Today we’d like to introduce you to our Faith and Grief board member, Caesar Rentie, to kick off our campaign about finding hope and comfort.
This interview with Faith & Grief Program Director, Shelley Craig has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your personal experience with grief and professional experience with grief. You have both.
Both of my parents are deceased. My parents were also deaf. When you have parents who have a physical challenge as my parents did, I quickly learned their vulnerabilities. When you’re a child, you compare when you play all those things. And there are always other families. And when my parents would come around my friends, they would ask, “What’s wrong with your mom and dad?” I was very defensive as a young boy, and very protective of them.
I think that shaped me as a young boy, so it’s not surprising that responsibility would be one of my strengths. As a child, I assumed a lot of responsibility because my parents couldn’t hear, and because really society was not geared around deafness. There wasn’t the Americans with Disabilities Act. There wasn’t a lot of aid provided to my parents.
There were organizations that were out there were doing things. But often, we’d go into the hospital, and they didn’t have everything that they needed to be able to communicate between doctors and patients. Many times that responsibility fell on me or my sister.
My parents had friends who could interpret and do some of these things with them, but their friends were also working. To ask one of their friends who is an hourly worker to come along for a doctors’ appointment is a huge ask for them to leave work to help them conduct business. It was easier to have me and my sister do that.
As a result, I was a part of many adult conversations, but I didn’t know all the context for it. I began to understand vulnerability, and I think I understood a lot of these things much earlier than I would have if I had hearing parents.
My dad was also diagnosed as a diabetic when I was younger. Ultimately, he had to have some amputation done. It was horrifying as a child to tell my dad what the doctor was saying. That’s where got a lot of my protective nature I had as a child. Then you add that onto the fact that they’re African American, and they’re deaf. They’re double and triple minorities, and they didn’t have a lot of power.
As a 10-year-old, I stayed in trouble all the time because I was always fighting for them. I would get in fights because somebody would say something that unkind, as kids do, which would always get me in trouble at school and labeled a troublemaker. When I tried to explain it, I wasn’t understood.
I learned at a very early age to recognize vulnerabilities. That meant trying to think in advance, trying to read people, and listening to my intuition. If something didn’t jive right with me, I took a lot of agency with your mom and dad when I felt there was something wrong. Over the years they learned to listen to me and my sister, because we’ve been right so many times.
Caesar’s First Interaction with Grief
After I got finished college and my dad passed away, when I was around 24 or 25, that was really the first major loss that really impacted me, because I worked so hard to protect them.
It’s funny because I was on the Barry Switzer show, and there’s a segment they did featuring my family, and part of the interview talks about the reason why the school was so important to me. My goal was to graduate and get a nice job, to take care of my mom and dad, and give them some nice things, so they could be happy.
When my dad passed away, there was a huge sadness in my life because there wasn’t anything that I could do to prevent his death. He was diabetic. He succumbed to the disease. He had a stroke, and despite his hard-working nature, he died. That was impactful to me.
How else has your story and experiences impacted your life?
Another amazing thing that I learned from deaf people, was to see how they follow their hearts. When I’m separated from what it is that I feel like I’m called to do, I’m miserable, but when I do what I love, I come alive.
When I was playing football, I loved it. I enjoyed it. I loved the competition, I loved all that stuff. I was pursuing it because I wanted to gain a better life for myself and for my parents. But as time went on, I found myself moving away from it and started coaching.
That’s certainly how my parents and all their friends were. They had different things that they loved. They just did it whether it paid them or not. They found a way to do what really, really made them happy.
My mother loved painting, and I got two paintings that she painted. I remember as soon as I looked at this art that my mother did. Her paintings were really simple, but they had this really good expression. She loved doing it, and she would do it. My dad loved cooking, so he cooked. Following that passion was really important in my family.
That’s how I ended up in ministry because I remember being in football camp thinking, “I’m not in the right place.” And I remember thinking, “I need to be somewhere else.” And then I came to the hospital, came to clinical pastoral education here at Methodist, and had an interview. I started as an intern. I do remember the very first visit that I had–I realized this was where I needed to be. All the skills that I had really seemed to fit. So here I am.
What brought you to Faith and Grief?
After I talked to Wendy Finn and had an opportunity to research the nonprofit, I thought this is good–an organization is paying attention to grief. It’s good for the American psyche.
We do not like grieving as a culture. We want to have a funeral and be done with it. We want to just say, “Well, we’re all right.”We don’t want to say we’re sad. We don’t want to acknowledge those types of things, because we look at that as a weakness.
I think it’s really important to be able to name those things and do those things–that’s what I saw deaf people do. That’s what I saw my mom and dad do. They were able to name how they felt because it was important to the relationship, and it didn’t divide their relationship. It made their relationship deeper and their bond tighter, because they knew how each other felt. They didn’t run away from it.
The work that Faith & Grief does is really important because I think while the churches and faith communities are really good vehicles for it, they stay away from it because of this infiltration…and I’m speaking in broad terms. The infiltration of a broader culture, where we want to have Easter without Good Friday, where we want to have all this good stuff, but we don’t want to suffer.
We don’t want to delay gratification to get to the championship. We don’t want to go through the process of grief. But I think it’s really important to talk about it. If we can grieve and be transparent, and embrace our vulnerabilities in all of this, then we can have deeper support and we can have deeper, meaningful relationships. W will also have a fuller life, and we won’t live in isolation.
And I think a lot of my parents’ happiness in life had to do with the fact that they were transparent. With my mother, you could tell how she felt about something. It wasn’t a secret. If she was mad, she was mad. If she was happy, she was happy. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a poker face.
My dad was the same way, and so were their friends. That’s how they taught their kids to be, and I think that this work here is really important in that sense. What we struggle with is a vulnerability in our culture.
What are your thoughts on the importance of grief and grieving?
It’s such an important time. It’s important for us. It’s part of the life cycle.
I sometimes wonder what America would be like, had we taken the time to grieve slavery. If we’d have taken the time to grieve the wounds of slavery, the civil war and all those things. I mean, I know it’s imagining a whole lot. But even where we are today, struggling with COVID-19. I think our current issues are connected to a much deeper problem in America and its need to grieve.
We came out of the civil rights movement, we came out of Vietnam, and then there was Watergate. We have all of these big events, full of huge shifts and splits and culture. I’m talking about masses that have been wounded and have suffered a serious loss. And then we move from that, so we go past the grief to consumption. We just want to gobble up everything. So we go through the 70s and 80s and lifestyles of the rich and famous.
I think it’s all tied to our not taking the time to have a national conversation to grieve over all these things. Then we had 9/11, and another war.
And there’s just not an opportunity to nationally grieve in a way that allows the whole country to mourn. There have been some presidents that have really done a good job of being able to name these moments when we have them and help the country through that process.
I think that the reason why Faith & Grief is so important is that it has the ability to be able to teach so many people. It has the ability to connect to the masses and to share wisdom around the importance of grieving.
When my grandmother passed away, my mother grieved. She was really close to her mother. And she embraced it and all of what that meant to her. She went through this process. And then one day, she was done with it. I mean, not done, done. But she had gone through a process and she looked back, and she was ready to move with what she needed to do. There’s so much we can learn from experiences like that.
What brings you comfort and hope?
My faith is really important to me, and it reminds me that I am a pilgrim passing through life. One day I’ll be reconnected with God. My body will go back to the earth, and I will have lived this life. I know, ultimately, there’s a place that the universe has for me. I have to conceptualize it–this is not my permanent place. I may have a house to live in, and I may live there for 50 years, but it is not a permanent place. Everything is shifting sand.
I am a pilgrim traveling through. My comfort comes in knowing that I’m not doing this by myself, that I do this in community with my family and my friends–the people that I love. I am not an isolation. If I was to use just Christian language, I would call it the great cloud of witnesses.
About Caesar Rentie
Caesar Rentie is a Licensed Local Pastor for North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. Prior to his leadership role, he began his chaplaincy with Methodist Health Systems in 1992. He is currently an Associate Pastor for First United Methodist Mansfield where he serves in care ministries. Read his full bio here.