Father Michael, is it time for communion?" Janine, the woman sitting in the front row of our church, asks for the third time while the pastor (not a priest and not Michael) tries to finish his sermon.
"Not yet, Janine," the pastor says. "Just a few more minutes."
"Oh, not until the music starts?"
"Right, not until the music starts."
All I know about Janine definitively is that she lives in a group home down the street. She has been coming to our church a few months. During most of the service, she's usually either in the coffee room working on a plate of pastries or in the bathroom clogging up a toilet with several complimentary tampons from the shelf under the mirror.
An Unwanted Assignment
"About Janine? What do you guys think?" Brett, who heads our hospitality ministry, looks briefly at each of us in the meeting.
"Well, for starters, we need to hide the tampons in the women's bathroom," someone points out.
"What do we know about her disability or her situation?" another person asks. "I worry when she eats five pastries in one sitting. What if she's diabetic? What if she gets sick?"
My eyes start to twitch. I fold my hands in my lap. I cross and uncross my legs.
My ministry partners have great points. Safety is important. Plumbing is generally considered essential in a public building. I blink, hoping no one notices the tears pool in my eyes. I am not thinking about Janine's health or safety. Another thought chases everything else out of my mind: Ask her care facility to keep her home on Sunday mornings.
"Let's assign a woman from the hospitality team to be Janine's buddy each Sunday. You know, to keep an eye on her, make sure she's okay." Brett pauses for comments or questions. A few heads nod in agreement. His eyes settle on me.
"Gillian, can you take this week?"
"Um … sure."
I sit in the row behind Janine. I watch her rest against the chair back after she asks about communion the third time. She sighs.
Please don't say anything else, I think in frustration. Just let us worship in peace.
The prayer finishes. Music fills the vaulted ceilings as people slowly stand and move toward the communion table. Janine gets up and cuts in on the person at the front of the line. I scurry to catch up and move in close behind her.
At the table, Janine dives in to the plate of bread like she hasn't eaten in days. She is double-fisting communion.
Her right hand grabs three or four chunks of dough and stuffs them into her mouth while her left hand goes in for another round. Heat charges my cheeks. My hands tremble. What should I do?
"I'm sorry," I whisper to the person in line behind me. Janine moves on to the plastic cups filled with grape juice. She kicks one back like it's a shot of tequila at a bar, then takes another. I know I should probably steer her away, but I am afraid she will make a scene.
Reaching out, I place my hand on her shoulder. Still chewing, she turns and looks me square in the face. I notice her eyes for the first time. They remind me of my birth stone, aquamarine.
And God gets through to me: Why are you threatened by this daughter of mine when she is trying to get as much of me as she can stomach?
I look down at my scuffed, plain black dress shoes and then back up at Janine. She's still staring at me, all the while rolling a doughy chunk of bread around her mouth.
Janine's tampon use and pastry binges are inconvenient and annoying. But my problem with her is deeper. She disrupts my normal, comfortable, ho-hum communion experience. Every week I pray the same prayer. I bow my head and consider Christ's sacrifice for me momentarily … and then move on with my life. But seeing Janine enthralled with communion shakes up my half-hearted, lackadaisical ritual.
"Can I have some more?" Janine asks me while we continue to halt the communion line. I'm not sure of the correct theological response, but I am sure that I've just witnessed someone eat like it's her last supper. She actually feasts on the body of Christ—something I have not done in a long time.
"Yes, Janine," I say. "You can have some more."
She palms more bread and I am struck with the thought that I could stand for a little of Janine's desperation at communion. Maybe, she's the one who has it right?
Gillian Marchenko is a writer, speaker, mom of four, and pastor's wife. www.gillianmarchenko.com.