On Monday of this week, a very dear woman in our congregation passed away. Her death was sudden and unexpected, though her body had been battling a series of health challenges for some time. All of us were devastated at the news and struck by the reality that when it comes to the gift of life we all enjoy, there is never certainty nor security. Some of us had scheduled time to go and visit Jennie this week, and now we can only stare at that gaping hole in our appointment book. We are a church in mourning, and we especially share the grief of Jennie’s son, and the burden of his loss.
I preached on Sunday about what it would mean for our church to embrace the picture of love given to us in I Corinthians 13. I talked about what kind of people we would be if we were truly slow to anger; patient; forgiving; not self-seeking. I preached this sermon in the context of an ongoing series on racial righteousness, and I found that this text that is most often heard at weddings or put on the front of a romantic greeting card, is actually quite hard. And as we looked at and received this text in the context of loving across boundaries of race and culture, God’s word came to us with great conviction.
I mention this in the context of Jennie’s passing because she was a leader among us in demonstrating the power of living with a First Corinthians love.
was confined to used a wheelchair. Three years ago this Spring, she and her friend Agnes, who is also in a wheelchair, received fliers from us announcing our church’s “preview services” at Loren Miller Park. They showed up a week early and ended up participating in our practice run the week before our first scheduled service, and were with us from that point on. They were two of our earliest members. A few months later, the decision was made to move our regular weekly worship to a new location due to the space limits at the park rec center. A local AME Zion church in our neighborhood opened their doors to us, and we moved our worship to their facility. The meeting room they gave to us was not wheelchair accessible. In making the decision to move our worship there, we vowed to get a ramp that would allow for our members in wheelchairs to have access. We went for weeks and then months without an adequate resolution to this need (we tried these little removable rails that never worked; we raised money and worked with a designer to build something large and permanent; we ran into code issues and permission issues from the church, etc.).
For a while, we would carry Agnes up the short flight of stairs in her chair so that she could participate. Jennie was never comfortable doing this, so she would sit outside the door where she could listen to the service, and Agnes would call her from inside on her cell phone and give her the scripture reading. And one or two of us would go outside and sit with her for the duration of the service. Finally, Jennie and Agnes wrote us all a letter expressing how much they desired to be a part of our church family, but that they could not do so until we met in a place that fully accommodated them. It was not long after that that we moved back to the park for a short while before finding a local grade school that was fully accessible. And Jennie and Agnes were once again at the center of our life together. Even today, I burn with shame at this part of our history as a church. Jennie was an example of someone who lived with a love that forgives; of love that keeps no record of wrongs. And she helped us learn something about love that always protects.
At home, Jennie cared for her son and for her mother who lives with Alzheimer’s. On two different occasions, we had guest ministry groups come to our neighborhood for the week to serve in both practical, service-project ways as well as in outreach to children in our neighborhood. While most of the large-scale work projects focused on the remodeling of our tutoring center, both groups sent small teams to Jennie’s to paint a few of the rooms in her house. All of us involved were struck by both the difficulty of her life, and the joy that she deeply knew and freely shared. We offered some very simple acts of service to her those weeks; she offered us a radical witness of a person who knows gratitude in the midst of trials. When you spent time with Jennie, you could not help but see a pretty amazing picture of what living with a love that always hopes and perseveres can really looks like.
Jennie was African American. We talk a lot as a church about how to be truly welcoming to the different races and cultures here in our community. We take seriously the things that could be barriers to full welcome and participation for members of any specific race. One issue that a few non-African Americans in our congregation repeatedly raise is that we should be careful how much of a Latino feel we allow our services to have, as that could be a strong deterrent for black people in our community. Jennie was perhaps one of the most vocal defendants of having the scripture each week read in Spanish for the sake of our Spanish speakers, for singing songs in Spanish during out times of corporate worship through song, and she would even go so far as to exhort all of us that we needed to take seriously our responsibility to learn Spanish. Jennie was an example of life infused with a love that is not self-seeking; a love that is quick to show kindness to others, especially to those whose needs could be overlooked.
I preached a sermon last week and I did my best to illustrate this passage about a love that transforms. Jennie gave us the lasting witness of a life that demonstrated the transformation.