It’s been eight years now. But. . .
around the time Brenda died, an entire section of a street collapsed just north of church. An underground water main burst, the concrete crumbled, the trees and cars and fire hydrants started sinking into the earth, water gushed out in torrents into the 10 below wind chill winter night flooding the world: as if the ground itself was gone and there was no place left to walk.
That collapse of the very earth, that literal shaking of the foundations, didn’t even begin to paint the picture of what it felt like to lose her. Because this is Brenda.
Comforting words of faith sat dimly lit on the sides of the frigid waters of the street where there was no place to walk. The words weren’t kicking in this time. Dim lights on the sidelines just not taking hold. Because this was Brenda.
In this past week of sleepless nights and drifting minds since she died, sometimes I’d be doing something like driving down the street and just for a second I’d have to force myself to focus on things like, the steering wheel, the turn signal or the brake. Not really sure, I’d be thinking, if I could find the words to describe this loss. Even if I could, why would I have the audacity to say them out loud or write them down?
A late afternoon gray winter sky enveloping all of us, I let myself into the church. Standing alone in front of the alter she had taken care of for so very, very long, I thought again about the audacity of even talking about her and what she brought to our community.
Then I heard her voice.
In those same strong, clipped Welsh, British tones I heard her say: “Don’t be ridiculous, Roger.” Say your piece. Say it clearly. Say it with faith for all. Then be done with it!!”
As I heard her voice, I closed my eyes and I could see her. Smiling eyes of wisdom and God’s love. A twinkle, then a laugh. Right there. In the pews about ½ way to the back. I could see her sitting there. There she was!
I have never known such a leader.
She’d bristle at the word leader, I am sure. But I’d say it anyway and that part she would like. I remember the time I caused some ripples in the church by partnering with a local group of another faith to let them rent a part of our building. Brenda called me one night to get to the body of all this. She did things directly. She hadn’t liked what she’d heard in the arguments around this dispute.
I will never forget Brenda saying to me about half way through the 90-minute conversation: “All right, Roger. I can’t believe I’m changing my mind, but you’re right.” At a church meeting we had a week or so later, Brenda got up to speak in favor of the partnership. Her husband Noel, in one of his most brilliant moments – and there have been a lot of them – kicked the ball into the net by standing up, simply reading our Church’s Welcome statement, printed weekly in our bulletin, and then sitting down without saying another word.
The moments come pouring in: Brenda in their basement rec room, holding court myself and a few other folks, Noel walks up grinning, gives her a crisp military salute and says “Permission to speak!”
Because this is Brenda. I remember her leadership, her command, but I mostly remember a lot of laughter. A lot of laughter.
Just last Sunday, I sought her out coming into church. My wife was down with a cold and wouldn’t be able to be there that morning to hear Brenda speak. So I passed along my wife’s deepest apologies.
Brenda replied, “Missing my talk is not important. How she’s feeling is important. I’m coming over after church to see how she is!” So that – because this is Brenda – was that.
When she got up to speak, this always elegant, true lady got behind the podium, reached up to pull down the microphone, fumbled with it a moment and said “I’m just a little girl.” Our temporary Pastor jumped up instantaneously ready to step up and help her. But before the Pastor took two steps, Brenda had of course fixed it on her own.
No one knew that this would be her last message to her community.
She spoke of her childhood. Her village back in Wales. Then she began talk of coming age at in the early days of World War II. She paused for a moment to remember and then she said,
“Then all the men left, so the women took charge.”
Imagine all she summed up with that one line.
Her message last week truly was a miracle. I’m sure as I remember it again and again through the years, I will be as fed with the spirit as I was just the first time I heard it. . It was as if she had opened history’s gate and let gently flow a history of faith down from little village churches in the mountains of Wales to the flat bustling streets of Chicago. She made our history blend in with everyone’s history. Brenda gently reminded us that like everything else in the greater story of those who have faith, all of this has happened before. She told us that the church, her community, had been there for her.
In leaving that gathering, that morning, I remember feeling a head held high strength in walking behind her. She told all of us, she told me, that we could weather any storm. She told us we’d be fine. She told us not to worry.
Forty-eight hours later she was gone.
In celebrating her life and moving quickly and efficiently—as she would have wanted—to heal from the body blow this faith community has taken in loosing this force of a woman who kept us all strong, I can imagine an almost endless soothing rushing stream of Brenda stories. Years from now, children not yet born will see that the holiday decorations that new hands unpack from an old wooden crate every Christmas, they will hear stories of Brenda.
Then here is what will happen through the years:
In the room built by Brenda and Noel right off the front of this church, a Pastor will pause before walking out to lead the community. She will take a drink of water from the faucet in that sink installed by Brenda and Noel. Somehow she will be able to speak of loving a neighbor, as she never has before. Speak of love in a way that every single thirsty soul in the community will hear.
Or a blessed bride and groom will stand and wait to go out to be married exactly as my wife and I did. Lay a hand on the counter. Then they will be blessed with a marriage that is filled with love supreme.
All of this beginning in the room built by Brenda and Noel.
By simply placing their hand on that counter, somehow, someway in that place where faith is made real, they will feel the words of the great theologian Paul Tillich, they will know and maybe even hear a voice saying
“You are accepted! You are accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything, do not do anything, do not intend for anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” Believer, questioners, questioning believers. All of us.
That’s what we do here. We welcome.
No matter where on life’s sometimes weary and often joyous journey they are right now, they will touch that counter, walk out to the front of a loving community of faith, No matter who they are. They will be accepted.
They will be welcomed and told we are glad they are here.
We can do that here. Those who come after us can do it too.
Because Brenda showed us how.
Excerpted from “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs” Copyright 2013 Think Different Press. Chicago, IL