Four days of cold autumn rain did not help anything. It was already a difficult week when the storm blew in and lingered off the Maine coast. It reminded me of the years I lived in Oregon: raw and windy, rain battering against the windows while I rearranged words on the computer.
We learned at church last Sunday that the Reverend Lee Devoe, the former interim minister who had served our congregation several years ago, was nearing the end of her life; mid-week we learned that she had already passed away, the day before we learned she was ill. Cancer is so fickle and so merciless. She was only 55. It is a heartbreaking and sudden loss.
Rev Lee was the first Unitarian Universalist minister I ever met. I’ve thought of her increasingly over the last two years as I have felt, and fought, and followed my own call to ministry. Like a painting that looks up close to be a mess of dots and splotches, the real beauty of her ministry here only became clear to me at a distance. I had so hoped to run into her again someday.
We held a small memorial service for her last night. I had written some words – because writing is what I do – that I had intended to read, but it became clear to me that what I had written wasn’t actually for us. We did not need me to tell us what she did here. The stories I heard from others reminded me that we already knew.
An open letter to the Reverend Lee Devoe,
and those who loved her.
My heart is heavy as I write these words. Word of your illness reached us in Augusta too late for me to send to you the letter I had hoped to write. My heart goes out to your loved ones in their grief. Theirs is a personal loss: that of a mother, a daughter, a sister, a colleague, a friend, a member of the beloved community you called home. May the Source of All Mercy grant them peace and comfort now and forever.
I did not have the chance to know you personally; I knew you only in your professional capacity as the interim minister who served my home congregation through a long and difficult transition. I have often imagined running into you someday, at GA, or some other gathering. Maybe you would not have recognized me as a former parishioner, but I know you would remember my church: we were your first interim congregation. I have wanted to thank you for your service and your love; for being who you were, the right person at the right time and place; and for doing the work you did with us. And that chance meeting can never happen now.
We would have had to meet by chance. In our tradition interim ministries do not last three years – a year under normal circumstances, never more than two. Your time with us did, and the price of that extraordinary commitment was that it had to end in complete and permanent separation from our congregation. I have no doubt you understood what we were asking of you; at the time I am not sure we really did. But you honored that commitment until the end.
I can only guess at the grief and frustration you must have felt, facing your time cut short and your work left incomplete. I wonder if you ever doubted, if you asked yourself whether any of it had mattered. I wonder this of you, because I would wonder it myself.
Rev Lee, I write to tell you that it did.
I write to say that the work you did with us was complicated and ugly and at times it might have seemed to be invisible, but in the end it mattered. It was important. You were important – sometimes imperfect, sometimes uncertain, always human, caught up in the unexpected, but your presence mattered. It’s like that overused modern parable about the kid throwing back the starfish: You made a difference to this one.
Interim ministry is always messy work. It demands the unsettling of old dust, the throwing open of windows and flinging wide of closet doors to let new light in, that comes with making a space ready in a congregation’s heart to receive a new minister. Our closets turned out to contain a skeleton or two that woke up angry and came out running. Pastoring us through the year of congregational crisis that followed was not what you thought you signed up for. But you rose to the challenge with integrity and grace, led us through the tough places, held us and healed us and challenged us to grow anyway.
And you stayed with us that third year, knowing the cost, until we were ready to fly.
You guided us through that difficult transition, leaving your mark on my church like the line traced by a potter’s thumb on soft, wobbling, spinning clay as the vessel takes its shape. And this congregation that you held together with grace and love is the one that in its own turn shaped me, as I grew from a church-phobic newcomer into a student discerning my own call to the ministry. In this way the work I am only just beginning picks up and takes in loose threads of the work you leave unfinished. We are connected. We are all connected.
Rev Lee, I will always remember you as one of my accidental teachers – your courage in facing unexpected challenges, when the road ahead led off the map, into the blank spaces where the warnings of dragons lie; your willingness to roll up your sleeves and be with us in the painful, messy places; the love that let you stay to see us through and the gentle grace with which you left us in your successor’s care and quietly slipped away. These are precious gifts to any church and any student of the ministry, and I am grateful to have known you.
I had so hoped I could someday greet you as a colleague and share with you what grew from the seeds you planted.
In abiding faith and collegial love,
member, U U C C of Augusta ME
student, Meadville Lombard Theological School
aspirant to the UU ministry
Hail and farewell, Rev Lee.
May your body rest in peace, may your spirit rise in glory, may your memory live forever through the love you shared with the world. Amen.
Lee Devoe Greiner, 1959-2014
(Link goes to obituary; will be redirected to a local copy when the original is no longer available.)