Written by Heather Plonk, MDiv, RBC
On the fourth floor of Christ House in Washington, D.C., a quilt hangs on the east-facing wall of the Chapel. Two thin trails of white fabric, like focused beams of light, run perpendicular to each other to form a cross in the middle. Shards of uneven, varyingly hued gold, blue, and brown fabric swirl around the center of the quilt. A stereo sits at the base of a window and plastic chairs line the perimeter of this room, which is ordinary, save the striking warmth and movement of the quilt.
I am visiting Mari Lowe, a Family Nurse Practitioner at Christ House and 2023 graduate of the hybrid Certificate in Theology and Health Care (CTHC). Mari has long felt what she calls “a multi-vocational call to be a nurse, a nurse practitioner, and to offer pastoral care.” She has lived and worked at Christ House for the past 5 years, and upon my visit, I encounter in her and in Christ House a rich and rare convergence for the world of health care: long-term relationship, embodied faith, medical expertise, and a sense of home.
Christ House was founded by a mission-based small group through the Church of our Savior, an ecumenical Christian church in the District, and has been accepting patients since 1985. Its mission is to offer holistic care, empowerment towards stability, and community to “people experiencing homelessness with acute medical needs in the District of Columbia.” Mari and her colleagues “address critical issues to help break the cycle of homelessness” by welcoming patients to live alongside them as neighbors while they receive health care. Caring for the sick is the work of all health care facilities, but doing so while offering radical hospitality with an intent to cultivate community is not. Patients at Christ House attest to the difference this embodied mission – and Mari – have made in their lives.
Mari met Carlton several years ago while grocery shopping at the local Safeway, and she worshipped alongside him at Christ House before she began caring for him as her patient. Carlton has now been living and receiving medical care at Christ House for about six months while undergoing treatment for lung cancer. A tall, thin, elderly man with bright eyes and a kind smile that comes easy, Carlton sits on his neatly made bed, leaning forward onto his walker as he shares parts of his life story: he suffered from alcoholism for many years, intermittently experienced homelessness, and survived a colon cancer diagnosis in 2006. On December 17, 1987, he became sober after telling God that he was sick and tired of feeling so bad. There were setbacks on his recovery journey, but in this place, on this day, he is full of gratitude.
“God has been good to me throughout my life. I’m grateful he’s kept me around this long.” Carlton says.
“God and your meds, right?” asks Mari, smiling.
Carlton received care at the hospital for several weeks before transitioning to a bed at Christ House. “I never felt so good apart from a place like this until I got here,” he says, tearfully, adding, “Day one coming here, I just felt the love and joy in the place.” He asks for a tissue, saying to Mari, “you’re seeing me crying…”
“I know,” Mari responds, giving him a tissue. “I love you very much.” The words come easily to her, and it’s clear that Carlton already knows their truth.
Another resident, Mr. B., has been under Mari’s care for the last three months. Following a traumatic brain injury and subsequent surgery, there wasn’t another place Mr. B. could live while receiving the medical care he needed. “I came with an ‘I don’t want to be here’ attitude,” he says. “I didn’t want to be here because it felt like, ‘oh man, they’re on my back.’”
“In your defense,” Mari offers, “we run a tight ship around here. We get people up, we take their blood pressures; you gotta go downstairs to eat. I don’t think it’s easy to be a patient here. Also, you were coming off a really traumatic experience and a big surgery. You were going from one place you didn’t know to another one.” Mari responds gently and purposefully to the resistance and defensiveness she often encounters in her patients. She is adept at finding paths to work with and move beyond them.
“I look forward to seeing Ms. Mari every day,” Mr. B. states. “Like last week – she wasn’t here for one day, then two days, and I had to ask where Ms. Mari was. It’s good being under Ms. Mari’s care because Ms. Mari can get it done. Everything that I’ve been through here and that I’ve needed done, Ms. Mari did it. I have a serious foot problem – up all night, can’t sleep, and I told Ms. Mari it’s not working. She ordered me the medicine and my foot doesn’t hurt.”
Mari’s care for her patients is focused and clear, thinning any fog that might settle in a room full of relational and medical complexity. When faced with the short- and long-term distress her patients experience, she is an unflinching stream of I see you. This is hard. Let’s keep at this together. One of the rooms where she keeps at it together with her patients is Christ House’s Treatment Room.
“So many lovely moments happen right here because of all the wound care that we do. Right now we have a gentleman here who, for reasons that don’t fully make sense, amputated part of his own foot – it was an autoamputation that got infected. He had two really big wounds, and it’s been this really slow but beautiful healing process to have the tissue grow back. Every time we bop in here and it’s a little more healed, it feels like a minor miracle. A lot of good conversations happen over wound care because we’re both just here with each other.”
While she spends her workdays on the medical respite unit, she returns home and resides with her husband in an apartment at Christ House; the door to her home is the same as the door to patient rooms, save for a small plaque that reads “What good shall I do today?” Her apartment is bright and, as Mari says, “normal.”
“I like to show people our apartment because I think sometimes there’s this sense that because we’ve chosen to live here that we live an impoverished, simple life, and I’m going to be honest and say that we don’t. I’m living above a place where people have very few physical belongings, and I have an espresso maker. The irony of that isn’t lost on me. But that coffee keeps me fueled to go downstairs at all hours and deal with whatever comes up.”
I ask Mari how she has learned to navigate the wall-thin boundary between her personal and work life. “I’ve gotten better at figuring out how to make it work so it doesn’t feel all encompassing,” Mari responds. “My whole time at Christ House there’s been very little time where it’s felt like my personal life and my work life have competed for each other. They’ve developed a beautiful integration. That feels different from when I worked at the clinic, where I felt like work and personal life were competing. I realized that to live here I was going to have to surrender to some kind of integration and live in a watercolor rather than a stained-glass window.”
Navigating boundaries is not the only thing Mari has worked on to make her watercolor life at Christ House sustainable. Seated in her small office on the second-floor, Mari shows me how she is weaving theology and spiritual practice into her daily work. “I see the cadence of my day as a living liturgy. Walking down the stairs is part of my processional into work. Even sitting [in my office] – I’m ‘routined’ not because I’m stuck in my ways but because being in a routine allows for there to be more space in my day for interruptions. If this were a church service, checking off labs would be part of the worship. Giving report would be like passing the peace.”
As a student in the hybrid Certificate in Theology and Health Care (CTHC), Mari spent one year studying Christian theology, spirituality, and history alongside other health care practitioners, learning to more deeply integrate her faith with her work. Participating in the hybrid CTHC has allowed her “to not have to strip my identity as a health care practitioner in order to grow the more theological, pastoral side of me.”
“I had never really pondered the concept of the Imago Dei until I entered the program. Particularly in frustrating interpersonal relationships, pausing and imagining the two words ‘Imago Dei’ helps re-center me, and helps me remember that truly everyone is made in the image of God even if I’m mad at them right now. All of the learnings around the theology of disability and having people from Reality Ministries come and talk about living with disabilities has helped me step away from trying to feel like I’m the expert because I’m the health care practitioner. It’s allowed me to decenter myself from the narrative and let the person living with their illness or condition be the expert on their experience.”
Later in the afternoon, one of Mari’s colleagues indicates that a newly admitted patient is showered, getting settled in his room, and ready for Mari to visit. As Mari’s energy and focus turn to the remaining needs of the day, I step out into the cold January afternoon and my thoughts return to the Chapel quilt on the fourth floor. I see the warmth and movement of that quilt in Mari and in Christ House: the unobtrusive but certain light of Christ making a way across and between the swirling, painful and beautiful movements of life.
If you would like to learn more about the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative and what it might be like to study with us in our hybrid Certificate in Theology and Health Care, please let us know here.
In April 2023, Carlton passed away from lung cancer while at Christ House. He was surrounded by people who loved him and who felt his love in return.
 Reality Ministries is located in Durham, NC and “creates opportunities for adults with and without developmental disabilities to experience belonging, kinship and the life-changing Reality of Christ’s love.” For more information, please visit https://realityministriesinc.org/