The privilege of officiating at baptisms, weddings, and funerals has always been one of my greatest joys. Perhaps the most satisfying part ministry for me has been helping parishioners prepare to enter the last phase of their life. The conversations that I have had with people who are transitioning to assisted living or a nursing home, or who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, have been rich as well as poignant.
Offering pastoral care is most challenging when meeting with dear saints of the church who lament their limitations and express regret that they can no longer be active anymore. At times, they will say, “Looking back on my life, I wish I had done more. I could have visited others in need. I could have taught Sunday school. I could have been more faithful in financial stewardship. I wish had been more supportive of my pastors.”
When that happens, all I can do is wipe away my own tears and say, “You did so much. Do you know that the legacy of your life shines bright as the stars in the sky? Now it’s time to be at peace and allow others to take up the mantle.” My prayer has always been that those who feel as if they can no longer contribute can recognize that their prayers and their legacy are more than enough.
As All Saints Day approaches, I remember the movie that has impacted my life perhaps more than any other. Schindler’s List, which came out in 1993, was a film adaption by director Steven Spielberg of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical fiction novel Schindler’s Ark. The movie tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist in World War 2, who is credited with saving 1,200 Jews from the concentration camps by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories in occupied Poland. “Schindler’s List,” which was one of many lists retyped numerous times during the war, contained the names of the 1,200 Jewish workers in his factory.
When the tide of the war changed in 1944 and the Germans began closing the easternmost concentration camps and moving them westward, Schindler persuaded German authorities to allow him to move his factories to Brünnlitz in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Schindler spent much of his fortune successfully bribing officials until the war ended, thereby preventing the murder of his workers.
There is a scene in Schindler’s List that has always reduced me to tears. Although the veracity of every aspect of the movie is often disputed and Steven Spielberg may have taken creative license, Oskar Schindler gathers his factory workers on May 7, 1945, to listen as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Germany had surrendered and that the war in Germany was over.
Afterward, as Schindler gets into a car to leave the factory, a spokesperson hands Schindler a piece of paper and says, “We’ve written a letter, trying to explain things, in case you are captured. Every worker has signed it.” Then he gives Schindler a ring made from the gold tooth of a factory worker and says, “The words on the ring are in Hebrew. There is a saying from the Talmud that whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” This prompts Schindler to break down crying and lamenting.
“I could have got more out. I could have got more.”
“There are 1,100 people who are alive because of you.”
“If I made more money. I threw away so much money. You have no idea. I didn’t do enough.”
“You did so much.”
“This car. Why did I keep this car? I could have saved ten more people right there. This pin. Two people. This is gold. It would have given me more two people, and I didn’t. I could have gotten one more person, but I didn’t.”
You can watch the video clip of this poignant scene by clicking here. As Schindler sobs, the Jews whom he saved surround him and hug him. In a 1983 television documentary, Schindler was quoted as saying, “I felt that the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them; there was no choice.”
Rena Finder, now 90 years old, was one of the youngest persons on Schindler’s List, and she and her mother worked at the Brünnlitz factory. At a speaking engagement at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School in New Jersey in May, Finder said that when she and her parents were forcibly removed from their home in Krakow, Poland, Rena never saw or heard from her father again. Rena still remembers her neighbors looking out of their windows as they left. She knocked on the doors of her friends’ homes to say good-bye, but no one answered. Rena then said, “You cannot stand by and do nothing.”
For many years, Finder has spoken in schools around the country about the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust and works with the organization, Facing History and Ourselves. Finder knew that Schindler was a complicated man and had his flaws, but she also recognized that he did much good. Finder said, “He had the courage, you see? He cared about human beings. He had the courage to do the unthinkable.”
Oskar Schindler died in 1974 after his Jewish workers returned his generosity of spirit by helping him through some difficult times. After all these years, Rena Finder still has deep gratitude for Schindler, saying, “He was sent by God to take care of us.”
As Christians, we celebrate All Saints Day in order to remember and celebrate not only our loved ones – the saints who have gone before us – but to renew our commitment to be “living saints” who do what we can as long as we can to model and share God’s love with those around us.
I wonder. How might our world be a more compassionate and just place if we simply encouraged one another with acts of kindness? How might our beloved United Methodist Church be a more grace-filled and transformative presence in our world if we saw Jesus in every person that we met and inspired them to claim their God-given worth? How might our communities be more welcoming and embracing if, rather than disparaging those who need our assistance, we would welcome the gifts that all human beings can offer, knowing that whoever saves one life saves the world entire.
Finder said that in the US and around the world, “There is a lot of hate again against Jews and also against the Muslims and others,” and that the worst thing we can do is “sit by and do nothing.” She went on, “They have to stand up against injustice, against hate, and just treat everyone with respect and forget about the color of their skin and their religion.”
“You did so much.” For all the saints, thanks be to God.