This past week, we drove 12 hours (6 each way) to Point Pleasant, N.J. some 700 miles in a cargo van in order to give a blessing, but instead we received a blessing as well. Our goal was to visit with the family of the Rev. Dr. Allen Ruscito, known affectionately to all as Reverend Al, our pastor when we were in college and, particularly, in seminary fifty years ago. He was donating his entire library to the international program Jen is planning with Youth with a Mission.
Yesterday over 1,000 of those books were loaded into the Pilgrim Church building by Derick, Vinnie, Kevin, Miriam, Joe, and Karl in ascending order up the stairs to the second-floor closets to wait for Jen to come and get them.
Rev. Al has Alzheimer’s and we didn’t know what to expect from this long-term pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen, New Jersey and, after retirement, a professor of philosophy at Bloomfield College, and, finally, the pastor to Spanish speaking folks at this New Jersey shore town.
What we found was the same sweet, lively, upbeat self he has always had – like an elf with a twinkle in his eye – still with the ability to engage in meaningful conversation but no ability any longer to recall what had just been said after a five minute pause.
He knew exactly who we were, for his long-term memory was in place. So, we realized, if we kept the topic on events and people we all knew fifty years ago, he could regale us with perceptive insights, witty accounts, and lots of humor.
But every time Aída, who was the chief book packer (and Bill the lugger), stepped into the room, suddenly, his eyes would light up and he would exclaim, “Do you remember Julian Alexander? Wasn’t he your pastor?” And she would reply, “Yes, that’s right. Good memory! He was my pastor when I was growing up.” Finally, on Thursday, after about five or six or more times right in a row, Aída added, “Did you know I joined the Dunellen Presbyterian Church?”
“No!” Rev. Al exclaimed, totally delighted. “When did you do that?”
“When you were the pastor,” she said.
“That’s wonderful!” He was so happy.
We could never anticipate what had disappeared from his memory and what was still intact. The picture was largely there, but not all the puzzle’s pieces.
Now that we’re back home in Massachusetts, reflecting on our visit, we have been thinking of the Apostle Paul’s inspired words in 1 Corinthians 13:13, that famous chapter on love, which reads literally, “And now remain faith, hope, love: these three things. But the greatest of these is love.”
Reverend Al still has the same vibrant faith he has always had. On Tuesday, he had to go see a doctor. With his wife Hanna’s help, he pushed himself up to his feet. As he struggled into his walker, Aída asked if he’d like prayer for the doctor’s visit. She wasn’t sure if he would still understand the value of prayer. But he was delighted, and he exclaimed, “Yes, of course!” with great enthusiasm. Aída prayed that the doctor would help, and the doctor certainly did, arranging a home nurse’s visit every day free of charge.
So, he had faith, but did he still have any hope? Hanna, cleaning house in her efficient way, offered us any DVDs or video cassettes we wanted, so we picked out a dozen (carefully avoiding taking any John Wayne ones, since he’s Rev. Al’s lifelong movie hero). They were still at the doctor’s when we finished that day’s book packing. We made sure to leave the little box with their son, Mark (who helped us every day to pack the van), so they could take back any of the dozen they wanted to keep. Hanna retained Cher’s Moonstruck – and Rev Al? – the film Martin Luther. “He says he might need it for educational purposes,” Hanna explained. Apparently, he had not lost hope he might still need to mentor someone.
And love? He kept taking our hands and patting them and beaming on us and saying, “Take any books you want.” After letting the local pastors and others take their pick, his well-chosen library, gathered over a lifetime, was still a treasure trove of wonderful technical Greek and Hebrew language books, classic commentaries, and textbooks.
We explained to him we were collecting books for Jen’s library and he was delighted. “By all means,” he exclaimed, “take my library and use it for that school.” And then he smiled wistfully, gestured toward his now feeble body and murmured, “I won’t use it now.” Maybe not, but now his books were going to do the educating.
We have deeply loved this pastor who trained and ordained us nearly fifty years ago and are full of gratitude for what he has meant to us for all these years. Even now, though his buoyant, chipper strength with which he used to zip around the church building is gone and his wonderful mind is increasingly incapacitating, his love for those he pastored is still firmly intact. This is part of his legacy to us. The greatest of God’s gifts to him and to all of us is the ability to love and that is what remains. Why? Because our God is love.
Bill and Aída