The call came while I was on shift. It was my manager, with an uncharacteristic uncertainty in her voice. Mary Fleming, a woman supported by our agency, had died, and my manager, in the absence of family, was in charge of planning the funeral. Mary had made her wishes clear in advance, and it was coming together, but there was an unexpected hitch. Mary had asked that her friends share Communion at her service, specifically Communion with apple juice. The only pastoral figure that Mary, or anyone else involved, knew, was unable to attend. So my manager called me, as I was known to be, for lack of a better term, weird like that. Could I do it?

I attempted to demur, citing my extreme lack of qualifications. I am not ordained in any way. I went to a Christian university, but not seminary, and for an English degree. I am a Christian, but don’t lead at a church in any capacity.  It wasn’t my role. It wasn’t my place. But the service was the next day. I was the only name on my manager’s list. It was me, or no one.

This is a familiar circumstance to me, and I suspect to anyone who works in the developmental services. So much of what we do on a daily basis we do without qualifications. We walk through every conceivable season of a person’s life with them because we are the ones who happen to be present when the call comes. We stand in for friends. We go on vacation with them. We mediate with doctors and police officers and social workers on their behalf. We stand up in court with them, visit them in prison when the system fails. We attend their parents’ funerals with them. We talk them through mental health crises when counselling is unavailable and wait with them through suicide watches. We tend them while they are sick, sit with them while they are dying.  Far too often we stand in for roles that should be filled by friends, siblings, even parents. The list goes on and on, begging the question: Why is that my job? And the answer comes, and is always the same: There is no one else to do it.

So I said yes, for the same reason I said yes to all the other things that haven’t been my job. I said yes, so that Communion would be had at Mary’s funeral as she had wished, so that the elements would be consumed in remembrance of him. Because no matter how muddled and illegitimate such a service led by me would be, surely it was better than none at all. I hope and pray that this is so.

Mary had died at the height of the Delta variant, and so her funeral was to be held virtually. It was scheduled during my shift, and so when the time came it found me sitting at the kitchen table of the group home, with a laptop in front of me, and Mary’s friends on either side.

Instead of wine, we had apple juice boxes. Instead of bread, we had oatmeal cookies. Instead of Jesus, we had me. When the time came, I read the story out of the Bible and helped the men on either side of me assemble the straws in their juice boxes and open the packets of cookie. And then we ate and drank in remembrance of him, as Mary had asked us to do.

I do not know what Communion means. It is a mystery to me. I do not know if, or how, Christ is present in those elements. But I do know this: when we are called to stand up and fill a role because there is no one else to fill it, we become more than ourselves. And that which is not us, is him.

About Mike Bonikowsky

Mike Bonikowsky lives and works in Dufferin County, Ontario. He is a direct support professional with the local Association for Community Living and spends the rest of his time raising two young children. He has been living and working with men and women with developmental disabilities since 2007. His book Red Stuff is available at https://www.solumpress.com/publications

2 Thoughts on “Celebrant

  1. Thank you for sharing this. As the chaplain with a home for adults with physical disabilities I can agree that we all jump in where we can help, whether we have official training in that area or not.

    I am glad you offered this communion to your community as part of celebrating Mary’s life and keeping with her wishes. While there are Christian traditions that would not call what you did communion, I believe very much what you did was keeping in Christ’s intent for communion. My favorite view of how Christ is present in Communion is His presence in the gathering of believers. Matt. 18:20 – “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” The Cambridge Dictionary’s first definition of communion: “a close relationship with someone in which feelings and thoughts are exchanged:” I believe on both those counts you should call what you did Communion.

    I imagine the service you led and the Communion was a meaningful way to say goodbye to a good friend as well as comfort to those grieving.

  2. Jenny Druery on May 2, 2022 at 7:02 pm said:

    Wow.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. Mary was lucky to have known you and it was so wonderful that you stepped in when others didn’t.
    Mary was smiling down from above.

    Your spirit and nature show in what you do.
    Thanks for always taking care of my brother when family isn’t there as well. You are an amazing individual.

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