“Good morning, Muriel. We missed you last week!”
“How are you today? Nice Brewers’ hat!”
The personal greetings are as warm and soothing as the radiant sunshine outside on this June Sunday morning. As about 35 residents of the Linden Grove Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New Berlin make their way into the community gathering room, Deacon Michael Chmielewski is busy making sure everyone feels welcome. Kind words. A sincere smile. A reassuring grasp of the hand. It’s time for the weekly 9:30 a.m. communion service.
“These people can’t get to church and the bottom line is that deacons are really called to bring the Word, to bring the bread, to bring the presence of Jesus to the people who don’t get to church,” said Dcn. Chmielewski. “There may be 20-30 similar communion services such as this going on right now throughout the archdiocese with deacons going to nursing homes, hospices, group homes and things like that to bring the Eucharist and the Word to people who can’t get to church.”
The service is very much like a Mass with the exception of the Consecration which deacons may not perform. Following opening prayer and a hymn, Dcn. Chmielewski offers more celebratory prayers and praises, more musical worship and a time of reflection.
He shares the story of how he and his wife were recently preparing for a short vacation to Door County much to the dismay of their grandson who incredulously complained, “What? You’re going without me?” When a few chuckles subsided, Dcn. Chmielewski then used the tale to remind everyone of the day Christ ascended into heaven.
His apostles, who had done everything with him for the past three years suddenly found themselves standing, looking into the sky and wondering aloud, “What? You’re going without us?”
“People are hungering for God’s contact and His grace, whether that’s grace of strength, hope, courage or gratitude,” added Dcn. Chmielewski.
As a man navigates the path of becoming a deacon, he must ready his heart for those times when doubts will surely set in.
“Certainly along the way and to this day there are times when I ask myself, ‘How? How in the world can I possibly be a servant for God’s Church and the Church’s people?’ said Deacon Jim Banach. “It’s very humbling and there’s nothing more humbling than to have someone who doesn’t know you walk up to you and decide to share their most human of moments.”
Every year, the Roman Catholic deacons of Milwaukee meet with local Episcopal deacons for a morning of prayer and dialogue to look at issues and discuss how both of these groups can work together. Last September, one result of that dialogue was formation of an innovative, new Diaconate ministry called “Collars on the Corner.”
“Kevin Stewart, one of the Episcopal deacons, expressed how he had been doing some street ministry and was feeling kind of uncomfortable and alone,” said Dcn. Banach. “I went up to him and said, ‘Kevin, you really shouldn’t do that alone. If you don’t mind, I’ll come with you.’”
Dcns. Stewart and Banach later brainstormed about ways that the Church could have a presence on city streets, especially in light of the Sherman Park rioting following a shooting death at the hands of a Milwaukee police officer. They decided to “put on our collars, stand on a street corner and face whatever comes at us,” Dcn. Banach explained. “We have found it to be extraordinarily rewarding, very touching and it’s amazing how much people are willing when they see that clerical collar they walk right up to you and start telling their story.
“They want you to listen and to pray with them. They don’t expect us to solve their problem or give them money. Sometimes you give them a bottle of water and let them tell us what they think. We take a very ecumenical and inter-religious approach. We don’t ask what tradition they come from. We don’t care. It’s amazing when a Lutheran walks up and says, ‘You can’t pray with me, can you?’ Of course I can!”
Indeed, “Collars on the Corner” has caught on in a big way, and it’s still growing.
“We’ve done it on 51st and Center Street in front of St. Catherine’s,” said Dcn. Banach. “That’s been our most common location but we’ve also done it outside the Cathedral on the corner of Jackson and Wells and in Bay View on the corner of Kinnickinnic Ave. and Lincoln Ave. at a bus shelter. In addition, have prayer boxes in about a dozen laundromats across the city and in Father Gene’s House of Peace. We have people who collect the prayers and we spread them amongst all of the people involved in the program. ‘Collars’ has spread to eight states and Kenya.”
The relationships that deacons form and nurture are often as complex as they are rewarding because of the human emotions they unleash.
“It is the presence of the church minister,” said Dcn. Chmielewski. “It’s the presence of Jesus Himself. People, particularly those that we come to visit in nursing homes, shelters and prisons are very vulnerable. They are very much looking for that tangible contact with God and church. There are usually many challenges and difficulties going on in their lives. This is a sign of comfort, peace and hope for them.
“They are hungering for God’s touch. The feedback that you get when you spend some time with these folks and doing simple acts such as bringing communion, breaking open the Word, touching them on the shoulder and asking them how they are — that’s all the satisfaction I need. That’s the calling. That’s where it’s at.”