Even from his hospital bed, before he died June 2, former Unitarian Universalist Association Moderator Jim Key was testifying about Unitarian Universalism. He shared his love of the faith with at least ninety people in the hospital, the Rev. Kevin Tarsa said at a memorial service June 24 during the UUA General Assembly in New Orleans.
“Were Jim in this room, he’d urge us to be ‘bold, brave, and bodacious’ in carrying the light of his faith in the world,” said Tarsa, to a packed room of UUs who gathered to remember the beloved Key, who resigned as moderator on May 13 for health reasons. “As you lift up your memories, appreciation, love, inspiration, prayer rising in your heart at this moment, prepare yourself as you might prepare yourself from an enthusiastic phone call from Jim inviting you to take on a task you’d been telling yourself to say no to.”
UUA Interim Co-President Sofía Betancourt sang the African American spiritual “Over My Head” as a procession of current and former UUA leaders entered the room. Former Moderator Denny Davidoff lit the chalice. The Rev. Lori Hlaban shared a message of gratitude from Key’s wife, Liz Key, for the love and support she and her family have received in recent weeks. “I hope and pray you will continue forward with the same compassion he felt in his heart as you spread the love of Unitarian Universalism to all,” Liz Key said, according to Hlaban.
The Rev. Nan L. White said Key gave almost twenty years of his life to service of the denomination. “His loss to us as a religious body is vast because we loved him. In his dying days, Jim especially felt your love for him.”
Among the musicians and singers who performed at the service were Leon Burke III, GA music coordinator; Sarah Dan Jones, a trustee who served with Key; and Kiya Hartwood, who sang “All Will Be Well” by the Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a hopeful song that nonetheless looks squarely at the pain of life. Its lyrics quote the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, all manner of things will be well.”
The service included a montage of photographs and video clips of Key. In one clip, Key described being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1999 and being told he had a 1 percent chance of living five years. “I quickly imagined I would be in the 1 percent!” he said, with the huge smile that was his trademark, before adding, “Imagine a healthy Unitarian Universalist community alive with transforming power moving in our communities in the world towards more love, more justice, and more peace.”
White said that Key found the UU movement around the same time as he was first diagnosed with cancer, adding, “Jim’s life was saved by Unitarian Universalism quite literally.”
Annette Marquis, who was district executive of the district formerly known as the Thomas Jefferson District, said that Key lived every day “with the clear understanding that he might not live through whatever he planned next.” He “lived as if every moment he was alive was a gift.” When Key became district president, he believed that the district should be renamed because Jefferson owned slaves. Key travelled congregation to congregation to develop a congregation-led strategy that led to renaming the district the Southeast District in 2011.
“I’ve never respected a leader more, I’ve never felt more respected by a leader,” said Marquis. “He saw each of you and opened himself to you. All Jim would ask now is that we love as he loved, as if every day we live could be our last, and that no one who needs our saving faith is left outside the door.”
The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, UUA secretary, said, “Jim loved how hard we try to tell the truth.” He said that former Vice Moderator Susan Weaver wrote that she “was struck by how Jim carefully listened to all the stories before him, even very painful and messy ones with no end to the hurt. He carried our hard stories not just for us but with us, and he would not let them go.”
“Jim taught us all what it means and what it takes to stay at the table, even and especially when the shame and rage start rising,” said Eller-Isaacs. “His heart was often broken, but it was always also open. He was a courage teacher.”
Acting Moderator Denise Rimes, who stepped into that role when Key resigned, was vice president of the Southeast District when Key was president. She later served with him on the UUA board. She lifted up the words of Stephanie Carey Maron, executive assistant to the UUA president, and who worked very closely with Key. “In Stephanie’s words, ‘He always saw me,’” said Rimes.
“Jim always saw us as individuals and saw our inherent worth and dignity,” Rimes continued. “I don’t know what he saw in me, I just know he saw it. As a mentor and a friend I will miss him for the rest of my life.”
UUA Interim Co-President Leon Spencer said, “Jim was known for rolling boulders up hill. He pulled us uphill as an association, uphill toward racial justice, and he never stopped.” Key, for whom racial justice was a passion, spoke a great deal in his final days about his strong belief in the work of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, Spencer said.
Trustee Elandria Williams said that she had known Key since she was very young. Key asked her to serve on the board to be his “accountability partner,” telling her, “I trust you to say to me when I’m going off course because you always have. . . . You are the one helping me hold this faith to where it could and should be.”
In one of their last encounters, this spring, Williams said, “Jim wasn’t getting what I was trying to say, and I called him and went all the way off.” “After that I felt absolutely ashamed,” Williams said. Although they reconciled on a video conference, Williams said she apologized to Liz Key at Jim’s funeral. “Don't you dare do that to me,” Liz told her; “What he said to me was, It just took me longer to understand, and sometimes I needed to be yelled at to get how important that was.”
“If Jim could forgive that and could see it, let us hold each other in all the ways, and be righteous and ready to go,” said Williams, before leading a cheer: “Can you say, ‘Ready to Go?’ Ready to Go!”