Of Blessed Memory

“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.

Harper Lee

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Harper Lee 1961 Monroeville Courthouse

Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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

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Harper Lee 2006

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

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Source: Bloomington, Indiana Herald Times

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.

Laverta-Terry-1455972308 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/)

Hands of the Strong: Southern Exposure – People

Southern Exposure – People

 A new novel by Harper Lee.  Stunning news.  There she is, pictured on the front page of sections in today’s New York Times and USA Today.  Unbelievably, a previously written novel now has been discovered.  Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and rumored to have existed for many years, it has been found.  The new novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, will be out in July 2015Only recently discovered among other documents, the news story suggests that even Miss Lee did not know this novel still existed.  It was written prior to, and with source material for, To Kill a Mockingbird.

What does this have to do with the Amerson’s 2015 tour through the south?  Well — everything and nothing — I guess.  We were able to visit with many wonderful friends along the way.  I will only mention one by name, Thomas Lane Butts.  Tom lives in a town in southern Alabama, Monroeville.  We stopped for a delightful visit with Hilda and Tom on January 12, 2015.  Monroeville, you puzzle?  Yes, some of you are already making the connection with Miss Harper Lee, she too lives in Monroeville.

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In fact, Dr. Butts and Harper Lee are longtime friends.  For years they would meet for breakfast every Thursday at the Hardees in town.  Harper Lee was known for her reclusive ways but among her most trusted friends are the Butts.  When you visit Monroeville you feel as if you have walked right into the fictional Maycomb County of the novel.

Thomas Lane Butts has been a remarkable friend to Elaine and me over the years.  He has been one of my mentors.  He is a great preacher — to my knowledge no other preacher’s sermons were more often featured on the national radio program The Protestant Hour.  His commitments to the civil rights struggles meant that he often took courageous stands during the early days of his ministry.  As a result was often overlooked, ridiculed and even punished by religious and denominational leaders.  Tom is, for me, a giant.  I chuckle when I say this.  He is great in spirit and in intellect although he is short in physical stature.  I write about him today because he represents so many exceptional southerners we have been privileged to know. 

I knew Tom long before I became president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and was pleased to discover after my appointment to that post that Tom was a graduate.  In fact, he finished a masters degree in pastoral counseling in Evanston before returning to the south and many years of courageous sacrifice in the service of racial justice.  If you want to hear more of Tom’s remarkable story you can find the sermon he preached at Garrett-Evangelical in the fall of 2013 on the school’s website: (http://www.garrett.edu/gmedia/pdf/communications/Thomas_Lane_Butts_Sermon_Nov_2013.pdf).

The movie Selma was playing as we traveled across the southern states.  We took time to see it one evening along the way.  I was reminded of the many great folks who sought racial justice in the past — and who still act with courage and vision.  On our southern tour we visited so many of them. 

We visited with friends who work at the Open Door community, a ministry modeled in the Catholic Worker tradition that offers shelter and clothing for the homeless and gives witness against the death penalty in Atlanta.  There were university deans providing remarkable leadership and preparing a new generation of community, religious and academic leaders.  There was a bishop who is doing amazing work that opens new vistas for the church in Texas.  We spent time with a medical doctor who is extending the availability of health care to the poor across the southeastern U.S. and a psychiatric social worker who provides creative new ways for mental healing.  There were teachers, preachers, engineers and preschool teachers along the way.  There was the board chair of a Fortune 500 company and a retired school teacher who drives elderly friends to the grocery each week.

“Red State/Blue State” divisions have become a part of our national vocabulary.   We think we can predict how people will behave or think based on where they live.  Of course, we know it isn’t true — but we so easily can divide folks into false dichotomies.  Stereotypes are dangerous things.  We found remarkable people everywhere we went, even in the most out of the way places.  Miss Harper Lee demonstrated this in her writing first published fifty-five years ago.  Do you recall?  I especially remember two quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird — the book we thought would be the only book Harper Lee would publish.  She wrote “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”  And in another place she says, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

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I started writing this blog wondering if it was something I would want to continue.  Now, I find I am thinking of more posts than I dreamed might be tucked away in the corners of my consciousness.  If you would like to hear more about any items mentioned today, just ask.  Here are some of the other things I plan to write about soon:

  • What Contemporary Atheists Get Right,
  • What We Learn from Bees,
  • The Sermon that Pushed Me Over the Edge,
  • Encouragement Even Helps a Rat!
  • Whining Bishops and Other Oddities,
  • Why I Won’t Plant Rutabagas
  • Racism and Other Modern Mysteries

As you can tell, there will be whimsy and challenge, critique and compliment in the postings ahead.  Perhaps you would like to follow this post regularly?  There is now a “tag” along the right edge allowing you to do this.  Perhaps you will share this with friends.

Just Folks — Phil A