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The Math of Service

You’ve seen Karen before, even if you couldn’t put the name with the face. If you do know her, then you sort of know ‘the deal’ with Karen. She’s into everything. Not a control freak. Not a micro-manager. She’s more of a delegator. She wasn’t always this way, but when you take a look at all she’s involved in, it doesn’t add up. It adds up to much more than the sum of her efforts. And this is what her actions have taught us over the past seven years. When we live to serve – when we don’t ask too many questions (of God), when we don’t mindlessly self-seek – the sum of our efforts are always greater than the energy it took to create them (okay maybe there was a touch of physics in there).

The Father Bob & Karen Sanders Interview Part 1

The Father Bob & Karen Sanders Interview Part 2

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This is how it all started. “You know, you can only play so much tennis, go to so many luncheons, and play so many rounds of golf. When my kids went off to college, I admit, I got bored,” Karen remembers. “I’d always gone to Church regularly and one Sunday, the pastor stood up and started talking about a St. Vincent de Paul Society they were starting. This was also the first time women were invited to join. That perked my ears up right away. I said, ‘I’m in.’”

She and some friends from St Catharine’s in Holmdel, NJ began doing home visits, and out of that sprang the Ministry to the Sick. It was at Bayshore Community Hospital that she began visiting Catholic patients. She started realizing there was a need outside of her skill set. “We didn’t have a pastoral care department, but there was this wonderful old Dominican priest named Father Karol. I used to make him a list of the people that needed communion and he would always say, ‘Now, Karen, you really need to just become a Eucharistic Minister.’ And, you know, I felt so unworthy.” Who wouldn’t? What’s more sacred than handling the Body of Christ, and then delivering it to people in dire straits – people who might very well take It as their last sacrament on Earth?

“I used to hide. He’d come to the hospital, and I’d find another place to be. And then one day, I rounded the corner and there he was, holding his pix. He said, ‘You’re coming with me.’ And after I’d become a Eucharistic Minister, I was all about ministering to the sick – especially with the Eucharist,” Karen recalls.

Before long, people caught on to their good deeds and their little team grew. Karen, the de facto leader, realized that she was stepping into a role that she may not have been perfectly prepared for. She’d heard about a CPE program in a nearby hospital for people looking to become hospital chaplains, and so in the only possible way she could share commonality with Rodney Dangerfield, she went back to school.

“So I studied CPE at a local college and had to appear before a board of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and be certified. That was definitely a high moment in my life,” Karen remembers. “So I continued at that Parish and started a bereavement program. Time went by and there came to be a position open for Pastoral care at this hospital. There were some other clergy members from other faiths that applied, but I was about to embark on a trip to the Holy Land, so I put my application in and got on the plane. I said ‘God, I’m going to the Holy Land. Let them decide while I’m on this trip,’” Karen laughs.

If she was trying to curry favor with the Almighty during the deliberation process, she might not have picked a better place to vacation… and so it worked. “When I got back, they offered me the position. From day one, I knew the one thing that hospital needed was a chapel. I waited until the time was right, and then I pushed my plea. There was a young mother with six kids – not a lot of money – and she approached me one day. She said ‘We tried to get into your meditation room and none of us would fit.’ I said, okay, now it’s time.”

The president of the hospital told her she could have a chapel if she picked the spot and raised the money. The organizational and logistical efforts to raise the necessary $156,000 could fill its own manual, but needless to say, they got it done. Interesting to note here, if you rewind the tape, Karen responded to a seemingly random set of circumstances that began with an announcement at Mass. She was called and led down a path that guided her to change. She did not fully understand what that change would entail, but she trusted that if her actions were unselfish, loving and honest, God would take care of her and let the fruits of her labor multiply beyond her awareness (or comprehension, for that matter).

Karen was the hospital chaplain at Bayshore Community Hospital on September 11, 2001, and because of that, she was able to respond to, and take part in, the most urgent medical crisis of all time. She sat with the FBI while they interviewed people who entered her hospital after the 9/11 attack. “We lost over 128 people within our community. Everyone had a loved one who had been tragically affected by the attack, including one of our doctors,” Karen remembers. We did memorial service after memorial service, and… just think about our staff who still had to work while their loved ones were out there… just not knowing what was happening. People would go down to the train station and check to see if their loved one’s cars were there. That was the only way to know if they’d been involved.”

After that, her husband had had enough. He came home and said, ‘We’ve lost too many friends. I’m retiring. I choose not to work anymore.’ A year later they came down to Florida. The rest is history.

At this Parish, she’s started the Hospital Ministry to Gulf Coast Hospital, which involved organizing teams of Eucharistic Ministers to visit every Catholic patient, each day – 365 days per year. She founded the Compassionate Services Ministry, which visits the homebound. She helped start the Arimathean, the Funeral Ministry, Bereavement Ministry, the Rosary Making Group, the Prayer Shawl Ministry, and is active in most of the ministries at the Villas Senior Home.

“Sometimes you just need to raise the flag and say ‘This is who we need, are you willing to step forward? Would you like to help out?’” Karen explains. Simple in its brevity. Profound in the fact that when people are ready to be called, a simple call is all it takes.

Karen’s story isn’t ending at St. John XXIII. She is like a rock skipping along a big, flat pond, and every time she touches down, she leaves a ripple of goodness, spreading endlessly in every direction. There’s no telling how lives will be affected when she lands again in the coming months, but we do know a little bit more about the math of service from her being at this Parish. It is not a matter of addition, nor multiplication, nor a problem of exponential growth. When we’re doing the math of service, we’re simply unable to solve for the unknown. Our questions about life may never be answered, but when we’re at the service of others, God plants the seeds of joy within us that make life worth living. The proof lies in the bonds that form between two people, when one is helping another. Karen just taught us a class that lasted 7 years, and now that it’s adjourned, we need to go, and teach the lesson to others.

See her full interview in this week’s edition of the 23rd Times.

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