Rev. Karen LeBlanc
Sermon 10/29/23- Holding Space for Our Ancestors
As a Pagan-Unitarian I celebrate the festival of Samhain with my family. Our Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, traditions in this country are rooted in this ancient Celtic festival, which marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. It marked the beginning of a new year, after the last harvest. The Celts believed that the veil between worlds was thin and breachable during Samhain, and they prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, or Sidhs. It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them. This is why our children dress us on Halloween to this day.
It’s become a night where lots of parties and fun are had, and we’ve forgotten why we dress up, and why we celebrate. As one of the few people around here who perform Pagan weddings and handfasting’s, I’m always surprised when I get a message from someone who wants to get married on Halloween. It’s the one day a year I absolutely will not perform weddings, and that’s because, for me and my family, it’s a more somber day, when we visit our beloved dead and clean and tidy their graves. We have a special dinner together, setting a place for a departed loved one, usually a different person every year. This was how my kids got to know their ancestors that I remembered or heard stories about that I could share. We each take some food from our plate to create a meal for the guest of honor. We pour a libation for them, something they might have liked, or something special we’ve been saving. It’s a somber affair, really. Afterward, we take the food and put it outside, burying it or leaving it for some creature to consume, and pour out the libation, with some words of thanks and love.
This is why I do this service every year: It is very important to me that our loved ones are remembered, here is this place with such a long history and memory. It’s one of the many benefits of being part of a beloved community like this. I want everyone who is a member or friend of this church to know that they will be not be forgotten, their names will be spoken in this sanctuary for years to come, their contributions will be celebrated, their stories will be told, and they will be held in this sacred space with love.
I went looking for last year’s service and realized that I didn’t do this last year because you were kind enough to honor me with the gift of ordination, and for that I am humbly grateful. It’s a blessing to me that my own long-ish history here, going back to 1996 I think, has given me the gift of getting to know so many of our older members, so I can speak from real experience when I talk about our beloved dead. We don’t have a lot of ritual in this church, but this is one that I promise you will exist as long as I do. Since our last service a few people have passed on, several quite recently. So I will begin this ritual with lighting a candle for each person and saying a few words about them. I’m going to start with the most recent loss because it just happened on Tuesday.
Susan Mohl Powers was 79 and a long-time member of this church (actually, everyone I’m talking about today were long-time members here), along with her husband, Alan. Susan was a truly interesting person, and I took that picture from her extensive Wikipedia page. Let me quote the first paragraph so I can accurately describe her art: “(born 1944 in Saint Paul, Minnesota) is a contemporary artist who sculpts in polygon and planar metal as well as sewn fabric, blending art and science to design sculptures and fabric-on-canvas paintings. The owner of Sailshade Studios in Fall River, Massachusetts, she has also designed, trademarked and fabricated an energy-efficient window shade.” I was happy to get to know her and one time she brought a photo album of her artwork for me to check out and she was a really cool artist, playing with light and texture. It reminded me of the type of martial art I studied, Goju karate, which means, “hard-soft,” strong, and still pliant, like bamboo. I was so glad to see her and Alan a few weeks ago for the LGBTQ history service, but I was especially glad that they were here for our book fair, and that her father’s composition was played in this sanctuary, honoring her ancestor. Alan, we love you and grieve with you and we are here to support you. Susan, for all you have given to our church, we love you and thank you. You will be remembered here. (Light candle)
Jean Kellaway passed away on October 3rd at the age of 91. Jean wasn’t just a long-time member, she was someone who was involved in every aspect of this church, including being married to the minister when he was here. We have Jean to thank for our dinners for eight, she started that tradition here and I’m glad it has been revived, as I’m sure she would be. And the reason we will have a plant table at our holiday fair is because I remembered that her plant table was always the highlight holiday fair’s past for me. I think 90% of the houseplants I have came from Jean, one way or another, and I always think of her when I tend to them. Jean collected all kinds of art from all over the world: sculptures, paintings, costumes, masks, you name it. Many years ago, I was asked to do a summer service and I titled it, “Troublesome Women.” It started with the idea that for all the lists of ministers and busts in alcoves we have in this sanctuary, there were no women represented. I wanted to tell stories about powerful women and I wanted something to represent what I was talking about. I immediately thought: Jean has just what I need, and, of course, she was delighted to share her collection for the occasion. There must have been half a dozen sculptures or more in this display, set up right here in front, but the one I remember was this almost life-sized African sculpture of a woman, bare breasted, with a grass skirt on, seated with her legs wide open. It was powerful and risqué, and Jean loved it. Ethan and Ron, we love you and grieve with you and we’re here to support you. Jean, for all you have given to our church, we love you and we thank you. You will be remembered here. (light candle)
Dr. Edward Griffing Lund, who we all knew as Ned, passed away on June 1 of this year at the age of 85. I know I speak for everyone that knew Ned that his unexpected loss was felt sharply in this community and it’s still a little hard to believe. I had great respect for Ned for a number of reasons: his dry humor that reminded me so much of my father, and his love of singing and music. He was a voice in just about every choir we’ve had here at church, and of course he and the Sea Chanty choir graced us with the occasional performance for a service over the years. And we will never forget that Ned, repeatedly, served as the long-suffering treasurer of our church. Being treasurer here is no picnic. It weighs on the mind, keeps one tossing and turning at night, and requires endless interactions with math and bill-paying, two of my least favorite things to do. And Ned did it, over and over again through the years. We loved having him in the office so often, and he always had something interesting to share, and was always testing Linda and Vikki to see if they got his jokes. When we talk about pillars of our community, we’re talking about Ned. As a pediatrician in New Bedford, many of us or our kids were the recipients of his kind practice, and I remember more than one visitor whose eyes lit up that Dr. Lund was sitting in the pews here. It meant they were immediately comfortable and trusted that this was a safe place to be. I miss seeing the yellow Volkswagen Bug in the parking lot. Judy, we love you and we grieve with you and we’re here to support you. Ned, for all you have given our church, we love you and we thank you. You will be remembered here. (Light candle)
Essjay Foulkrod passed away on April 27 this year at the age of 97. And believe it or not, her death was also very unexpected, despite her age; apparently, she had been in a Zoom meeting the night before and appeared healthy and sharp as ever. Essjay was a member of this church for many years when I joined and was one of the people who I was glad to see when I started here, working in the kitchen. I knew her from the bookstore she had, The Tortoise and Hare, the only Queer/Pagan bookshop I think I’ve ever been to. It was an eye-opener for me as a young bi-sexual feminist Pagan, that’s for sure. I had some long and interesting conversations with her for a few years before I came to this church. And if this was the church that Essjay went to, and she was a Pagan, I was sure I could find a home here too. Niko and I went to her memorial service in Peacedale, RI in April, friends and family Zoomed in from all over the country, and simply EVERYONE there had a great Essjay story to tell. It was a long service. But it was a testament to the kind, passionate, ever-active person she was as how many people she had an affect on and mentored over the years. Essjay, for all you have given our church, we love you and we thank you. You will be missed here. (LIGHT CANDLE)
Robert McCabe passed away on June 5, 2022, at the age of 89. My recollections of Bob contain lots of chuckles from some often complex and subtle physics jokes, spoken in a hushed tone, as if it were a secret, tucked away, in a corner at coffee hour. Although I loathe the maths involved in bookkeeping, I do enjoy the abstract maths of theoretical physics, and I knew Bob had that appreciation of letting one’s mind approach realms that we tend not to look toward because it might literally blow your mind. I had to represent Bob here with this picture of a Jerry Garcia doll, because it was literally the only image available for him on the internet, which says something I think about our friend Bob. He was a large soul with an intentionally small footprint in our digital world, and kudos to him for it. He lost his job with SMU for being outspoken against the war in Vietnam, and was brought back to teach for many years after his protests fell on this right side of history. If I might quote his obituary, “Bob was hilarious, difficult, stubborn, brilliant, a little crazy and sometimes impossible. He read deeply in many subjects, including the history of math itself. In a single math lecture, his bedazzled students could travel through the worlds of art, music and literature.” That sums up terrifically the kind of person Bob was and he was a valued and active member of this congregation. I want to add that he was a big voice for social justice in our community, as is Marsha, and I think he would really appreciate and relish the anti-racism work we’re doing in our church now. I’m really glad, as Bob became more infirm, that he had the companionship of our church cat, Simba, as the McCabe’s volunteered to take him for the summer when we were out of the office a few years ago. Simba was so loved by Bob and Marsha that we couldn’t possibly ask to have him back, and I’m happy that they all got the best out of that match.
Marcia, we love you and grieve with you and we’re here to support you. Bob, for all you have given our church, we love you and thank you. You will be remembered here. (Light candle)
Memoria: We have constructed 2 ancestor altars today, one for those who were members of our congregation, and one for our own dear departed. We have gathered their pictures and mementos on this table to honor them. Even if you didn’t have a memento to put on the altar, let us now speak the names of the dead we honor. Call upon the spirit of someone you loved that has gone before you, picture them in your head, bring to mind what you loved about them or a happy time together, let them know you love them, and speak their name. Let’s do it like this: I’ll begin, and you take turns speaking a name, with a few seconds between if we can manage it.
(people speak names)
May all these souls rest in the arms of the Mother with love, until we know them again. And may all the ancestors of this church watch over us and guide us into the next generation.
So May It Be.
I encourage you, at coffee hour today, to tell stories of members of this church, or people you love who have gone. Let their memory ring in this sacred place today, and celebrate their lives.
For our last hymn, Mary Rapoza and I will sing a traditional song called “Soul Cake” but the Pagan version we learned, with some help from our choir.