Wednesday, October 13, 2010
While we weren't always in touch, he remained a trusted mentor and friend.
Emmett died of cancer last Friday at the age of 71, in his home, surrounded by his family and community.
I've read his obituary and the articles about his life - even found an essay he wrote on line - and I still really can't get my head wrapped around the fact that he is dead.
Yes, of course he was a bold, fierce peace activist. Yes, of course he was a passionate, committed activist for the poor and homeless.
But, did you ever see Emmett smile? Then you know how that serious, professorial and monastic countenance could evaporate and suddenly light up the room.
Have you ever disagreed with Emmett? Then you know how he would get a deep furrow to his brow as he carefully listened to and considered your position even if, in the end, he respectfully disagreed - respect being the operative word.
Did you ever make Emmett laugh? Then you know how absolutely delicious it was to hear what began with an almost little-boy giggle explode into a laugh-cough-laugh spasm of absolute delight.
If you worked with Emmett, you would know what an intensely passionate, complex, sometimes maddeningly frustrating man he was.
I remember one evening at the Thursday Night Suppers - a sit down meal provided by various suburban congregations - for the homeless who live in the shadows of Beacon Hill and Government Center.
One man came in - clearly in an "altered state of consciousness" - looking like he was on a very short fuse. He mustn't have had a bath in a long time, but the whiffs of alcohol vied for a primary assault on the olfactory nerve.
He had bumps and bruises and open, bleeding cuts on all over his face, leading one to suspect he had just come from a street brawl. It was Ms. Conroy, however, who called it. "He's an epileptic," she said. "Watch him. He's gonna seize again."
And, within minutes, the man started to yell and shake and then he fell to the floor in a full seizure. The dinner guests began to gasp. Those who were serving were horrified, not knowing what to do.
Ms. Conroy began barking orders as she and Emmett and I rushed to the man's side. "Someone call 911. Don't touch him," said Ms. Conroy. "Just try to keep him safe. Move those chairs. Everyone stand back. Give him some room."
When the man stopped seizing, Emmett got on his knees and gently lifted the limp man's head and shoulders onto his lap. He kept whispering to him, "It's okay. You're safe. You're going to be okay. God loves you."
Emmett's pants were covered with the man's blood and perspiration and vomit and, when you looked at him, you might have thought he was engaging in the greatest privilege on earth - as if he were holding Jesus himself. Because, to Emmett, he was holding Christ in his arms.
Then he did something amazing. Emmett bent down and kissed that man's bloody, sweaty, filthy forehead. Some of the visitors quietly gasped. Most of the guests smiled warmly. For me, Maundy Thursday had come early.
One of the cops who had come into the Parish Hall just ahead of the medics made a snide remark. I didn't hear it, but Emmett did. Whatever it was, the cops words fell on Emmett's ears like a match on dry wood. I could see the anger flare in his eyes and nose and burn in his chest. I really thought he was going to do something - verbally or physically - violent.
Instead, I watched as Emmett closed his eyes, take in a deep breath, open his eyes, look at the cop with great gentleness and say, "I think we're okay here, officer. Thank you."
The cop lowered his eyes as shame washed over his face. He muttered, "Sure thing, Father," as he backed away.
That was Emmett. Capable of violence, just like the rest of us, but working to find a place of compassion in his heart and soul so that he could be, instead, a vehicle of peace. If he could be an activist for peace, anyone could.
For me, the fact that Emmett acknowledged the potential for his own violence as the source of his impulse to work for peace gave him an authenticity and credibility I often found sorely lacking in many so-called peace activists.
Another memory has come to visit me this morning: In November, 1986, Emmett took a huge risk.
In September of that year, two men who had been in a committed relationship for 5 years asked Emmett to bless their relationship in the church. They were life-long Episcopalians who had been long-term members of the church.
Emmett talked with the bishop who told him that the church had not authorized such blessings and neither would he. Emmett thought and prayed long and hard and decided not to disobey the bishop.
It was 1986. I just repeat that to note just how long we've been working at this.
The congregation was in an uproar. Most of the community wanted their rector to bless the couple. Emmett cautioned patience and persistence with the institution for change. The two men went to a Unitarian Church in Boston and had their covenant blessed. It was a wonderful celebration.
Later, in discussing this with Emmett, I mentioned that Ms. Conroy and I were about to celebrate our 10 anniversary. He suddenly brightened. It was like watching one of those cartoon characters where the light bulb goes off above his head.
He asked if he might be able to bless our home, our family and our relationship in our new home in Lowell, MA. "Surely," said Emmett, "the bishop can't have any objections to that."
We had our reservations - we really wanted to hold out for a blessing that focused on our covenant in the midst of our community of faith in the church.
On the other hand, our family was in transition. I had been called as Chaplain at University of Lowell in January and ordained deacon in April. I graduated from seminary in May. Our family had moved to a new home in Lowell and I was about to be ordained priest on the Feast of St. Luke.
A blessing on our home and family and covenant would be empowering for us as well as provide a vehicle of healing for the community of St. John's.
And so, it came to pass that Emmett - accompanied by his family and almost the entire community of The Church of St. John the Evangelist, Bowdoin Street, Boston, traveled to Lowell, MA for a special blessing on every person and creature who lived and moved and had their being in that house, and on our home, and on our family and on our covenant.
That was 1986. Today, as Ms. Conroy and I prepare to celebrate 34 years together, we're still holding out for a blessing in the church at the time of our marriage.
It would have been wonderful to have had Emmett present for the blessing and celebration of our marriage. Alas, that will not happen, now. However, the memory of that moment, 24 years ago, swirls around me and comforts me like a favorite, old, worn out sweater on a chilly morning.
Emmett was a husband and father, a priest and a poet, a peace activist and an advocate for the homeless and helpless, a mentor and friend, and so much, much more than words in an obituary or tribute could possibly contain.
I shall miss him terribly, although I find a strange, wonderful peace in my heart, knowing that Emmett is with Jesus and rests eternally in the peace he could only dream of and work for while he was with us.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Well done.