How do you say goodbye? — a somewhat long goodbye

I remember the first time I saw All Souls Church. I had come out to Kansas City to be interviewed for a job at King Middle School in the KCMO School District. After a successful interview, with the likelihood that I’d be moving to KC, and with several hours before I was to fly back to Clarion, PA. I decided to visit All Souls and the Nelson-Atkins Museum. There was no one in the church at the time but the custodian– it was early afternoon on a summer’s day, back in the last summer at All Souls where the church closed for the summer  —   the custodian showed me the sanctuary, but, as I recall, looked puzzled by the word sanctuary itself.  With linoleum floors, cinderblock walls, triangular indentations in those cinderblock walls, and folding metal chairs, my first reaction was: high school gym/nuclear shelter. The building looks so much better now, Bragg Auditorium especially, thanks to all the hard work of John Blevins and the building committee more than a dozen years ago;  in any event,  churches are not simply buildings (as Westport Presbyterian well knows) but the people who make that place home. I recall the first service I attended (in Simpson House) in August of that summer. John Weston led the service. I sat next to Ted Otteson. Ted was the first person to welcome me to town and to the church; later that morning, he introduced me to Walt Wells, and through Walt I learned a lot about the church’s history. As the first church to which I acutally pledged (I was a pretty new UU and had only been at May Memorial in Syracuse for a few months before I left [ & before the pledging drive there commenced]; briefly, I  attended the Meadville, PA church , but before I had a chance to sign the book and pledge, I already knew I would be coming to Kansas City).

I did a lot in my first five years at the church, even serving on the Board for a couple of years. All Souls was a bright beacon in my life in those days, serving as a necessary counterweight to a demoralizing time in the Kansas City School District. I cannot go so far as to say that All Souls saved my life, but I think it may have saved my sanity, and perhaps, my soul. People on the Board were a big help, and especially, but not exclusively, Betty Hutson, the people working on the Bragg Papers,  especially, but not exclusively, Walt Wells,  RE director Jo Beck and my Zen master, Lon Swearingen, and several others. In naming these four, I do not mean to leave out others who were a great help at that time, and in all my time at the church. There’ve been many dozens of people whom I could name, but inevitably someone would be left out, not because they were not important to me, but because my memory is very quirky — sometimes I can tell you who Hannibal Hamlin and Schuyler Colfax were, while other days, I have trouble distinguishing between James Buchanan and James K. Polk.

Often, when introducing myself in religious (or faith) settings, I introduce myself as someone who believes in miracles, and who lives for revelation. That was true of me as a Catholic, and it remains true of me as a UU (non-theistic). The key, for me, to believing in miracles is to widen one’s sense of the miraculous (the idea of water walking and raising people from the dead has been too narrow a concept for me) ; I also believe it is important  to try and retain a sense of wonder as we wander through the world. And so in this place on Walnut (formerly on Warwick), the art work in the lobby has often been miraculous and revelatory, as have some Forum offerings. Often I have had aha moments in Conover, when I was skipping service and sipping coffee; quite often, during the service, a word,  a song, or an image of someone (not always the minister) exhibiting grace and gracefulness has simply taken my breath away.

And yet, I am today resigning my membership at All Souls.  In case there is some doubt, I do not leave All Souls feeling bitter or from a sense of bitterness.  Some have left justly feeling they had been badly treated here and that their truths have not been valued or appreciated.  But their story is not my story.  When I delivered the inaugural “Religious Odyssey” so many years ago (I cannot think of that institution without the glorious Jean McCormick coming to mind — and when I think of Jean McCormick, I think — “Had my mom been Unitarian, she would have been a lot like Jean”), I recall Claudine Thomas asking in the Q & A that followed my presentation, “What can we do to keep you here?”  My response involved a pause, a puzzled look, and my saying in something of a stutter, “I’m not going anywhere.” That elicited a laugh.  I was touched by the question though, and by the good wishes of the asker.  From my vantage point now, I think I probably felt, and I now feel that we can’t keep anyone “here” with us.  Life is change, and chance plays so much a part of whom we meet and what happens to us.  Try as we might, wish as we might, even pray as we might, we cannot hold on to those we love.  Death takes so many of our friends and family, and we remain powerless to stop it.  In a less dramatic way, people move away and people change.  Sometimes all we can do is wish our friends well, keep them in our hearts and minds and move on. 

“OK, Bernie, you’re leaving,” you might be thinking,  but why now?  Well, the smart aleck in me might say, why not?  I knew for some time that I’d be leaving — I had wanted to stay through the Steinke study, and into Jennifer’s time as Interim, and through the vote to call the new settled minister (never had that experience, having missed out on the Jim Eller’s candidating week and the vote), and now I’ve done that.  I’m not sure what else I might do to help All Souls in its journey.  Staying at All Souls would divide my own focus and energies, which will not aid me in my own growth, and make me less effective as a member of this community.  As to the particular day, I like to do big things on special days when I can — I first became a Unitarian (at May Memorial) on 12-12 (The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe — which involves a miracle with roses in wintertime [which I always think of in singing the chorus of “Come sing a song with me…”]!) and I joined All Souls on 11-2 (All Souls Day in the Catholic Calendar, and a day of great significance to me) — what better day for me to go than on Leap Day, as I once again take a leap of doubt into new experience. 

I’m often terrible at goodbyes; doubtless,  I am tripping up in this goodbye too.  When I watch myself saying goodbye, I  imagine myself  in a train station (some of the best goodbyes in movies are in train stations) or even on the tarmac with Bogie and Bergman.  Goodbyes always make me sad,  this one  too.  A tendency to melancholia is part of my Irish heritage. 

The sadness of goodbyes for me is the same regret I see expressed by Robert Frost at the crossroads;  at some point, you have to make a choice — you cannot travel two paths and be one traveler.  In saying this rather long goodbye, I choose to stand at the crossroads a bit longer and mourn, and give one big goodbye hug before moving on.   But in those movies, and in my own farewells,  there are generally final words following the hug, so here are mine:

I hope that the next chapter in All Souls’ story proves an exciting read — sesquecentennial coming up soon(!), and offers lots of opportunities for growth.  I hope that Rev. Dr. Gibbons proves to be an outstanding companion to All Souls, and a bright light in the community at large.  My biggest hope is that you will all become better listeners to one another.  One of the wisest women I’ve ever known, a storyteller in Syracuse, NY, once told me that she believed that we listen people into existence.  Biologically, of course, this is hooey, but the “we” we are in our hearts and mind, the “we” we present to the world requires an audience.  Each of us must find his/her own path, learn his/her own story, frame his/her own life and give it meaning.  This is our own work and is tough to do, but even tougher without an appreciative audience.  When someone tries to share a piece of him/herself, to reveal a bit of his/her inner core and that confession falls on deaf ears — it can feel like a death, and the more it happens, the quieter our voices become, and our little lights grow a bit dimmer.  I have my own share of failings in this regard — trained by the good Jesuits, I was trained to be a lawyer for Christ — a lot of my classes in high school and college were like big debates, with everyone trying to win the argument; I can still quite often get fired up on behalf of my position (which I’m sure is right), but sometimes the conviction that makes us good advocates, and sometimes the enthusiasm that goes with such advocacy, can drown out another’s voice.  To any who  read this who were dinged because of my clumsiness and the heavy-lifting rhetorical training of my past, I apologize.  I hope that all of us become better listeners, not just out of a sense of altruism, though that’s part of it, but because there is so much beauty in the world it would be a shame if we put up blinders that shut a brother out, or kept us from hearing a sister’s voice, or feeling, even for a moment, another truth.

This is not good-bye in the hail and farewell sense — I’ll still be in town, but for most of the time, we won’t see each other.  I’ll continue to remember lots of things about this place and all you people and I hope you all realize your potential and enlarge the shared dream of All Souls.


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