“OF BLESSED MEMORY”
Only yesterday I was thinking of the three words spoken all too often these days — “Of Blessed Memory.” This is a phrase that typically follows the mention of the name of a friend who is now deceased. That list among my friends “of blessed memory,” sadly, continues to grow.
Little did I realize that today, less that 24 hours after this awareness, I would speak those words about two GREAT women — Harper Lee and LaVerta Terry. They were both 89 years old — they certainly experienced life over the same decades, yet in very different ways. I think they probably saw the world – its joys and challenges – in similar ways and would have been dear friends had they met. Both will remain among my greatest teachers.
Although I met Harper Lee only through her writing and the occasional news stories about her, I felt she was a friend. We had a mutual friend, Thomas Lane Butts. Tom who for years would visit with Harper weekly would keep me updated about Ms. Lee. A treasured book on my shelf is a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that he arranged for me during one of his weekly visits. I did meet Harper Lee’s older sister, Miss Alice Lee, at a church event over twenty years ago. Every United Methodist active in denomination-wide activities knew of Miss Alice. She was that remarkable lay leader and attorney from Monroeville, Alabama.
Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 which was an immediate success. I can still remember reading late into the night while a senior in high school, caught up in the drama surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. It was fictional but I knew it was about real life, real bigotry, real threats, real racism. I loved picturing Scout, Jem, Boo and and most of all Atticus Finch in my mind’s eye.
So, it was a quite a joy this past year to read Go Set a Watchman, a
novel that was written prior to Mockingbird. It was not as polished… and less idealistic. It was not published back then. Too bad. In Watchman, Good and evil are not as easily separated… and Atticus? Oh, sadly he turns out to be more true to real life as he buys into the racism of the town — for a larger “good.” Alas.
I must say, however, that I found Watchman to be a great read, full of humor and a clear-eyed view of life.
LaVerta Terry became my friend and mentor when I served as her pastor in Bloomington, Indiana. You can catch a glimpse of her dignity, intellect, her direct manner and memorable presence in this brief piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRrZTKik8L8
Nothing was better for me than hearing LaVerta Terry laugh — and usually at my expense. She would tease and I would tease right back. She usually won. However, one evening when Elaine had other commitments, I asked LaVerta to accompany me to the opera at the Indiana University. (The opera is one of the great gifts of I.U. and LaVerta was a fine musician.) When we arrived at the auditorium, LaVerta looked at me and said “What will people think, the two of us out on a date.” I was ready for her and replied, “Don’t worry, they will think you are Elaine.” LaVerta was still laughing at the end of the first act.
In 1963, LaVerta Terry was the first African American hired by Public Schools in Monroe County. Twenty years earlier, in 1944 she had won a scholarship to the Indiana University School of Music. The remarkably sad story is that she had won first place in auditions with the Metropolitan Opera; however, when she arrived at I.U. with her luggage, she was denied a place in the dormitory because of her race.
Sadly, the persistent racial discrimination she found led her to complete her bachelors degree at Jarvis Christian College after some study at Tuskegee Institute. What a sad story and yet she was a great spirit. Later she became Assistant Director and Director of the Groups program at Indiana University. This program focused on encouraging and supporting racial ethnic minority students, most were the first generation from their family to attend college. Her students now are in places of leadership all around the world. When I was pastor in Bloomington, I would often meet them and hear of the way Mrs. Terry had been a “difference maker” in their succeeding at the university and in life.
My friend La Verta Terry taught me much. Mostly, she tried to teach me to speak the truth about difficult things with grace, elegance and style. I will never match her in this; but often I can hear her voice in my head cheering me on. And, like many of my dearest friends, she knew how to be a loving critic if I said or did something she thought might have been handled better. LaVerta, lived on the other side of the white-privilege Harper wrote about. They both knew the bitterness of racism and shaped beauty and meaning from the ugliness.
There are many, many others about whom I speak of with the words “Of Blessed Memory.” Mostly I speak these words about folks I knew, some very well, and folks who shaped me for the good. People like Daphne Mayorga Solis, Carl Dudley, Earl and Ethel Brewer, Stella Newhouse, Bob Greenleaf, Clarence Jordan, Scott Lawrence, Ernie and Polly Teagle, Ray Dean Davis, Bob Lyon, Gil James, Dow Kirkpatrick, Parker Pengilly, Liz Shindell, David Stewart, Jerry Hyde, Kenda Webb, Will Counts and Jane Tews… I am realizing this list could continue on and on. It does. Yes, the list goes on and on. It is called “the Community of the Saints.” Blessed are we who have known them, in person or otherwise; blessed are we indeed.
(You can read more about Tom Butts in the February 4, 2015 post Southern Exposure. See: https://philipamerson.com/2015/02/04/hands-of-the-strong-southern-exposure-people/)