I’ve reflected many times on a passage found in Psalm 68:6 –God sets the lonely in families –
which then leads me to think about my friend Dean. .
Our church in Olympia, Washington engaged yearly in a World Vision project called Faith in Action. Instead of “going to church” on a specific Sunday morning, we encouraged the congregation – young and old – to “be the church” by participating in numerous scheduled service projects. After the work was completed, everyone returned to the church to share lunch and stories, and to sing praises.
In 2011 I volunteered to paint kitchen cabinets, both facings and doors, in a home where three men lived. I was joined by Jim and Jenny Liebelt – dear friends and members of the congregation – and Randi Miller, Volunteer Coordinator for Kokua Services, which has provided supportive living services for adults with disabilities in Thurston County since 1991. Kokua was grateful that our church would take on this sorely needed project.
If you’ve ever painted cabinets, you know that a couple hours on a Sunday morning would not be sufficient. We had gotten started on Saturday, removing, prepping, and painting the first coat, and applied the second coat on Sunday.
Monday was my day off, so I returned alone for a couple hours to re-hang the cabinet doors. It was a simple exercise– walk to the family room, pick up one of the doors, carry it to the kitchen, and attach. And then repeat.
But on one occasion, I didn’t have to take the first step. One of the residents had scooted his wheelchair into the kitchen. One of the cabinet doors was in his lap, and a huge grin was on his face.
I had been drawn to Dean all weekend. His playful spirit and desire to help – an unusual combination for a man in his early 60’s – had been evident all weekend, as he had hung close to our work crew. To have the door placed on his lap meant one of the caregiving staff had assisted him; cerebral palsy has severely limited the use of his hands, arms, and legs.
We completed the painting project, but thoughts about Dean lingered in my mind for days. I called Randi to ask about his personal life. Born Raymond Dean Hartford, his brother lived about forty-five minutes away but never visited, even on holidays or birthdays. He had been receiving 24/7 residential assistance for decades.
Non-verbal, the Kokua staff has faithfully explored avenues to help Dean to express himself. Picture boards on the floor worked for a while; computer-assisted devices were never a match for Dean’s skills. To this day, he communicates only through facial expressions and audible sounds.
Sensing my curiosity, Randi told me about a volunteer initiative called “visiting buddies”, one that required a long-term commitment to creatively engage Dean on a weekly basis. Was I interested? I told her that I needed time to properly respond. Every week – what would we do together? Long-term -- could I keep my word? Would I?
Visiting buddy? I prefer to think of it differently. Every Friday afternoon for the next seven years I went over to my friend Dean’s home, and we hung out. If it was a nice day, I’d attach the foot supports to his wheelchair and we’d head to a nearby park or school. Pretty basic stuff – two men slowly ploughing through books, watching TV, talking with the other residents and staff, reading through the Gospels and the Psalms, and praying.
On occasion the staff would drive him downtown for a planned outing together, as Dean requires wheelchair-accessible transportation. Additionally, I attended holiday gatherings and picnics for the Kokua community.
Yes, God sets the lonely in families, and so Dean became part of the Covenant Church family among whom I served as the Lead Pastor. He worshipped with us regularly, transported and accompanied by one of the Kokua staff who happened to be scheduled that day. With the help of a company that empowers people with disabilities, Dean also worked at our church two afternoons a month for more than five years.
The church also began a tradition that continued until the pandemic: hosting a Thanksgiving
meal with all the trimmings. It was attended by Kokua’s clientele, family members, and staff – both administrative and caregiving – as well as by dozens from the congregation. But the purpose was explicitly stated: the meal was with Kokua, not for Kokua. Games, a roving microphone, karaoke – it was a delight, and I miss those gatherings.
For the last few years, I have served as Dean’s Power of Attorney for Health Care. I continue in that role, even though in 2018 Linda and I moved away from Olympia. Our first move was about one hundred miles south to Vancouver, near Portland. I drove up to see Dean every six to eight weeks so we could connect.
In 2020 we moved further south to Sacramento. Weekend drives gave way to video chats, and this summer I started a new tradition of flying up for a weekend visit once or twice a year.
Some years back, I began to view our relationship differently. I wasn’t just hanging out with Dean; he was changing me, and our visits were keeping me centered. Being together on Friday afternoons was therapeutic – welcomed into his little community of three men and two staff, greeted by his infectious smile, and simply being present with a loyal and caring friend.
But it’s more than that. While Linda and I made plans to move south, I contemplated saying farewell to Dean. That’s when I began to think about redefining my relationship with him. He wasn’t just my friend; he had become my brother. I hesitate to use that term, for I could have been more diligent and creative in the development of our relationship. But I couldn’t come up with a valid reason why the relationship had to become a memory – for him or for me. God sets the lonely in families, and families are for life.
One of the themes for the Blue Spigot is a question about the character and the work of God: How does God do his work in our world, specifically “setting the lonely in families”? He does it through his people, those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. He blesses us, and we in turn bless others.
Cerebral Palsy is a horrible disease, one that has imprisoned Dean’s spirit inside his body for seventy-one years. For ten of those years, I have continued to see Dean because I hear the words of Jesus in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats:
‘When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ *
And it all started with a phone call to Kokua Services. Kokua – it’s a Hawaiian term, as deeply rooted on the islands as the more familiar greeting aloha, or the word for thanks, mahalo.
“Kōkua means to assist those in need. It is a strong and beloved value in Hawaiian culture, which places high regard for social interdependence. Pitching in and helping others for their benefit and not for one’s own personal gain is the premise. Kōkua also denotes a spirit of generosity and compassion, for giving help strengthens relationships. If one receives kokua, they are more likely to give kokua.” **
Who might be grateful for a visit from you?
From whom might you hear the words … Mahalo for your kokua?
Benediction of Blessing
May you have a deepening sense of God’s heart, who sets the lonely in families.
May your heart be open to the idea of regularly blessing someone in the same way God has blessed you.
May you embrace the spirit of Kokua, generously and compassionately helping one person for his or her benefit.
* Matthew 25:31-46
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM
Today’s post is my first selection from what I call the “J” files – hidden Jewels in the Bible. Psalm 68:6 is a gem!