On to Crosstown
On Friday, I packed up my office at 1210 Peabody and turned the light out for the last time. I doubt I packed the way the movers told me to. I’ve worked from that space for almost thirty years, and now with Church Health’s long-anticipated move to Crosstown Concourse finally happening, it’s time to move on. Friday, I was just trying to make sure the boxes were all labeled right for the movers. But today, I have some nostalgia.
When Church Health first started, I deflected praise for the work we were doing. “Until we have done it for thirty years, all we have is a good start,” I’d often say. Well, thirty years is up, and still I feel like we only have a good start. But I know we have helped tens of thousands of people.
On the last day in my office, a young woman from the University of Memphis interviewed me for a school project. I asked her why she picked me. She told me that Church Health has always been the only place her family has ever gone to the doctor. I felt a tear in my eye.
“How have we helped you?,” I asked.
“You helped my father get a new hip. It allowed him to keep working.”
I felt proud. “How is he doing now?”
She replied, “He had a heart attack and died.”
I was crushed and she could see it. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “He didn’t take care of himself. He just worked for us.”
“So now your mother is the only one working in the family?”
“No, I work too.”
It’s clear that there is more we can do for this family. I pledged to her that we will be there for her. We both held back tears.
Exchanges like these are the ones I will always remember about my office. Over the years, I’ve had what seems like thousands of similar encounters in that space, meeting with the key people who make all we do happen. People who have felt the call to care for the health of the poor. Raising money, telling the story. Dealing with pain. Celebrating successes.
Over the years, patients have given me things that I would set on a bookshelf. I can’t remember the full story behind each and every keepsake, but at least I can recall the basic details. This one from Poland, that one from the Philippines, this one carved, that one made of hand-twisted wire, and on and on. I’ve decided not to take them to my new office at Crosstown. I will have a new start and new stories.
But I am taking a few paintings and pictures. A photo of my wife Mary and my two Bernese dogs Sloane and Sullivan will go. So will my father, my spiritual father William Sloane Coffin and Michael McLain, one of the three saints I have met in my life.
My hand-written letter from Jimmy Carter wherein he told me he would NOT be coming to Church Health’s fifth anniversary celebration in 1992 will come to Crosstown, as will the letter I received from the Prince of Wales where he reported that he received my book Health Care You Can Live With and that he is sure it is good, were he to ever read it.
The plaques that have been given to me over the years will go somewhere else. You cannot live in the past.
I am leaving most of the furniture. I want my new office to be simple.
I am of course taking the key books in my life. Books are your friends and it is good to keep them close. Buechner, Nouwen, Coffin, Yancy, Tolstoy, Taylor, Luther, Calvin, Wesley: they will all be where I can see them.
So what has all the time I have spent in that office meant? Honestly, I’m not sure I really know.
I have often sat and looked out the window at St. John’ s Methodist Church and wondered about the meaning of the work I was doing, how to connect the church to the issues of healing for the poor. There have been many challenges. I never dreamed that healthcare in the name of the church would connect me so much to politics. I get it now. In my office have sat three senators, four mayors, three Tennessee governors, several Congressmen and many state and local officials. I’ve tried to engage them on how they can help us with what we do. I am not sure how successful that has been.
Preachers of all forms have been there, from large congregations to small. Jewish, Muslim, and Hindi leaders have visited me too. When Adrian Rogers, the iconic pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, joined me in my office, I made the case for health ministry. It was a tough sell for him, but before he left, we were working together on how to improve the congregational meals at the church.
There have been failures, I am sure, but I don’t seem to remember them.
Mostly, I am grateful for all the Church Health staff who have sat there with me. I remember Jean Campbell who would trip up the stairs. Ann Langston who took Jean’s place and is now leading us to Crosstown.
My wife Mary, when she worked for us, would pretend she was out of breath from climbing the stairs when she first sat down but was actually nervous from talking to me. Apparently lots of people have had that experience and I want to completely leave that behind me.
I have had several assistants over the years who kept me going. I am now looking for what I hope will be my last assistant. They will not know the 1210 office.
On Friday, I stood for a long minute looking at the boxes, the desk and out the window. Thirty years at one place is a long time. The Greeks taught us we experience time in two ways, chronos and kairos. Chronos is when the clock ticks second by second. Kairos is when we can return to our childhood in the blink of an eye.
My memories of this office will be with me for the rest of my life. It is my life. I am grateful. I am blessed. And it is time for the next part of my way toward God to begin.