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Spirit Story

Friendship comes with open arms

By Sheryl Spencer

Three years ago, as part of a course I was taking toward my master of divinity degree at Toronto’s Emmanuel College, I worked a volunteer placement at Chalmers Community Services, an outreach centre in downtown Guelph, Ont. Every Friday morning, about 100 guests come through Chalmers for snacks and coffee, and to pick up fresh food, donated clothing and used household items. They come looking for listening ears and an opportunity to socialize.

While I had initially been a bit fearful about working among some of Guelph’s street folks, Friday mornings soon became my favourite time of the week. I encountered a committed and compassionate group of volunteers, where everyone involved was doing hands-on work to make a difference. In trying to explain what was so great about Chalmers, I used to say, “Everyone is either giving or receiving something, so it’s a win-win situation.” Often, the boundaries were blurred between the giving and the receiving.

I spent most of my time at Chalmers as a volunteer in the clothing room. One of my colleagues there was a woman named Dianna. As we sorted and folded clothes, sometimes the camaraderie among the volunteers would have me doubled over in laughter. Dianna, with her quick wit, a bent for mischief and a big open heart, was part of that.

Between the jokes and the laughter, however, something else was going on. All through the year, Dianna complained about recurring pain in her throat. Each week we’d hear about a visit to yet another doctor or specialist, but repeated examinations and tests revealed nothing abnormal.

My placement at Chalmers ended and I started an internship, losing touch with Dianna. A year ago last spring, however, I caught up with her again — this time I found her in critical condition at the Guelph General Hospital. Since I last saw her, she had undergone surgery for throat cancer and treatment for subsequent infections, but she was left with a tracheostomy, a feeding tube and a colostomy. She was unable to speak. Earlier she had been the life of the party, but suddenly she was spending hours by herself at home watching Food Network or true-crime shows on television.

Sometime in June, however, on a Friday morning whim, I asked Dianna if she’d like to visit Chalmers. Dianna nodded her head enthusiastically, and off we went. As we approached the door, one of our former fellow volunteers, not recognizing either of us, asked, “Can I help you?”

“I’m Sheryl,” I replied, attempting to jog her memory, “and I’ve brought Dianna.”

Recognition dawned slowly as our friend took in Dianna — the hole in her throat, the weakness in her gait — and then the volunteer opened her arms wide and embraced Dianna, kissing her on both cheeks. There was such love in her greeting, I nearly cried.

Once inside, Dianna went from old friend to old friend, being welcomed in similar fashion. If you can talk excitedly and make jokes without being able to speak, that’s what Dianna was doing. She was so happy to be back at Chalmers, she was literally doing a happy dance.

None of us knew that within weeks her cancer would be back with a vengeance, and soon we would be attending her funeral.

I’ve done some thinking about the Kingdom of God. Jesus is pretty vague about it. We have images of mustard seeds and leaven in bread, but I think I have a sense now of what it might feel like. It might feel like generosity among a community of disparate people. It might feel like laughter. And it might feel like welcome — the open-armed, unconditional welcome of the stranger and
the outcast.

In memoriam, Dianna Koster, 1948-2012.


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