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24 February 2011

A Cure for Worrying: Commemorating Sr. Elizabeth Fedde

On February 25, Lutherans commemorate Elizabeth Fedde (1850-1921), a Norwegian deaconness who, at age 33, followed her brother's urging to come to New York City. At his request, she took up "the work among the poor and lost Norwegians”, but rather than confining herself to visit the ill and poor in their homes, she found herself working in hospitals, on ships and in the streets.

Three years later she asked the newly founded Norwegian Relief Society to start a deaconness home and hospital. Sr. Elizabeth became well-known, and after enlisting businessmen such as Charles Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller, a thirty-bed hospital at Fourth Avenue and 46th Street was dedicated in 1889. Soon the Norwegian Relief Society re-incorporated as the Norwegian Lutheran Deaconesses’ Home and Hospital. Then, in April 1892, the first two deaconesses were consecrated in Brooklyn.

But besides being the "mover and shaker" in ever wider circles, Sr. Elizabeth remained dedicated to her work with the sick and the poor. Even though there was some financial support, she was a pioneer. Lack of sleep, being "on call" at all times and the many sick people she worked with -- all this took its toll on her, and she fell ill more and more frequently.

Her ill health made it necessary for Sr. Elizabeth to return to Norway in 1895, but her work lived on, and mightily so. When in 1956 Lutheran Norwegian Deaconess Home and Hospital merged with Lutheran Hospital of Manhattan, the result was Brooklyn's Lutheran Medical Center, which proudly honors Sr. Elizabeth as its founder.

I could write about Sr. Elizabeth because I am the child of a former deaconness. I could write about her because my first couple of years of chaplaincy training took place at Lutheran Medical Center. Or I could write about her because the first church I attended in the United States was on the very spot where Sr. Elizabeth's first hospital stood: 46th and 4th in Sunset Park. Even though those are all good reasons, today I want to write about her faith and her courage, and especially about her ability to trust God.

This is from Sr. Elizabeth's diary:

March 21: Should stay in and sew but was taken to a poor family; quite young people who have been without work so long that they had no money. Mrs. Børs’s $5 was a welcome gift, even though it brought tears; I asked the woman to come Monday to get clothes for the baby who will arrive shortly; I have nothing now, but because I need it, I believe something will come. March 22: Home for housework, and a woman came with a parcel of children’s clothes and asked if I had use for them. I knew I would have them in time for Monday. At meeting in the evening to get help for the poor... 

"I have nothing now, but because I need it, I believe something will come" -- that's putting into action what Jesus says in Sunday's Gospel: "If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you -- you of little faith."

Sr. Elizabeth is not a woman of little faith, not by far, and somehow people around her begin to have a sense that God's love radiates from her.

Here's what she writes one cold January night:

Out in dreadfully cold weather to a poor family down in a cellar, and after talking to them awhile gave them what I had in my pocket because I thought my purse contained carfare; when I looked, I found nothing and I set out on foot late and in bad weather, but God can soften all hearts. A streetcar driver called and said, “Get on!” I said, “I have no money,” and he cried, “Just come!” That sort of thing has never happened to me before.

Her faithfulness shines especially with those who are skeptical. After describing the cyncial attitude of an unemployed and debilitated young man from Norway, she says, "We stood and talked long together. He stood his ground, but when I said that I prayed God every day that He would send me to those He wanted me to see and that I was sure that God had arranged the meeting with him, tears ran down his cheeks, and they said more than words."

Every so often Sr. Elizabeth admits to be "in a very bad humor". One of those times, she is quite frank in describing the effects of a board meeting on her (some of us have been there and felt similar!): "God be merciful! I have the whole board against me and everything is wrong and I wish I were dead. God be merciful to me, a sinner!"  

Yet some time later, her diary says this: "Tired from the day's work, I sit now and wish I had a thousand mouths and a thousand tongues in each mouth with which to praise God for all goodness to me."

Here is part of Sunday's Gospel in the "Cotton Patch Version" by Clarence Jordan:

So cut out your anxious talk about ‘what are we gonna eat, and what are we gonna drink, and what are we gonna wear.’ For the people of the world go tearing around after all these things. Listen, your spiritual Father is quite aware that you’ve got to have all such stuff. Then set your heart on the God Movement and its kind of life, and all these things will come as a matter of course. 

Sr. Elizabeth had her priorities right. Because her heart was set on God and God's kind of life, "all these things" people worry about, they came to her as a matter of course. She believed and thus she received. She remained in God's love, and God's love radiated out of her for all to see. May her faith embolden ours; may it help us navigate the world in new, more trusting, ways!

When everybody else worries his or her head off, it's our business to stay still. We will receive what we need, without fail.

Matthew 6:25-33

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