Social justice activist, anti-racism advocate, recorder of Black history, matriarch of this parish, poet, playwright, historian, public speaker, lector, Eucharistic minister, faithful follower of Jesus, dancer, event coordinator, friend, moral plumb line, confident, companion, self-described, “feisty old lady,”(a feisty old lady, who I will observe, could be as stubborn as a mule!), incubator of ideas, (or as she called herself, “a gooser.”) And maybe her most important role of all . . . biker babe!
What a rich and full life Byrdie Catherine Lee led. As she herself wrote in an essay titled, And Then There Was Time’ I’ve had a wonderful life . . . I’ve done almost everything I wanted to do . . . I’ve met almost everyone I wanted to meet.” That was in 2004. Looking back at the fourteen years that followed, I believe Byrdie would declare, “I have done everything I wanted to do.” Such was the fullness and richness of her well-lived live.
One of my favorite Anglican writers, C. S. Lewis, once wrote, “Die before you die, there is no chance after.” What Lewis was saying is that we should all die to those things that rob us of living fully the precious gift of life God has given each of us: Those burdens, distractions, addictions, hatreds, bigotries, believes and behaviors that are life-killing. Those things which prevent us from loving God, loving neighbor, and loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Die to those things so that you may fully live as God intends you to live. If you don’t, Lewis indicated, you lose the opportunity in death, and then it’s too late.
In word and deed, Byrdie died before she died. Trust me, there was no way she was going to lose her opportunity to live, and live fully.
When I think of Byrdie and her dying to those life-robbing things, Matthew’s parable of the Judgement of the Nations comes to mind. It’s the parable where the Son of Man comes in all his glory and the nations of the earth come before him and are separated into the goats and sheep; the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. The Son of Man addresses the sheep and says to those at his right hand, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
And then the Son addresses the goats at his left hand and he tells them that when they encountered those most in need in the world they ignored them and did not help. But they reply, well Lord we never saw you. We just saw the homeless, the hungry, the thirsty, etc. So, we didn’t think to help them because, well, it wasn’t you. Then the Son says, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’’ And they are accursed because of their indifference and callousness towards the needy and vulnerable.
Byrdie Lee was a sheep through and through. She lived her life at Jesus’s right hand. Such was her faith that she saw Jesus in all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, regardless of who they were. And she strived to help the least among us in every aspect of her life, because that is what her Savior commanded her to do. In fact, her life was a litany of caring for, and shepherding, the least among us. In that same essay And Then There Was Time she wrote, “Everyone touches someone’s life sometimes, and I have deliberately attempted to touch lives. I was a social worker, helping people when they were most vulnerable. A casual remark of mine stopped someone from committing suicide. I have conducted Sunday services in nursing homes and hospitals, and taken Communion to people in their homes. I started an Alcoholics Anonymous group in Vietnam, and adopted a twelve-year-old Yorkshire Terrier just before she was to be put down. I am currently Chaplain of my sorority chapter . . . I am a historian with [an] emphasis on Black history . . .for the past fourteen years, I have worked with high school students . . . [and] encouraged them to dream big dreams, then I work with them to make their dreams come true.”
Whether two legged or four-legged, (and sometimes the four-legged more so) Byrdie’s life was committed to helping and loving those most in need.
She was a sheep through and through.
Earlier this year I visited Byrdie when she was in hospice care at Montefiore. She was feeling pretty good and in her normal storytelling mood. She said she was happy to see me as she wanted to confide in me a story she had not shared with anyone before. It concerned her time in Vietnam as a USO coordinator. Her work during the war was to open and run clubs for the servicemen stationed in Vietnam. She loved serving that way, I suspect in no small part because of her desire to care for the vulnerable. These USO clubs and the temporary relief and distractions from the ugliness of war they offered was invaluable to those in the military, who often struggled with loneliness and homesickness.
Byrdie told me she came to know a number of servicemen who were gay, but of course, considering the time, deeply closeted. She said that while the USO club was a place for them to relax and decompress from the stress of war, just like it was for the straight soldiers, because they were gay they were never totally relaxed or truly felt safe in the club, having to be on perpetual guard hiding their sexual orientation. One day Byrdie decided to address this situation and invited a few of these men to her home for a party. It was a big success because in the safety of her home these men could let down their guard and be who they were. Eventually these parties grew, and she said, whenever they gathered there was singing and dancing and laughter and just total joy. She told me these parties were some of the best memories of her life.
Now picture this scenario. It’s such a wonderful image of what her life was: Byrdie, an African-American woman, who because of her race and gender knew what it was like to be vulnerable and marginalized and all these gay men – fearful of being outed and dishonorably discharged from the military, essentially condemning them for the rest of their lives – here they all are at her house carrying on and just having the time of their lives dancing and singing. The warmth and the joy are palpable. It perfectly captures who she was. It is a beautiful image of the kingdom life that Jesus calls us to. It’s an image that is seared into my memory.
In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us that in his father’s house there are many rooms and he goes to prepare a place for each of us. Well, in the house of Byrdie’s heart, there were also many rooms, and she was tireless in preparing a place for all of us as well. In that house of her heart, we all found a place of hospitality and warmth, laughter and safety, and most of all joy, just like those servicemen. In every way Byrdie was a sheep at Jesus’s right hand. Because of that, she has gained the eternal life promised her.
No one spoke truth to power better than Byrdie. She did so when she worked for the Army in Vietnam. She did so as Director of Housing and Community Development in East Cleveland. She did so in this Diocese. She did so in UBE. She did so in her personal relationships. She did so in the public square of the communities she lived in. She did so in this parish. I will attest to you from personal experience, that when Byrdie Lee came to your office, to as she put it, “fuss with you” you better sit down, be quiet and listen, or else! Not to be too crude, but Byrdie was calling out BS before it was popular to do so. Her ability and willingness to speak truth to power, especially when power had gone astray and become abusive or too full of itself, was without parallel. I believe this is one of her enduring qualities and why Jesus loves her so much. As do we.
In an article she wrote in 2005 titled Christ Church in Living Color, Byrdie recalls her years at this parish. She began worshipping here on the second Sunday of May in 1967. Her article details the various ministries, rectors and clergy who served this parish from 1967 until 2005. She also recalls the various controversies and turmoil that embroiled this parish in those years, especially over social justice issues, beginning with the decision to intentionally integrate the parish in the 1960’s. Byrdie of course, was a vocal proponent of all things that promoted justice for all God’s children. She concludes her essay by saying, “in [Christ Church], as a microcosm of the whole church, we have fought racism, sexism, prayer book revisions, hymn book inclusion, [celebrating the] Eucharist every Sunday, and now homophobia. We have fought liberals and conservatives, charismatics and traditionalists, and questioned what God calls us to do. When I remember what I have put up with in the name of Christ Church, I do not remember “stability” but rather turmoil. I wouldn’t change anything . . . it’s been lonely, sometimes, God, but it has been a great ride.”
Because of her ability to speak God’s truth to power and fight the good fight, Christ Church is indebted to Byrdie for who we are today as a diverse and progressive congregation. It was her passion and witness for building up God’s reign in this congregation over the past 51 year that nourishes and strengthens us to continue to proclaim the life-giving message of the Gospel in this community and beyond. Because of her witness, we do so despite the turmoil and loneliness it may cause at times. Because of Byrdie, we know it’s worth those costs, because the rewards we will reap are far richer. Like her, we wouldn’t change a thing. Because of Byrdie this parish has been, and continues to be, on a “great ride.”
In our opening anthem today we stated that, “In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help?” Paradoxically, Byrdie’s life proclaimed that even in the midst of death - of those things that would deny us life - we proclaim and live life abundantly, because in the gift of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that love and life are more powerful than death. When we ask, “from whom do we seek help?” Byrdie’s life proclaimed that we seek it in Jesus, who is our life.
Her witness to the power of Jesus’ love to heal all our foolish divisions and brokenness is one we are called to take to heart and strive to emulate in our own lives. We honor her and her life when we do so. It is Byrdie’s greatest gift to us.
We grieve the loss of Byrdie. Her death leaves a gaping hole in so many places. I miss her so much: at the Sunday 8:00 service, seeing her empty seat, hurts. Not hearing Carol offer her the Peace and calling her BC, hurts. Not seeing her dressed elegantly, glowing with that radiant smile, hurts. No longer hearing her read the scripture so passionately, hurts. Knowing she will no longer be at my side serving as my chalice bearer, hurts. Not hearing her tell the stories of her life’s rich experiences, hurts. Yes, even having her at my office door wanting to fuss with me, hurts. It all hurts. I miss her so much.
Even in my hurting, I am assured as a Christian that even at the grave we make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” Such is the power of love over death. Our grief, my sisters and brothers, will subside in time. It will be supplanted by the love that Byrdie had for us and that we had for her. Love heals. Love is the way. Love is everything.
In our own time, one day we will rejoin Byrdie in that place where “life is changed,” but “not ended.” I suspect that when we get there, she will make a grand entrance on a Harley; she will be on the ultimate “great ride.” She will smile that radiant smile and wave at us enthusiastically. When she gets off the bike, she’ll remove her helmet and give us warm loving embraces. And then the music will start and we will laugh and sing and dance and carry on into eternity; safe and secure in God’s loving care, forever.