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Starting Point

Unassuming ‘roofers’ and extraordinary acts

Then some men appeared, carrying on a bed a paralyzed man whom they were trying to bring in and lay down in front of them. But as the crowd made it impossible to find a way of getting him in, they went on to the flat roof and lowered him and his stretcher down through the tiles into the middle of the gathering, in front of Jesus. (Luke 5:18-19)


I received a call on Friday night not long ago from a Los Angeles “roofer.” Our friend, Wells, had died an hour before in his Spokane residence. The slow torture of multiple sclerosis finally killed him.

This damn insidious disease began who-knows-when. Symptoms appeared a dozen years ago, long after our college days at Santa Clara, Calif., his brief stint with the Jesuits, his doctoral studies and the birth of two daughters. Once the long haul with MS commenced, he went from a few awkward inconveniences to falling on his face; from a cane to a wheelchair. Ultimately -- these past few years -- he was flat on his back. He used to say, “It’s like being buried alive, Gar, one spoonful of dirt at a time.”

We chatted on the phone periodically, and I visited him whenever I was in Spokane. He lived alone next to the Spokane River but was accompanied daily by a variety of care providers.

Our visits were quality time. There were a few yuks, some tears and the tender and mutual trust of two friends working through the raw stuff of life, faith, relationships and the madness of MS. He always made time for me, his gaunt and rawboned face attentive, solicitous, thoughtful.

Wells often referred to his close friends, those who came to his aid as he became more and more sick, as “the roofers” -- an allusion to those famous stretcher-bearers in Luke’s gospel. Turns out they were, for the most part, a group of former Jesuits -- 1960s vintage -- who collectively decided three years ago to insure that his last blast of life was taken care of financially. His pension and insurance could not cover all the expenses of his home and the kind of care he needed. So, each month, they would mail in the bucks to one of their point men who in turn wrote the necessary checks.

It is a mixed group, these roofers: lawyers, physicians, blue-collar workers, teachers, psychologists, architects, priests. They are, by their act of roofing, extraordinary people. Yet they’re also very ordinary, comfortable with the obscurity of their mission of love, like their gospel counterparts who worked behind the scenes to attend to a wounded brother.

The funeral liturgy was designed by Wells, including the gospel of the paralytic man and his friends. The lead roofer, Tony, gently spoke to the moment in his homily:

“We were indeed the people from the gospel: packing him on his litter, down the alleys, across the river, up the stairs, to the very roof. We pulled off the tiles. We hardly had a choice. He was yanking on us to do so. It really wasn’t hard. He was pretty light, after all. He didn’t complain. His spirits were pretty good most of the time. Wells used to say, ‘My vocation, during this part of my life, is to lead people to God by their taking care of me.’

It worked. Our hearts opened. He showed us faith; he showed us caring; he showed us forgiveness; he showed us kindness. He led the way to God. Our job was easy. All we did was carry him.”

I think that the roofers are the great clarifying metaphor for the church. Roofers are broken open by their act of love. Their focus -- their obsession -- is on the wounded brother or sister. The church discovers the love and truth and compassion of its heart in the service of the broken. Driven by love, it cannot get stuck in its selfishness, and it is dispossessed of the temptation to seek honor and riches and power. As roofer, the church finds Christ whether it is caring for the AIDS patient or challenging the dehumanizing policies of a dictator.

As Tony, the lead roofer, might say, in the act of service the church discovers what it is all about, which is to say that in service it is gracefully captured by its true purpose and meaning: to meet and to be Christ in the world.

After the funeral Mass, the gathering of friends walked into the early evening, and we made our way to a pedestrian bridge that crossed the Spokane River, a spot that Wells could see from his bedroom. We gathered around his two daughters as they tenderly poured -- lowered -- his cremated remains into the water. In death, in a wonderfully unyielding way, we were all roofers once more. And looking down into the river, we knew and were known by the Christ who called us all in the sacred ritual of saying farewell to our sacred brother.

Jesuit Fr. Gary Smith writes from Portland, Ore.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998