The camp chapel was mostly dark, with the exception of one lamp that stood next to a table of people who held my fate. It looked and felt like the set of an interrogation room in a late 1990’s cop procedural drama. Seated at the head of the table was the regional head of my denomination, and down either side sat the rest of the leadership team that would decide if I was going to have their blessing to be sent to seminary. Pastors who were not on the committee sat in the dark rows of chairs about ten feet away. I took my seat and the foot of the table and took a deep breath as quietly as I could, hoping that they would not see my knees shaking under the table. I do not remember the first question that I was asked, but I remember the second.
“You know that if you’re not married by the time you’re done with seminary, you’ll be alone for the rest of your life, right?” The woman who had asked that bitter question was, in fact, a single minister who was not far from retirement.
I blinked. I was 27 years old, and there I sat, presented with a bleak future in a room that smelled like dust and canvas. Seminary was about a year away, and then would last two years. I would be 30 years and 5 days old when I would be ordained. My expiration date was set.
“I don’t think that my effectiveness as a minister is dictated by the presence of a ring on my finger,” I responded. Crap. Not exactly the most tactful response, particularly to a panel of people who, at the time, stood between me and my calling. I rallied. “I have had a lot of examples of single women ministers who didn’t seem held back by their status. Could I ask for a better role model than Shirley Y?”
Thankfully, this seemed to smooth things over, and they moved onto other questions. I knew that Shirley would be my ringer. Everyone at that table would have at least heard of Shirley.
By the time I knew her, she was very near retirement. A short, stocky woman with gray hair and glasses like my grandma wore, Shirley had the towering task of being the teen Bible Study teacher for 12 – 15 of us, and while we were relatively good kids, she had her work cut out for her.
When I was a kid living in Michigan, I wasn’t one of the cool kids, but there were enough of us who weren’t cool that I seemed to fit in enough to avoid being the target of much bullying. At ten, when we moved from Michigan to the northwest suburbs of Chicago, I had no idea just how uncool I was. Even the cool kids in Michigan would have been big dorks in Chicagoland. School became a nightmare, an endless stream of bullies who never seemed to run out of reasons to be cruel to me. By the time I hit eighth grade, the stress was so bad that I got physically sick and ended up in the hospital for dehydration and “a virus” that they never pinpointed. Half-way through eighth grade, a little bit of hope glimmered: a new church. A place where no one knew how bad things were at school. A small church that was just starting but that had a bunch of kids near my age.
That hope was short-lived. It didn’t take long until my new church became as lonely and miserable as school. Watching Mean Girls feels more like reminiscing than it should. Halfway through high school, a rumor about me got started at summer camp, and that rumor made its way back to the church. Not only did I feel rejected by my peers, but now, many of the adults seemed to treat me differently, to eye me with skepticism and keep me at arms’ length.
Except for Shirley. Shirley didn’t seem to know what it meant to treat a kid with anything other than love. If she’d heard the rumor, she never seemed to show it. She still smiled at me and told me jokes. She listened and took me seriously. Shirley loved to laugh but she knew how to be honest with us. Shirley was joy, despite the fact that we all knew she was sick.
In the years after high school, every time I came home from college or went to a regional church event, I looked for Shirley. I wanted to hug her and tell her about the good things that I’d done or seen, because when Shirley talked to me, I knew she loved me. I had her attention and she was always happy for me. She was proud when I graduated from college and when I went to seminary.
While I was busy with growing up, Shirley was busy with doctors’ appointments. Her early life of troublemaking had taken its toll on her, and physically speaking, she was in ever-worsening shape, and yet her joy was unceasing. She was never grumpy. She never complained. She had a gladness that came from knowing Jesus, a gladness that I so rarely see. Over the years, as I would see her name in the bulletin for prayer, I sent cards, hoping that she would somehow know that though I was far away, I still loved and prayed for her.
Shirley was Promoted to Glory about a week ago, which is the term that my denomination uses for the death of a person whom we believe is saved. When I heard that she had passed away, there was such a mix of emotions: sadness over losing a friend, relief knowing that she wasn’t in pain anymore, a general achey-ness at the loss of a role model.
Shirley’s funeral was on Monday, and when I arrived, I was glad to be reunited with some of Shirley’s other “kids.” In the years that have passed, we’ve gotten beyond the hardness of those earlier years and have become friends. Without discussing it ahead of time, we all sat together. We whispered, giggled, fixed each other’s crooked collars and kicked the Kleenex box back and forth. We sang the songs Shirley had loved and we sniffled as we tried to avoid the dreaded “ugly cry.” After the service, when we gathered for coffee and sweets, we sat around tables and laughed. Shirley would have been glad to know there was so much laughter.
Will I end up “alone forever,” as the panelist implied in my pre-seminary interview? I don’t know. What I know is that I am going to try to make sure that as I continue to minister, I am going to do what I can to make sure that the people I encounter won’t feel that way. I am going to try to love beyond rumors, beyond unpopularity, beyond the lost-cause status that someone may seem to have. I know it can be done because I watched Shirley do it for 18 years. I know I can do it because I am one of Shirley’s Kids, and because of her, we have seen what holiness looks like.