10/05/2010 08:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Overcoming Grief Through Community and Grace

During a retreat focused on vocation care sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education, we were asked to explore our personal stories or life experiences and the impact that they have on the work we are most passionate about. We were led through this process of storytelling by answering questions. One question was, "When was the first time someone took your vocation seriously?"

The question caused me to reflect more on a time in my life when I questioned my vocation and found myself angry and disappointed with God. I shared the story of my relationship with my mother. Our relationship had been strained for most of my teenage years and well into my adulthood, mostly because of her battle with alcohol and drug addiction and partly because I believed that if I was going to maintain some kind of emotional stability and build a life of my own, I had to let go.

By the time I was 28 years old she started to change her life for the better. She had joined a church with a substance abuse recovery program, and they were supporting her through the process of getting her life back on track. I started sending for her to come and spend holidays with me and my family. Over the next several years our relationship began to grow and heal until she was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 53 and given just about a year to live. We made the decision that she would move to the East Coast and live with me. I flew to California to help pack her things and meet with her doctor. After spending time with her in the hospital discussing treatment, she died early the next morning.

I told my therapist that I didn't understand why God would do this to me. Why wouldn't God allow me to finally take her out of her neighborhood and poverty to experience a better life? I was angry because although I was blessed to get out and create a better life for myself, I never got to save her by taking her out of the challenges of the inner city. I was angry with myself and angry with God.

But in that moment my therapist, a 70-year-old African-American woman with a confident yet peaceful demeanor and the wisdom of an elder, looked at me and said, "Romal, are you familiar with the Middle Passage?" She said, "During the Middle Passage, there were times when the storms got so rough that women were cast overboard with their babies. These women knew they would not survive, but they would hold their babies above their heads so that someone one could take them. Even though these women wouldn't survive the journey, they did everything that they could to make sure their babies would be okay. Maybe that's what your mother did for you. She knew that she wouldn't make it, but she found peace in knowing that you would be okay, and before she passed, she got to see you make it to safe shores."

After sharing that story during this retreat on vocation care, I had an encounter with God's grace that reminded me why deep down, my passion for ministry to help hurting families and children growing up in unfair circumstances comes from my personal experiences. Although my faith was wavering at the time, I got through with the help of my therapist and God's grace. Looking back, God has opened doors for me to help others who are hurting from the loss of a loved one, fighting to overcome poverty, or dealing with a family member who is a substance abuser find healing and the strength to keep going.

What did this experience teach me? It taught me that all of us have vocational moments or experiences in our lives that God uses to reveal our passion and purpose in life. For me, these vocational moments evolve into a deeper calling to ordained ministry; for others, it directs them to committed service. When we handle our stories with care, we find God speaking to us and showing us our purpose and therefore our vocation through the stories of our lives. We also find God sending the right people into our lives to walk alongside us. The day my mother died, clergy from throughout the Bay Area started showing up and saying, "You don't know me, but Bishop McKenzie didn't want you to be alone"; "You don't know me, but Dr. Haynes sent me to be with you"; "You don't know me, but Dr. Carruthers didn't want you to be alone." Over and over they kept showing up. In that moment of brokenness, God used clergy to send people I had never met before to take over where my mother left off and continue to hold me up so that I could make it through a tough time.