where most of us were once isolated, segregated or alone, we now have each other to pour into and lend a hand. I think of the single parents among us and their kids. They are my sisters and brother, my sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. I think of the young men and women who are like little brothers and sisters. I think of the YBS teens who are like my children. We are family. An odd, untraditional, diverse, fun family made so by God.

So many of my neighbors are just like this man. They either do not have family or are so estranged from them that family is a joke. Yet we all need family. We all need to belong. As I got to know my neighbor more on Saturday, I recognize the longing for belonging within him. I also recognize how hard that would be given his pattern of isolation and independence.

My heart breaks for my neighbor. Tears come to my eyes as I recall the longing in his voice for family. Always grateful for whatever help is given, he doesn’t want to be a burden not realizing that this is exactly why I and my family are here. For he doesn’t realize that by making me next of kin, he has also inherited my amazing family. To us he is not a burden but a privilege. Family is not a burden but a lovely responsibility. We are blessed to come alongside him and share life with him. This is why we are here. It is why I am here.

I am next of kin to my neighbor because I am all he has. My question for you, do you dare to be next of kin for your neighbor? Will you be there when the time comes?

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Lonely

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Trusting in the UnknownAfter months of trying to figure out just what was wrong, in a split second it all came together. The various components, all of which were laid out on the table like a jigsaw puzzle, finally fit into one cohesive picture. Thanks to a dear friend over a quick cuppa, I understood why this has been arguably one of the worst winters of my life. That’s saying something given the tsunami-like time I had eight years ago.

I’ve known what the core issue is: I have been insanely lonely. Despite the mission developing, kids being taught each week and teens digging into the Bible, I have been so very alone. What I could not figure out was what made this time so much more lonely than any time before. Granted there have been a lot of changes in the last six months, not to mention the last two years. I moved into this new place. I struggled (and failed) to meet my financial obligations. I was figuring out how to build relationships in this new neighborhood. Winter was brutal in its isolation from neighbors and family. Long time friends and family were distant and silent. New friends were just that, new. When consistent pay came, it was a blessing but it only took up a few hours each week. Most of this I had to do alone, yet none of it could explain my heightened loneliness.

My friend pointed out that up until two years ago, I went to an office, led a staff and interacted with many people. Each day I saw people, related and connected with them. I had a defined place and position. Even if I came home to an empty house, I had had just enough interaction to carry me through. Most often after my job I was busy doing the work I really loved with the kids in Waukegan and with mission. Now in this work, little is defined and most of the people I interact with are new and unknown. My empty home is my empty office. The rhythm of relationships is not yet established. The camaraderie of working alongside people of shared passion is missing because I’ve been a team of one. (Eric and Hannah, my coaches with Forge, can only do so much). Working alone in a mission field that few understand, acknowledge or consider “real work” has taken a toll.

There was a reason Jesus sent out the disciples two-by-two. I’ve known from the beginning that my scenario was not optimal, but I also know that God put me here. Even when I questioned virtually everything, this was one thing that I knew for certain. God moved me here. This is where He wants me. Do I fantasize about living on a beach or back out west somewhere? Of course. (Despite the Chicago area being pretty great, anyone living in Illinois dreams about living somewhere else). But under it all, I know this is where God put me at this time. It’s a calm assurance.

So what do I do? How I can change this situation?

I’m not really sure that I can change my situation. It’s not as if mission partners are a dime a dozen or grow on trees. What I can do is keep plugging along. Keep building relationships in my neighborhood. Keep fostering new friends. Do what I can to meet up with old friends. I keep going. Above all, I keep holding to the truth that God is with me. I’m God’s girl. He’s my dad, and He’s always there. Real and present. Firm and sure. True and faithful…even when I am not. It’s hard to be all that lonely when He is never apart from me.

Outdoor Space: A Prayer Request

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This February has taught me one thing (among a few others) about this mission: I need to find a space in the flow of life in my neighborhood. It has been clear from the beginning of my time here in the mobile home park, my neighbors live very insulated and isolated lives. Many people in the larger Wauconda community hardly know Woodland Village is here, so my neighbors are relegated to their own corner of town. Yet they themselves stay very much apart, even from each other. I guess that isn’t terribly different from most neighborhoods these days, but being a self-contained neighborhood with little interaction with each other and the greater world is unhealthy and spiritually bankrupt. I need to break into that isolation and insulation in a non-threatening, life-giving way.

My idea is simple. I want to create an urban garden outside my front door. My barn apartment is centrally located. Everyone drives by it or stops to get their mail there daily. But it is ugly. White pealing paint mars the exterior and concrete spreads from it in all directions. I do feel very much like I’m in an urban area, despite being in a barn. I want to put flowers and possibly vegetables in pots along the sidewalk and on the area right behind my car which is marked off by bent poles protecting an old well.  Sounds like a simple idea, but I need favor from the manager and the owners. I definitely need favor because I also want to find a plot of land in the neighborhood for a community garden.

The ethos of the management and (possibly) the owners is to let things go until they absolutely need to be repaired. This ethos is shared by many of my neighbors. It creates a vicious cycle of living from crisis to crisis. For my neighbors it is often due to a lack of funds to handle normal maintenance. While I won’t be asking anything of the management or owners that would seem to impinge on this ethos (all the work and materials would be supplied by me and my cohorts), I want to have freedom to make this garden a thing of beauty for the entire community. I want to put a couple of chairs out there for my enjoyment and for people to stop by and sit. My concern stems from this ethos as well as the push back I’ve had in a rigidity to some old ways of doing things and rules.

So please pray that I have favor for both my urban garden as well as the community garden. Pray that the manager does not say no before asking the owners, but that she sees the benefit to the property. Pray that the owners (a group of lawyers) sees the benefit in community development. Pray that this will help build relationships between myself, my neighbors, the community and the owners. Pray that donations for materials comes through. Pray for the plan and layout of the space.

I hope to create an oasis in the midst of this place open for all to stop and take a breath.

Here are some more before (current) pictures. The need is clear.