Rev Liesel Walters is a Deacon of the Anglican Church, and recently I had the privilege to meet up and hear her story. Across the denominations, and across the table of a cafe in rural New South Wales, we discovered so much to share and thank God for together. Her evident spirituality and connection with her local community left me full of inspiration.
Liesel grew up in England, but has been in Australia now for nearly half a century. Her faith has always been important to her, and as the years have gone by, the call to ministry has become stronger. There are many simple ways in which the Spirit leads her into this. Liesel loves to walk down the street and experience “unplanned coincidences.” People stop her to talk, resulting in “wonderful” conversations. She was inspired by a ‘bench ministry’ in New York, and wondered if she could do the same as an “ordinary person”. So Liesel began sitting down on a bench outside the pharmacy of her country town, and has become a listening ear for surprising numbers of people who join her for a talk. However, she was also drawn to more formal ministry, both within and beyond the church that she loves.
At first, Liesel became a chaplain, and has now been serving in the local Baptist nursing home for twelve years. In this aged care role, she is also a member of the local Minister’s Association. She fulfills her calling in the community – both in people’s homes and in the residential facility. It involves both pastoral care and liturgical celebration, mainly with residents in the nursing home’s chapel. However, when the need arose, Liesel also led services at her Anglican parish as a licensed lay minister. After some years of these lay ministries, her priest suggested that the diaconate would be “a good fit”.
Initially Liesel “didn’t see the need to become a deacon”. She couldn’t imagine leading a parish or doing anything different in terms of her ministry. She was already well known and respected in her community, and had a sense of carrying Christ’s presence in all she did. However, her Bishop could see how the diaconate would enhance what she was doing. It was explained as a “bridge between the community and the church.” Anglican deacons work outside the church building pastorally, and vary in terms of their liturgical roles.
Since her ordination, Liesel has realised just what this new designation means. For one thing, the ordination itself was a public witness to her absolute commitment to the Lord “from my heart”. It gave her the role’s authority and authenticity in naming her call. And people that she encounters recognise that she brings with her a love of Christ, which is not confined to the Anglican Church. Actually, the fact that she is ordained opens up ecumenical possibilities, and she is sometimes asked to give a message at the local Uniting Church.
Liesel loves the high liturgy of her parish, but her expressions of faith are broad and she feels that often the fringes get left out. As well as her ministry in the town and aged care service, Liesel visits a tiny church community in a farming district. In her main role as a chaplain, she feels that God gives her the graces that she needs to minister well. Many times she sits with people and listen to their stories, doubts, fears and anger. Sometimes she needs no words of her own, just being there or holding someone’s hand is enough. She experiences a “sense of peace and the presence of the Lord” and they feel closer to the Lord than ever before. This, Liesel says, “can’t be manufactured or faked or anything, it just happens.”
One of the greatest privileges for Liesel is to be with people through the dying process and funerals. There is one particular experience that she will never forget. Liesel began a special interaction with Therese* several years ago. It began when Therese started volunteering for her in the residential facility. Therese had had a rough life and some hurtful church experiences, so was doubtful at first. But Liesel could see her giftedness and mentored her through a pastoral care course. Although Therese had felt unworthy, she found she could relate to Liesel and began to feel at home. Slowly she learned to trust God and even discovered worship beyond the chapel services, through her love of nature.
Then when Therese received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, she allowed Liesel to walk the whole journey with her. Liesel went to visit Therese regularly and prayed spontaneously with her, deep and long. They talked about many things, and to calm her fears, Liesel went through hymns like Come As You Are. Finally, the end was coming and Therese asked for Liesel again. She had had an anointing by a priest and now she didn’t want anyone else there. She said, “You represent God to me; you represent Christ. I don’t care about you not being a priest.” Liesel felt awed by this trust, but remembered the hymn that she had used before. Liesel listened and prayed, using the liturgy from the prayer book. She reminded Therese of God’s love for her and this time sang Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. With that she said goodbye, and Therese died, “most definitely at peace.” After such a journey, what a privilege it was to lead the funeral as a deacon. Thank you for sharing with us, Liesel!
* Not her real name.