In remembrance of Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas was an attorney at the Legal Rights Center. Born and raised in southside Chicago, Leah’s older brother had been a member of the Black Panthers. She was raised with the cry for social justice in her bones, full of faith, smiles, laughter, and steadiness, a sturdy legal advocate and “mother” to the juvenile clients she defended in Hennepin County District Court.

She fainted one morning getting her coffee at Panera Bread. Days later she was gone. The funeral was held at her African-American church in Minneapolis. As Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center and Leah’s colleague and friend, I offered the following Tribute to Leah at the funeral.

Like light

Like joy

Like sun breaking through a storm

Her laughter

Brightens the room

Breaks the ice

Fills it with peace.

Mama walks lightly

Amid the trials and the cares

Quick as a black panther

Steady as a turtle

She coos with the tenderness

of the turtle-dove

walks with the strength of a lion.

With steady hand

With sturdy faith

And clarity of mind

She laughs

And soars her craft

Through clouds and storms

To lead us on and through.

Like light,

Like joy,

Like sun breaking through a storm,

She laughs,

She brightens the room,

She wipes our tears

She fills us with her peace.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Legal Rights Center, Inc., Feb. 1, 2005.

The Man Who Loved Graves

Andrews Casket Company mill in Woodstock, ME

Andrews Casket Company mill in Woodstock, ME

My great-great-great-grandfather Isaac Andrews founded the Andrews Casket Company and Funeral Home next to the trout stream in Woodstock, Maine more than 250 years ago. Isaac was a minister.Because there was no carpenter in town, he not only stood at the graves. He built pine boxes for those he buried. Over the course of time, the simple boxes became the caskets of the Andrews Casket Company and Funeral Home. You might say Isaac had a monopoly in those Maine woods.

Only recently did the Andrews property leave the family when Pete Andrews, my late mother’s favorite cousin, sold it to some whippersnapper who just wanted to make a buck.

My mother used to chuckle as she recalled playing hide-and-seek with her siblings in and among the caskets at the casket factory. The land, the mill, the old homestead,the funeral home and the trout stream that had belonged to the family all those years belongs to someone new…which means that it, like Garrison Keillor’s fictional “Lake Woebegone,” never really did belong to us and does not belong to them. It does not belong to time.

Last October my brother Bob and I stood with my cousins at the open grave of my 99 year-old Aunt Gertrude – our one remaining Andrews elders. I recited from The Book of Common Worship the prayer I have prayed a thousand times at the open grave, the one my classmate Steve and I learned as young, naive pastors, a prayer for the living that feeds me day and nigh until the lights go out. I wonder if Isaac Andrews did the same way back when.

“O Lord, support us all the day long until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging and peace

at the last.”

Here’s the poem from Steve from a few days ago that inspired the above reflection.

“The Man Who Loved the Graves”

– Steve Shoemaker, April 24, 2012

When I was just a young and naive pastor,

an old man in the congregation

would always arrive long before the rest

of the people at the grave site. He’d shun

the funeral, but haunt the cemetery…

Standing by the open grave, he’d state

his opinion of the deceased and share

with me the type, style and brand of casket

he’d told his wife he wanted when he died.

As the morticians say, he “predeceased”

his spouse, and when we met to plan, she tried

to grant his wishes to the very last

She blessed their common gravestone with her tears,

but smiled through life for many happy years…

Like the widow of the man who loved graves, I smile through tears for all the years, and I take strange solace in knowing that I don’t really “own” a thing.

“Where are the ashes!!!”

Gordon C. Stewart, February 24, 2012

It happened on Ash Wednesday.

“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!” It’s fifteen minutes before the Service. “Where are the ashes!”

Every year I put the ashes for the Ash Wednesday Service in the credenza in my office. I never gave it a second thought that we had moved the credenza out of my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then…I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival! Somebody has our ashes!

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

I begin the Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the font for the waters of baptism, the waters of the renewal of life.”

We have some fun justifying the change in the Service, focusing on the that part of the Gospel text for the day – the words of Jesus himself. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen my others….But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret…”(Mt. 6:16-18).

People come to the font, one-by-one, for “the Imposition of … [Water]”. I dip my hand into the font. “Pat, (making the sign of the cross on her forehead), “Dust to dust; ashes to ashes. You are a child of God. Live in this peace.”

After the Service is over, one of the worshipers asks whether anyone has done the same for me. She reaches her hand into the font. “Gordon, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. You are a child of God…..”

I’ll never forget it. Neither will they. And somewhere in this world someone has a credenza with a sack full of ashes. Whoever you are, feel free to keep them. They’re all yours.