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Eulogy for a Friend

By       Message Chris Hedges     Permalink
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Reprinted from Truthdig

On Wednesday, Chris Hedges delivered this eulogy at the funeral of his friend and former divinity school classmate the Rev. Terry Burke, who spent 31 years as the pastor of the First Church Jamaica Plain, a Unitarian Universalist church in a working-class neighborhood of Boston. The service was held at the church.

The night Terry died it was raining. Lightning streaks rent the sky. I walked after I left the hospital in the downpour to Harvard Divinity School on Francis Avenue. I did not go there because of nostalgia for the divinity school. Terry and I had more than enough of Harvard's elitism -- which he had already got a good taste of as a Harvard undergraduate -- and the university's propensity to turn the poor and the oppressed into airy abstractions. Most divinity students and nearly all divinity school professors stayed clear from the inner city of Roxbury [a poor, primarily African-American neighborhood in Boston], where Terry and I lived and worked. Being an intellectual, Harvard showed us, is morally neutral.

But I wanted to look at the darkened Gothic stone face of Andover Hall because it was where Terry and I were young. It is where we studied to be pastors. It was where we built a lifelong friendship. It was where we tried to fathom what it meant to live a life of faith. It was where we understood that if truth was to be heard, as Theodor Adorno wrote, suffering must be allowed to speak. It was where our ministry began.

It does not seem that long ago. I can still see him making his massive pot of red beans that we kept in the refrigerator in Roxbury and ate night after night, sometimes cold, because we had no money and because it was the only thing he or I knew how to cook. We were readers. Money, when we had it, was spent on books. We traded books back and forth, Will Campbell's "Brother to a Dragonfly," Daniel Berrigan's "No Bars to Manhood," Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, the work of our great mentor at Harvard James Luther Adams, James Cone's "Black Theology & Black Power," Cornel West's "Prophesy Deliverance!"... Flannery O'Connor, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, William Stringfellow, and poems by Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and the works of William Shakespeare. As Terry was nearing death he told [his wife] Ellen: "I am shuffling off this mortal coil."

Ellen's arrival into Terry's life -- I heard a lot about her before I met her -- made him giddy with joy. He talked about her incessantly, her red hair, her warmth, her love of music. He told me that when they were walking in Central Park in New York City a man shouted to him that he should marry that "big, beautiful woman." Which Terry, being Terry, probably decided was a commandment from God. And perhaps it was. As his health declined, he folded, physically and spiritually, into Ellen's embrace. She was his angel. And he knew this. Never, he told me, did he love Ellen so much as when he knew he was facing death.

Ellen, miraculously, knew how to cook things other than large vats of red beans. And not only that, she was willing to teach this culinary knowledge to Terry, including how to bake bread. Yes, he may not have graduated much beyond pasta and overly steamed carrots, but this was still a great leap forward. I had the habit of arriving, usually unannounced, at dinnertime to visit Terry and Ellen at their basement apartment in Cambridge. There was always another plate on the table. I still feel a little guilty about this, Ellen.

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Terry and Ellen -- she played the organ and handled the music -- have given 31 years of their lives to this church. They have been here on Sundays. They have presided over weddings, baptisms, funerals, church suppers, retreats, Sunday school, Christmas pageants and the blessing of the animals, including the stuffed animals. They made this church a real church, where all -- trans and straight, men and women, from those who were healthy to those struggling with HIV, from black to brown to Asian to white, from the disabled to the abled, from the young to the old, the well-off to the destitute, the sober and those trying to become sober -- found respect, reassurance and community. The remarkable intertwining of the lives of Ellen and Terry to create a thing of beauty, a thing we cannot see or touch but can only feel and sense, is what ministry is about. If there is a more meaningful way to spend a life I do not know it.

Terry had a fondness for puns, which I do not share, and he looked somewhat askance at my nocturnal carousing and membership on the Greater Boston YMCA boxing team. He loathed disharmony and violence. He had the seriousness of a scholar, and while I admired him for it, I was too easily distracted by the passions of the world.

Terry knew early on, as Montaigne wrote in "To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die," that we must constantly examine and slay the old self to create a better self. This is the act ritualized in the Eucharist. A constant death. A constant rebirth. And it is why the Eucharist meant so much to him. The ancient church rituals, icons and saints, the liturgical music, the formality of high Mass buttressed this death and rebirth. These props, symbols and rituals offer guidance and support that many Protestant denominations, stripped down to a dangerous intellectualism and rationalism, often fail to provide.

In the Dark or Middle Ages Terry would have been an abbot, singing Gregorian chants in a long black robe before sunrise, leading high Mass with rows of candles and incense no doubt wafting upwards from a swinging thurible. He would, much as he did in this church, have provided refuge to pilgrims, nurtured the sick, fed the poor, educated the children, comforted the bereaved, denounced the oppressor and copied out Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil and Catullus so it would not be lost to human civilization. ...

I loved Terry for his brilliance, his deep intellectual curiosity, his humility and his incredible compassion and gentleness. He hated emails. He sent handwritten notes, often on cards he had taken the time to pick out, to say thank you or express condolences or tell you he was thinking of you. I expect that nearly everyone in this church today received such notes, along with books he thought you should read or small gifts he wanted you to have. There was something very human about this practice in an age of instant electronic communication. I will miss his handwritten messages. I will miss the books he sent. One of his last gifts to me were the three volumes of "The Gulag Archipelago." And when I came to Boston this past year to visit, we would talk about Solzhenitsyn's insight into human nature, oppression, resistance and faith.

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Solzhenitsyn writes of a Serb, a teacher in forced exile in the Soviet Union named Georgi Stepanovich Mitrovich. He had been recently freed from the camps. Mitrovich would not give up his dogged battle with local authorities for justice for his students. The description of Mitrovich is a description of Terry.

"His battle was utterly hopeless, and he knew it," Solzhenitsyn wrote. "No one could unravel that tangled skein. And if he had won hands down, it would have done nothing to improve the social order, the system. It would have been no more than a brief, vague gleam of hope in one narrow little spot, quickly swallowed by the clouds. Nothing that victory might bring could balance the risk of rearrest -- which was the price he might pay (only the Khrushchev era saved Mitrovich). Yes, his battle was hopeless, but it was human to be outraged by injustice, even to the point of courting destruction! His struggle could only end in defeat -- but no one could possibly call it useless. If we had not all been so sensible, not all been forever whining to each other: 'It won't help! It can't do any good!' our land would have been quite different. Mitrovich was not even a citizen -- he was only an exile -- but the district authorities feared the flash of his spectacles."

Terry, who came from a working-class family in Flint, Mich., and whose fierce loyalty to working-men and -women and the destitute never waivered, chose sides. He stood with the oppressed. Life was about making the world a more humane place. It was about treating everyone with dignity.

He knew the dark side of human nature and the tragedy of human history. He knew the propensity of human beings to do what we should not do. He wanted to save souls, which meant saving people from squandering their lives chasing wealth, power or fame. And this was only possible, he knew, if we placed the sacred at the center of existence, if we realized that in the end it is not about us but about our neighbor, about the stranger, about the outcast and about this precious planet that we must protect.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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