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A personal resurrection

Rev. Elinor "Nellie" Greene cannot talk, walk, or even feed herself, and sees so poorly the letters on her keyboard are blurry. But Greene's sermons allow her clever mind and soaring spirit to connect with the world.

Profoundly disabled in an automobile accident at age 18, the Rev. Elinor R. "Nellie" Greene has as profoundly worked to overcome her infirmities through ministry.
Profoundly disabled in an automobile accident at age 18, the Rev. Elinor R. "Nellie" Greene has as profoundly worked to overcome her infirmities through ministry.Read more

The Rev. Elinor R. Greene - Nellie to all who know her - was hard at work in February on a Lenten sermon for Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, where she is an ordained deacon.

She propped her broken body against the left armrest of her wheelchair, and, with her right hand, she typed.

Her fist was clenched, with just her pointer finger sticking out. Sometimes her fist opened, like a bird spreading its wings, as she moved to reach a distant key on her computer keyboard, then it clenched again.

Nellie's finger shakes, and often hits the wrong key - two, three, four times. She must then drag her finger all the way across the keyboard to hit backspace, and try again.

For instance, writing the simple word to that morning, she hit the 5 key, then backspace, then 5 again, then backspace, then e, then backspace, and finally got the t. The o came on the first strike.

In the end, she would write 2,170 words and strike 9,246 characters in her Lenten sermon - a dead sprint for five weeks.

Because of an accident at age 18, which robbed Nellie of her every dream, she cannot talk, walk, or even feed herself, and sees so poorly the letters on her keyboard are blurry. At 54, she is a prisoner in what one friend calls her "physical cage."

Nellie's primary means of escape is through her sermons - allowing her clever mind and soaring spirit to connect with the outside world.

As a teenager, Nellie lived a modern version of The Philadelphia Story. One of four daughters to Cookie and George Greene, an investment counselor, she lived in a house with 11 bedrooms and four gardens on Elbow Lane in Mount Airy.

Nellie's world was literate, loving, full of promise and possibility - dancing classes at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, summers in the Hamptons, boarding school at Chatham Hall in Virginia.

"She had the lead in every play, was on every team, she had endless boyfriends," said her mother.

As a young girl, Nellie brimmed with such energy and effervescence her father would pay her a nickel at dinner just to stop talking!

Everything came easily to her, especially friends. "She loved being loved," said her sister Lilah, "and always had an entourage of admirers."

Lisa Lovelace, a member of Chestnut Hill United Methodist, for years had little contact with Nellie.

"She's very easy to ignore because of her situation," said Lovelace. "She can't stop you. She can never initiate. She is, like, representing what we would all fear most in our lives. And she's so easy to walk by and not deal with that."

Three years ago, Lovelace, a dancer, bought a poem by Nellie at a church auction. Lovelace didn't want just any poem, and asked Nellie to write about herself. Lovelace hoped to interpret the poem in a dance and perform it in church.

Nellie wrote the poem, "I Am." It begins:

What determines being human?

Is it thinking?

I think therefore I am.

These words pose a dilemma for me because I have extensive brain damage as a result of an automobile accident.

Fortunately, my mind wasn't harmed . . . but what is the mind without the body?

The poem goes into verse:

Woman with partial sight and whole vision

in my little craft caught in a storm

pitching and weaving on Baptismal water

holding fast to my rudder, which appears to be God.

When Lovelace read the poem she realized she wanted Nellie in the dance with her.

"I started to get to know her by e-mail, which is the only way to do it," Lovelace said. "I realized she had a sense of humor, she was feisty, and smart, and she was confident.

"Lots of things I never would have suspected from somebody in her situation. And she was so positive. When I see her, I try to keep those thoughts alive, because she can't convey those things when you're with her in person."

They would perform their dance on March 4 before Nellie's sermon.

Back from a one-year sabbatical, Nellie had just five weeks to write her Lenten sermon.

She would base it on the assigned reading from Luke, in which Jesus urges his followers to enter heaven through "the narrow door."

For Nellie, the narrow door represents the struggle to live by the teachings of Jesus.

While the physical challenges of writing, for Nellie, are almost incomprehensible, she suffers more universally over content and style, her every word and letter.

She will not settle for a comma when she wants an apostrophe, for a small p in Paradise when a capital P is called for. That means hit shift-lock, hit P, and then release shift-lock. Extra steps. So be it.

In early February, Nellie was working on a section about how difficult it was for Jews in the time of Jesus to accept him as the messiah because he was nothing like what they had expected.

She had written: "He was not the conquering king of many of the Psalms and some of the prophets, but the suffering servant of Isaiah."

Slowly, she added: "He must have been a party animal, too, because he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. His friends were the wrong kind of people, too. They were prostitutes and sinners, and all sorts of riff raff."

That paragraph took an hour.

Nellie writes and rewrites up to the day she rehearses her sermon with a church volunteer who will deliver it. Because of lung damage from the accident, Nellie doesn't have the wind to blow out a candle, much less speak.

"I do my best writing in the morning," Nellie e-mailed later, "but work at all hours up until 9:30 - 10 PM when I have to go to bed, because of my nurse's schedule. This is one of the difficult frustrating things about living in a nursing home. If the muse strikes after I'm in bed, I stew all night, until I can get to my PC the next morning."

For many years, Nellie lived on her own, in an apartment, with hired aides coming in to help. But when aides didn't show, "she was sunk," said a friend from Wednesday night Bible study, Sherry Olson.

Two years ago, growing ever-more dependent, Nellie moved into Cathedral Village, a retirement community in Roxborough, where her mother also lives. Nellie is grateful to be in the nursing wing, with excellent care - an answer to her prayers. But she is not without issues, which she tied into her Lenten sermon.

She was writing about how one responds to God's grace - "We move from doing the right things out of duty to doing the right things out of love" - and how this is a challenge for her:

"For example, practical implications for me come when I choose to be kind and tactful to some of my nurses, when they persist in doing things which really annoy me, like leave my bathroom light on unnecessarily."

(Nellie is a fierce environmentalist.)

"I also choose to be pleasant when an elderly man or woman, who might be lost, strays into my room, uninvited."

On Sept. 13, 1970, Nellie set off to begin her freshman year at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. She had studied Mandarin, and her dream was to learn all she could about China.

"We were going about 60 MPH on route 84, just outside Danbury, CT," Nellie wrote years ago. "Mum started to pull into the left lane to pass the car ahead of us, and changed her mind when she saw another car speeding up behind us. When she pulled back in to her own lane, something happened to our car!

"Our car turned over three times, and I flew out the door as I wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Both of my lungs ruptured and my right arm and clavicle were severely broken. . . . I bruised a kidney, was instantly blinded, and had a lot of internal bleeding. I suffered two heart arrests on the operating table and this along with other factors resulted in my suffering severe and extensive brain damage."

Her mother was not badly hurt.

Nellie's sister Lilah, then 15, grew close to Nellie during the endless rehabilitation.

"We were in a way two lost souls making the best of a rotten situation," Lilah later wrote. "Nellie had been abandoned by all the glamorous friends who continued their perfect lives without her. I had been abandoned by my parents whose sole focus in life was Nellie's condition."

As Nellie struggled through 30 months of surgeries and therapies, her parents reminded her of a story that would become family lore. When Nellie was 4, her mother awakened from a nightmare: Nellie had been gravely injured in an accident. Cookie Greene roused her husband, who hurried into Nellie's room and scooped the sleeping girl in his arms.

"Remember, Nellie," he urged her, "if you are ever in trouble, never, ever give up!" He made her promise.

In February 1973, Nellie and her mother finished that drive to college.

Compared with today, Nellie had somewhat more function. She could walk with the help of friends. She could type with 10 fingers. But life, even putting coins into the dorm washer, was a constant struggle. Her mother read her textbooks onto cassette tapes, and mailed them to Nellie.

Nellie remembers "doggedly pursuing my interest in China and Chinese studies." But when she came home for spring break her junior year, "my parents asked me, quite sensibly, what I could do with such a major, and I didn't have an answer."

"I returned to college in near-despair and, during a sleepless night, received my call to pursue the ordained ministry.

"I can't really describe how it happened. All I know is that one minute, I was crying as if my heart would break, and in the next, my soul was completely at peace and the decision was made."

Nellie was ordained as an Episcopal deacon in 1993, and has served at Chestnut Hill United Methodist since then.

She gives five or six sermons a year. Her parishioners love it when she interprets scripture through her own experience. It gives them new perspective on their own trials.

"My world is bigger because of Nellie," said parishioner Joy Bergey.

One example: In 1996, Nellie gave a sermon based on a reading in Matthew in which a Canaanite woman persisted until Jesus healed her daughter.

"This woman had a dream, and she wouldn't let God off the hook until she had achieved it," Nellie preached.

Nellie focused the rest of the sermon on "another woman I know," who also had a dream, "and wouldn't let God off the hook until she had achieved it."

"Her dream was . . . to get her degree and graduate in the usual four years. Only trouble was, this woman could barely walk or talk, couldn't write, and she was too blind to read.

"Like the Canaanite woman, hers was a lonely mission. She had to get up at 5 every morning, because it took her three to four hours to shower and dress for her morning classes.

"She was too proud to use a wheelchair . . . so when she stumbled on the ice on her way to the dining commons or to class, she got on her knees and crawled. . . .

"This woman didn't feel any great encouragement from God. Instead, she felt God challenging her. . . .

"Most of the time, she was simply too exhausted to give God much thought, and when she did pray, it was to beg God to get her through another day.

"In reflecting about this college experience," Nellie continued, "I realize that Jesus was with her every step of the way. Even when she didn't feel his presence, he was there. He came to her in the person of wonderful professors, who bent over backwards to help her achieve . . . many friends who read to her, studied with her, ate with her, and just plain laughed and had fun with her.

"Another critical lesson we can learn from this text is that God hears us when we cry out. Even when we think God is ignoring us, God is really there. . . .

"The thought I will close with is no matter how much we might feel like outsiders, this passage demonstrates that all of us belong. Never forget this!"

Nellie herself forgot this in 1982.

She had just graduated from Yale Divinity School, leaving behind her friends and intellectual life, and had moved into Inglis House in Philadelphia to live among the disabled, to explore her commitment to ministry.

Within three weeks, she was hospitalized in a straitjacket, sedated on Thorazine. She refused to eat, and begged her parents to help her die.

Physicians put a tube in her nose, forcing in nutrition.

After weeks in the hospital, she closeted herself in her bedroom at her parents' house.

"I read and reread all the writings of St. Paul as well as Peter Brown's biography of St. Augustine." She listened to a recording of Paradise Lost.

"I didn't care if I lived or died," she wrote. "Life had lost its meaning, and I felt trapped in a body which I hated." What caused the breakdown 12 years after the accident? "I think fear. Fear of everything," said her mother. "Suddenly she was out in the open world."

Nellie's family and many friends going back to boarding school have remained devoted to her. They "dragged me back into life," Nellie e-mailed recently. "Everyone rallied around me."

Not a day goes by when Nellie doesn't think about all she's lost. She blames only herself - she wasn't wearing a seat belt.

"Thirty-seven years have gone by, and I still can't forgive myself," she e-mailed. "Nor can I blame God. Shit happens."

Years ago, her mother read her Man's Search for Meaning, a book by Viktor E. Frankl, a survivor of Nazi death camps.

"It made a big impression on me," she e-mailed. "One thing I learned is that all of us have the freedom to choose the attitude toward the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

"We can wallow in misery, or make the best of it, and try to move on. I've chosen the latter. Here is where my faith has helped me. I believe that God is there with everyone, and eager to help us get through any ordeal. All we have to do is ask."

When Leslie Rector arrived in Nellie's room to rehearse the Lenten sermon, this message was on Nellie's computer screen:

"Welcome Leslie and thank you SO much for coming, and agreeing to do this! Please pull up a chair and relax. . . .

"The way we rehearse is for you to read it to yourself first, then back to me aloud. Then I'd like you to go in my bathroom, leave the door slightly ajar, pretend you're in church, and read it again. My mother has to hear you. She's hard of hearing."

Rector, a church member, hugged Nellie and then read the sermon once to herself, slowly.

"It's wonderful, absolutely wonderful," Rector said.

Nellie glowed.

Then Rector read Nellie's sermon aloud.

Nellie listened intently for 17 minutes. Afterward, she powered her wheelchair up to the keyboard and began to type.

Rector fretted, "Now I feel like the kid who screwed up."

"S. . .p. . .l. . .d. . ." Nellie's hand traveled across the keyboard to the backspace key and deleted the d. She typed the d again, and once more deleted it. (As a fail-safe, the computer speaks each letter as she types it.) Finally she typed an e, and continued: ". . .n. . .d. . .i. . .d!"


"Oh, yea," Rector gushed.

Nellie kept typing: "Now go into the bathroom and shout!"

"OK," said Rector. "I'm going into the bathroom. But I hope nobody comes and carts me off as a crazy person."

Halfway through the reading, Nellie typed stop. Rector had read, "In the name of our God," and Nellie corrected her by typing, "In the name of God."

Rector concluded, projecting clearly from the bathroom.

Nellie typed: "Thank you. You will be as Tony the Tiger would say, Grrrrreat!"

And then she added, "Please practice at home."

Rector promised she would, and put on her coat.

Nellie typed one more thing.

"May I give you a hug?"

"You never have to ask," said Rector.

She moved in and gave Nellie a long, nourishing hug. For the first time that day, Nellie made a sound. She purred.

Nellie turned to the keyboard and keyed in a symbol, a red heart. And enlarged it to fill the screen.

Many say the essence of her ministry is that Nellie radiates such faith and love in the face of tragedy.

"I have gone to see her feeling burdened by life - due to personal challenges, personal loss, or just chronic busyness," said her boarding school friend Helen Mirkil. "I always leave unburdened.

"She has let the love of Jesus fill her dark places," Mirkil added, "giving others in abundance what the Lord has given her."

The Rev. Hal Taussig, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Methodist, summed up Nellie's gift this way:

"We all get hurt and make the choice whether to feel the hurt and live through it, or go numb and deny the painful experiences. Part of the territory she carves out, that so many of us don't know about, is the willingness to stay present emotionally to pain rather than go numb."

Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvaniasaid that whenever he saw Nellie, he thought of the sonnet "On His Blindness," by English poet John Milton.

Going blind, Milton wondered how he could still serve God. In the famous last line, Milton wrote:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Nellie arrived at Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church on March 4 as she always does - by paratransit.

She was there by 8:30 a.m. and sat alone in the sanctuary, where the driver left her, until another church member happened along to take off her coat.

Nellie can wait an hour or more. She is used to it. She meditates and prays.

"I pray a LOT," she explained, "and I'm still not completely sure God hears me, but I hope God does. When I'm deep in prayer, something inside me shifts, and God becomes real."

Sitting in her wheelchair, Nellie seemed so broken, so fragile.

The dance transformed her.

As Lisa Lovelace recited Nellie's poem, becoming her voice, she climbed on Nellie and on her wheelchair, at one point standing tall on the armrests as two children (including Lovelace's 10-year-old son) pushed them through the sanctuary.

I am the tightrope walker, balancing between two worlds;

I am the prisoner rudely captured

The anxious rider on an unpredictable horse

Lovelace, dressed like Nellie in jeans and turtleneck, pulled Nellie out of the chair and walked with her. Lovelace dipped Nellie left and right as in a ballroom dance.

There were delays as Lovelace got Nellie in and out of the chair.

"That's Nellie's life: silence and waiting," Lovelace said later. "I let them feel that."

Lovelace lay across Nellie's lap, pushing the wheel with one hand, making a circle, as she recited the verse:

. . . in my little craft, caught in a storm . . .

Lovelace crumbled bread onto the floor, as did Nellie, who can't control her fists, and can't help but crush bread.

Staring at her hands, Lovelace recited:

They make me feel unreal, as if I were half a person.

Am I myself or a monster?

Lovelace ran around the church, leaping and exulting in physical glory.

I was an athlete, a singer, an actor, a leader in school . . .

And she came to a halt, kneeling, nose to nose with Nellie, and whispered:

I had it all!

Many in the church wept.

After the dance, a vestment was hung over Nellie's shoulders. Then Leslie Rector stood beside her and read Nellie's words:

"The choice is to accept grace, love and guidance and God's transformative power because of the work Jesus did here, or we can say no. It is a choice and it is a pilgrimage. . . .

"I struggle with this a lot because sometimes my faith in God feels so weak as to be nonexistent. . . .

"But, even when I know I am falling short, and the way ahead is not clear, I still do my best to go through the narrow door. I think that is the best any of us can do."

The Rev. Elinor R. Greene's next sermon is scheduled for May 6 at Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, 8812 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia.

And when she was away from her typewriter, she carried a plastic board with her, which she still carries today. It has simple words on it, like "Yes" and "No," and all the letters. By pointing to these words or letters, Nellie can communicate, all be it slowly and in a limited way.


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