At first I had a lot of fear about this memorial service for mom in St. Louis and wasn’t even sure I could handle showing up. The thought of sharing my sorrow with so many people was too much to bear. Then I was reminded of the wonderful friends I longed to see. Being with Slim and Zella Mae, Ray and Judy and family, my family and other good friends coming in from out of town made the whole trip worthwhile.
I practiced for a few hours with Slim and Zella Mae Cox and Judy Redlich before the service was to begin. Jim Barnes and I had been on the phone in days before setting up the order of service. I really wasn’t sure what this thing would look like when it was all thrown together. None of us did. There were so many factors, so many different kinds of people. And we didn’t know who’d be in the audience. There was just a general invitation put out on the television for “whosoever will.” Dad and Jim were expecting hundreds of people and I guess that’s how many showed up. I told my family that I just wasn’t sure how I’d handle the audience. I’d grown up before the watching world on Channel 24 so on up until I was at least eighteen I’d have little ladies walking up out of the blue to pinch my cheek and say how much they’d loved me since I was a child. I didn’t want any of that happening. Not now. I knew I couldn’t take that.
What happened was that as I practiced the songs and milled about I saw and remembered so many close friends from different years of my life. As more and more folks arrived I felt surrounded by loving care. These weren’t scary people, they were family! I looked out and saw Joel, a man who’d been in NLEC’s family for over twenty years on and off, and Benny, and Bill and so many other faces. I wanted to cry and go embrace them all! I wanted to spend hours catching up, but I couldn’t. Suddenly my sadness changed from fear to hope. I was sad that I couldn’t be there longer! In many ways St. Louis has always been my home away from home. I’ve always loved my memories of NLEC in St. Louis and its people more than any other place I made home (aside of course from sweet home Chicago). So the memorial became this literal picture of the promise of heaven where we would all be reunited for eternity!
Mom’s sister Judy and her husband came down from Kenosha and sat to my right. I hadn’t seen them in years. This big crazy party for mom, with so many different kinds of people testifying to what she meant to them and celebrating God’s faithfulness, was nothing any one of us could have orchestrated. It was totally Spirit led, which was our one wish. Imagine old time country gospel meets folk-fused Jesus Movement era meets black gospel testimony, poetry and song. Imagine Lutherans and Missionary Baptists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians sitting beside one another. Imagine lawyers and Christian radio execs, together with the homeless worshipping and weeping together, rejoicing and loving one another as family. This is a picture of the Kingdom of God and I’m convinced this is what heaven will look like.
I sang the song “The Far Side Banks of Jordan” as I heard it sung by Johnny and June Carter Cash. There’s a story behind this. This was one of the many songs on a playlist I put together after mom told me she had brain cancer. As Johnny and June do the song it sounds like a prophecy of what would transpire after they’d passed away. June sings the part about being the first to go, and they share the song, each taking parts that would soon apply to them. It was staggering to me when I heard that song, the way they just loved each other into heaven. I actually played the song for mom the day we were going to sing together on camera in Marshfield. I just wanted her to hear it. I couldn’t hear the song without bursting into tears, but she listened that day with a straight face. She remarked, “Well, I can’t sing this song now but I want you to do it at my funeral.” And I knew that neither of us wanted to think about a funeral then. We were both believing God that her condition would get better, not worse, in spite of all the odds.
So Martha and I did this song as a duet for Mom’s memorial service in Marshfield. Her church provided a piano player and bass player and Nate (Jen’s husband) played lead guitar and we pulled it off. I had the thought that Slim and Zella Mae and I could do it in St. Louis. But a funny thing happened. I told Slim the name of the song on the phone days before and I think he thought I said “Meet You on the Other Side of Jordan” when I kept saying “The Far Side Banks of Jordan.” So he and Zella Mae showed up and I played the track by Johnny and June for them and they said, “Wow, that’s beautiful. You don’t want us to do that. We’ll just mess it up.” I said, “Sure, you’re professionals, we’ll figure it out.”
We tried six different ways from Sunday to work it out. As a last stand I listened to them do “Meet You on the Other Side of Jordan” and said, “Look use the same three chords and tempo and sing “Far Side Banks of Jordan” with me. So we practiced it that way and it really changed the song into this cool upbeat number. But they were still unsettled with it. They encouraged me, “You can do this yourself. You’ll sound great.” So I did it myself. Now I’m my own worst critic so I don’t even like to think about the fact that I did this on live television or that Channel 24 will no doubt replay it over and over. All I know is that I enjoyed that time with Slim and Zella Mae. I feel so lucky to have sung with them.
Almost right after I did this song it was time for family testimonies. I stood up there and told everyone a bunch of things. In my mind it was all mixed up so I hope it made sense. I told about how in the early days of New Life, when we all lived communally in one building on Park Avenue in Lafayette Square, another family there had a baby. Almost right afterward they made the decision to leave the community. Living as a couple on the front lines with a vow of poverty in ministry to the poor was fine. Bringing your kids into it was another matter entirely. I told everyone about how God had sustained us as a family living this way, not by any saintly super powers of our own, but because of our bigger family–the ones sitting in that audience. And there were many others who weren’t there, who were watching on television—or maybe just never knew how God had used them! Then I said that none of us stand alone, that we are all part of a picture much bigger than ourselves, and that when anyone clings to Jesus they become a part of this big family and that heaven begins then and continues in the New Heaven and Earth. Praise the Lord. I went away that night with my heart full. Then a bunch of us went out to Lee’s Chicken and filled our bellies too. Then I let them know I needed gas money to get home so they filled my tank too! As I drove away my sister Stephanie called me and said that she meant to pinch my cheeks before she left but I got away too soon.