Hanna Clements-Hart: Finding Family

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The pandemic has shrunk the size of every community we associate with, but Hanna Clements-Hart misses most her church community.

News coverage about the impact of the pandemic on religious congregations has focused on the loss of in-person worship, weddings and funerals. But one of the things I miss most about my Unitarian church is our ability to come together for community service. And as winter hits the city, I especially miss the group of volunteers who would meet in our church kitchen at 5 a.m. for three weeks each February to cook and serve breakfast to 70 homeless men who had slept there. We were part of a collection of local churches that took turns housing homeless men during the winter months. Working with that crew taught me that anyone willing to get up to cook a pre-dawn breakfast for strangers is good folks.

One of those folks was Ken. When I first met him, he told me he was a longtime member who had been estranged from the church out of anger. He never said what the offense was, just that he was happy to return. I got the feeling maybe he wished he hadn’t stayed away so long. Over the years, I worked with Ken in the kitchen and saw him on Sundays. I got to know his signature Hawaiian shirts and irreverent style.

Virtual Sunday services meant that I hadn’t seen him in months when he surprised me by calling in December. He wanted to see if we were related because my mother’s maiden name was pronounced the same as his last name. I think we were both a little sorry to find no family tree connection. We chatted about the trials of 2020 and our hope for a better 2021 when we could gather again. The call left me smiling.

I recently learned that Ken had died suddenly from a respiratory infection that did not respond to antibiotics. When I asked if he had left anyone behind to send condolences to, our minister said, “Church was his family, I think.”

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I didn’t know Ken well, but I mourn his death and am so grateful that I knew him, that we connected through our shared desire to serve. And I am reminded why, despite my uncertainty about God, I belong to a church community. I guess we were related, after all.

With a Perspective, this is Hanna Clements-Hart.

Hanna Clements-Hart is an executive coach in San Francisco.