It had been a long day, a hard day—the day of the funeral of my priest, friend and mentor, the Rev. Emery Washington, Sr. The service had been so achingly beautiful—the choir and congregation had sung hymns of praise and hope; a poignant, gently humorous homily had been preached, and a great servant of Christ had been remembered to smiles, laughter, and only a few tears, as Father Emery would have preferred. Hundreds of people had packed the church to pay their final respects to a man whose integrity, wisdom, godliness, and kindness had made such a difference in the world.
But perhaps one of the most striking things that day happened after the service was over. My husband said he would meet me at the car, and I got halfway there when I realized I had forgotten my alb, so I had to turn around and get it.
When I came out and walked down the hill to my parking spot, I saw my husband, Bill, talking animatedly with a gentleman who looked to be just a few years older than ourselves. I thought perhaps my husband and this gentleman knew each other—after all, Father Emery had friends from all walks of life, and St. Louis is really nothing sometimes but a great big small town.
This man– whose name was Jim, he told us– talked about the wonderful life he had led, about how he was the youngest of his mother’s children, and how much his mother had meant to him. He said that before she had died at almost 100 years of age, he had taken her to Hawai’i, Europe, all around the world. Jim said he had been trying—and failing—to give back to her in her final years just a fraction of what she had given to him. He also spoke of his deep faith, which he had learned from his mama.
Jim was so forthright, so sincere, as he looked both of us in the eye and talked about the principles which had guided his life—principles very much like those that had guided Father Emery throughout his life—honesty, loyalty, hard work, all guided and uplifted by a deep faith in God. Our conversation was delightful, free and easy. It felt like we had known him for months or years, and during the entire time we three spoke together, I thought my husband had known this man for years, so relaxed and happy he was in his presence. Although we came from different eras (we later found out he was 78 years old), different races, different parts of the country, our backgrounds were in some ways so similar—we could commiserate about mamas who don’t act their age, and about working hard, and finding joy in simple experiences.
It wasn’t until we had parted ways and Jim had walked off, singing, down the street to his car, that Bill told me how their conversation had started. While I was back in the church alb-hunting, Jim had made eye contact with Bill as he stood by our car. He had then walked up to Bill and spoke to him: “Brother, I’m not going to ask you for money,” which is an interesting way to start a conversation with a stranger. Instead he took hold of Bill’s hand and looked into his eyes as he continued, “I just want to know if if anybody has told you today that they love you? Especially anyone not related to you?”
Bill thought for a moment, and then replied, “Well, no, not today.”
Jim then responded, “Well I have come 400 miles from Alabama to tell you that. I love you.”
And that had been the start of a conversation between three strangers that was open, joyful, and fascinating. A conversation fully grounded in the bonds that are supposed to unite us into the body of Christ, that gave us a foretaste of the love of God that we are promised will bind the kingdom of heaven together.
Throughout the evening, my husband was bemused, and kept talking about what an amazing man Jim was; how he had felt to be in the presence of someone who was filled with the light of Christ, someone who really had no agenda but to reflect some of that light into the lives of two strangers on what had been an already incredibly emotional, bittersweet occasion. Bill kept repeating how remarkable, starkly beautiful, and authentic that experience had been, especially on the evening that we had said goodbye to a dear friend and respected spiritual advisor. As Jim held Bill’s arm, and gazed into his eyes, my husband felt lifted from this unusual love communicated so clearly from a complete stranger. When he left our presence and bid us farewell, he walked off, and he sang a hymn with a clear pure voice. His message reminded us both of what Father Emery had emulated throughout his entire life.
It was the way Father Emery had lived his life that made this encounter actually seem not-so-strange. He too had always made sure that he frequently told the people in his life what they meant to them. It may be that only in this context, as we were still adrift in memories of how much Emery had meant to us, that we were able to be open enough for our encounter with Jim. The day had been filled with a reminder that we are indeed called to love each other that fully, that recklessly.
A couple of days ago in this space we were asked to think about the angels who had appeared to us in our lives. Bill and I both agreed that our most recent encounter with angels was our remarkable time spent with Jim on that sidewalk outside our parish. And it reminded us that Emery’s love and faithfulness still reverberated through the world. That love may linger in the memories and lasting example of a beloved friend. It may also walk up to us in the guise of a stranger. But no matter what, love is never lost.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image by Leslie Scoopmire: The Rev. Emery Washington, Sr.