The Ministry of Watching Football

“What do I love to do?” the young man asked. He opened his palms upward and shrugged his shoulders. With a laugh he said, “I love to watch football.” Others in the room laughed with him.

watching footballThe man had responded to a question I’d asked a couple of months ago while I was in Tuscaloosa. I’d been invited to talk about the Support Team Network at a large, active church. One of the principles we preach here at the STN is that volunteers who participate on Support Teams should always do what they love to do. I’d asked people to tell the group what they loved to do. One person had said she loved to cook. Another said that he loved to do yard work. It was easy for me to use those folks as examples of activities that could make a Support Team really useful to someone convalescing at home. For a moment, I was stumped.

But then a woman across the room spoke up. She pointed at the young man and said, “Well . . . I could use you. I have a friend convalescing at home who likes to watch football, too, and his care giver – his wife – can’t stand to watch football. If you’d go and sit with him and watch the games with him, she could get a break! It’d give her a chance to get out of the house.”

“Oh,” said the young man. All over the room, people were nodding their heads. After the hour had passed and I prepared to depart, the young man thanked me for coming and said, “I never thought that loving to watch football could actually be a service to someone.”

It drove home an important point. Just about anyone can employ what they love to do to bring care to a family facing a health care challenge. Indeed, who would have thought that watching football could be of service? I’m thankful for the woman in the room who evidently had the skill of thinking outside the box. She challenged me to expand my thinking.

Really – whatever you like to do, has the potential to bless and aid healing for someone in need.  All you have to do is do a little thinking outside the box!

Lucy’s Beats Starbucks

That's Lucy on the left, with Claire (m) and Mirela (rt.).

That’s Lucy on the left, with Claire (m) and Mirela (rt.).

Let me be clear: I LIKE Starbucks. In the West Pavilion here at UAB Medicine, we have a Starbucks coffee kiosk and I go there frequently and get their “Veranda Blend.” A fantastic woman named Annie works there and when she sees me coming, she fills a cup for me even before I get to the counter. There are other reasons I like Annie, not the least of which is that she seems to like my imitations of Sean Connery, Bob Marley, and Mr. Haney (from that old 60’s sit-com “Green Acres”), which I use alternatively in ordering and paying. I’m simply tedious to many servers in a host of eateries around our fair nation, but Annie seems to like me and makes me feel like I’m clever. She may roll her eyes after I leave, but I’ve never caught it. All of that to say that I enjoy going to Starbucks. I like Starbucks.

On the other hand . . . I love Lucy’s!

Back in 1993, a woman named Lucy Bonds started selling coffee and muffins from a street side kiosk on the campus of UAB Medical Center. People really liked Lucy, liked the good fare she served, and liked her personality. She did so well, in fact that she decided to take her wares from temporary location to permanent. In 1995, she opened a shop near the corner of University and 20th Street South where she sells coffee, pastries, breakfasts, and lunches.

The atmosphere in her permanent place only amplified what she had at the street-side kiosk. At her new place, you can get roast beef, Mediterranean, BLT, turkey, club, even goat cheese pan inis.  You can also get chocolate cake, lemon cake, other cakes, all cut in slices large enough to cover a city block in Homewood. You can also get biscotti, bagels, and croissants, the latter with chicken salad made Lucy’s way. You can wash all of this down with some iced mango tea, or a soda, or, of course . . . their coffee!! Sure there’s the standard cappuccino and latte, but in addition to their mocha, there’s also a rocha mocha, a chai steamer, and a Torani Moo (non-coffee drink).   And get this! You can use the terms “small,” “medium,” and “large,” and they mean just that!

Lucy's store front on University Blvd. right in the middle of the UAB medical center campus.

Lucy’s store front on University Blvd. right in the middle of the UAB medical center campus.

Business blossomed. Graduate students from UAB, physicians from UAB Medicine, researchers from both, students, and chaplains (like me) all found the ambience of Lucy’s extremely conducive to reading, thinking, meeting, conversation, and just plain getting a noon-time meal. One social work professor told me that he wrote his dissertation at Lucy’s.

Then along came Starbucks. They opened a store right next door to Lucy’s in a vacant space directly on the corner of University and 20th. Everyone got a sense of anxiety for Lucy. It was as if Goliath had stalked into the valley and shaken his massive sword at little David in his funky, rustic tunic. Certainly, this giant of a corporation, famous for carefully researched demographics, traffic flow, and sheer brand recognition, would crush an operation like Lucy’s.

Guess what? The people who went to Lucy’s kept going to Lucy’s.   And that was a lot of people. None of them preferred Goliath, uh, Starbucks. It seems that the vast majority of them preferred Lucy. Why? Beyond the quality of the food, the friendliness of the people, the unduplicated uniqueness of the shop’s atmosphere, and the personality of Lucy, herself, it seems it boils down to one thing: Lucy’s customers love her.

Starbucks left that corner. Lucy’s is still there.

There are some things that don’t show up on carefully researched marketing spreadsheets or in carefully analyzed metrics. Starbucks may have accurately assessed the income level and frequency with which coffee-drinking, sandwich-needing professionals blast by the corner of University and 20th in Birmingham, Alabama. They did not have a way of determining how much those same people loved the proprietor of the competition.

I think about that when I’m working with a Support Team. The health issues that many people face look like giant problems, and those of us with no medical expertise look at those concerns and feel like little Davids facing very intimidating Goliaths. And yet, metrics haven’t been invented that can measure the way the love of little folks like me and you can drive off giant health care challenges – when we gather around the people we love, doing what we love. When we do that, the chances are very good that in the not too distant future, we’ll still be here and the giant will be gone.

Looking Upstream

Burning Bear Trail near Grant, Colorado.

Burning Bear Trail near Grant, Colorado.

Wendell Berry once said, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”  In my opinion, it’s a great variation on the Golden Rule.  It’s also a nicer sentiment than it’s corollary, “Always drink upstream from the herd.”  The second quote comes from a compendium of so-called Cowboy Wisdom, the first from a series of essays Berry wrote about how we’re all connected, whether we realize it or not.

It says nothing new, this bit about how we’re all connected.  Sages have been saying this ever since human beings invented the means to record what the sages said.  It also says nothing most of us haven’t heard regarding treating others the way we want to be treated.  And it expresses nothing new about how crowds tend to muddy the waters, if not downright pollute them with organic waste (to say it politely).

Repeatedly, we’ve found this to be true.  When some storage tanks in WestVirginia leaked a toxic substance into the Elk River, folks in Charleston downriver had to quit drinking and bathing in water from the tap.  There’s a huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico extending out from the mouth of the Mississippi Delta.  That’s because fertilizer from farms all over the midwest draining into the Mississippi River has nurtured huge blooms of algae that have sucked the oxygen out of the ocean, thus killing most aquatic life.  While the size of the “dead zone” varies with the amount of rainfall runoff, in 2010 it was the size of the state of New Jersey.  Similar dead zones exist in the Chesapeake Bay, in the Baltic Sea, off China, Japan, South America, and in the Mediterranean.

We need to do something about this, wouldn’t you say?  Of course, we cannot do anything about this unless we do something about the way we conduct business ourselves.  That always takes some effort, and it always costs us something.  But restoring our oceans (and rivers, lakes, and ponds) to health is worth the effort.

Human community is like that.  How you and I act gets passed along.  I felt a little sorry for myself this past Christmas morning for having to work and not be in Virginia with my family. When I stepped into the elevator at UAB Hospital, a nurse stood at the key pad wearing a Santa’s Elf hat.  A little bell jingled on the point which hung over her left shoulder.  She looked at me gaily and with twinkling eyes said, “Merry Christmas!  Which floor are going to?”

I blinked a couple of times, felt a shot of delight at this cheery greeting and responded with, “Merry Christmas to YOU!  I’m heading to the sixth floor”

“Six it is,” she announced, punched the button with a flourish and said, “And a Happy New Year if I don’t see you again!”

With so many thousands of employees in this giant hospital system, I probably won’t see her again soon.  But when I got off on the sixth floor, I felt much lighter at heart.  I saw a maintenance worker standing there with a step ladder.  I said, “Merry Christmas!”

He looked a little startled, then immediately smiled and said, “Merry Christmas to YOU!”

Then as I turned the corner for the unit I was visiting, I heard him say to someone else getting off another one of the elevators, “Merry Christmas!”  And I heard another voice say, “Merry Christmas to YOU.”

It had poured downstream, that good will.  It had probably washed over that RN I met from someone before her prior to her getting on the elevator.  Whatever, this sort of thing happens with more significant matters, too.  When you express love and caring, it eases a load, and when even one load eases, the whole world becomes lighter.

We’re connected, even when we don’t realize it.  That’s why we teach people how to do Support Teams.  We want our connections to get better and more intentional.  We realize what Wendell Berry said in another context: “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.” (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays)

You’re upstream from someone.  What are you passing downstream?


Where Would the Big Wheels be without the Ball Bearings?

Back in 1968, one of my sister’s boyfriends invited me to go with him to the National 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.  This was back before NASCAR was cool and televised and large corporations renamed the tracks and the races, which proves I’m a long-standing, North Carolina redneck.  It was also before my sister agreed to marry this particular boyfriend and I knew I was part of his strategy of manipulation designed to win my sister’s affection.  Luckily for me, my sister remained indecisive for the whole racing season and I got to go to the Southern 500 in Darlington that year, too.

Charlie Glotzbach's Dodge Charger circling a speedway in 1968.

Charlie Glotzbach’s Dodge Charger circling a speedway in 1968.

When the boyfriend and I got back from the National 500, I talked in glowing terms about how “Chargin'”Charlie Glotzbach won the contest in a reddish Dodge Charger.  My Dad, a piously devoted Chevrolet man who believed that Jesus drives a 1956 Bel-Air in heaven, made a loud snort.  “He’s no better than the Chevy boys.  He just has a better crew.”  (I checked the race results.  Dodges, Plymouths and Fords dominated the top finishers.  The first Chevrolet finished about 25th, or so.)

“Whaddaya mean, a better crew, dad,” I asked.

“Chrysler Corporation gives Glotzbach and the other Dodge and Plymouth teams factory backing.  Independents can’t compete with that kind of support, so the Chrysler teams keep on winning.  You can be the best driver in the world, but if you don’t have support, you don’t do as well.”  And that’s when he said what’s stuck with me all these years: “Where would the big wheels be without the ball bearings?”

It’s a lot like that with the Support Team Network.  A very talented, caring, and gifted individual who volunteers time to look in on a person with a health care need can eventually feel burned out.  If they have help, though, if there is a team of people who work with that caring person, sharing the caring process with them, in a coordinated way – like a pit crew at a NASCAR race – they can sustain that supportive care much, much longer and enjoy it more.  We see ourselves with the Support Team Network as giving “factory support” to folks who otherwise might grow to feel isolated.

That’s the way we win this “race.”  Together, as teams.  That raucous celebration in victory lane is never a party of one.  And who’d want that anyway?  The Support Team approach is the way health care follow up was meant to be!

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