Universal love

Universal love

Only after the funeral did Brother Dick ask, 'And what church did you say you attend?'
Esther Hurlburt


On the crimson-cushioned settee at the funeral home, I sat knee to knee with Brother Dick. He looked as I expected him to look, that is, provincial and with a bad haircut. He held tightly to his well-worn Bible, as I held to my folder of verse and song. With equal amounts of polite suspicion we thoughtfully exchanged ideas about the words of comfort we would offer to Marie’s family and close friends.

I told Brother Dick of our women’s-group ministry with Marie while she was in jail, and he told me what he knew of her from her journals. We looked at Scripture together, and shared a thought or two about why Marie happened to like a particular passage in Revelation. We marveled at her journal writing. Although I felt tension in my jaw, the service fell together.

We women, those of us who saw Marie every week, opened the funeral with an anthem about bringing hope like a rose in wintertime. We, who also grieved Marie’s death, sang not only to the family and friends, but also to each other. Then, without missing a beat, Brother Dick prayed with the poetic language of our song. Brother Dick read from Marie’s journals. They were lovely lyrical essays about her spiritual journey, from life to death and return to life.

Then Brother Dick preached. He preached and preached and preached. He preached John 3:16. He preached love. He even preached universal love. He preached the transformative love of God through Jesus. He preached how Marie was transformed because the “ladies took Jesus to Marie and once she found Jesus she was transformed.” He preached that Marie was transformed and without a doubt—not one single doubt, not one iota of a doubt—Marie was transformed because the “ladies took Jesus to her when she could not have found Jesus any other way.” Without a doubt, he preached, Marie was transformed. There in jail, Marie was transformed by the power of Jesus’ love. Had it not been for the good ladies introducing Marie to Jesus’ love, Marie might never have known Jesus.

Brother Dick had preached well into the one-hour funeral package purchased by the family. Finally, the preaching stopped. It stopped with a message of love and transformation: No hell. No brimstone. No judgment. Just love. I prayed a prayer of thanks and let out a sigh of relief. My jaw relaxed.

We ladies of the Unitarian Universalist Church stood, turned around, and looked at each other with awe. Did Martha’s earth-centered presence lead Marie to Jesus? Did Leslie’s A Course in Miracles lead the transformation? How about Susan, with her atheist presence, who insisted Marie write about her spiritual journey? Where did Frances’ lessons from Alcoholics Anonymous fit in? Did Marybeth help Marie find God in poetry? Did the presence of the Judys’ obvious love for one another teach Marie about universal love? And where did my message of love found in covenant find its way into Marie’s journey? None of us ever preached Jesus, but given the length of Brother Dick’s sermon, we had no time to wonder before we set off for the cemetery.

At the cemetery we two ministers led the casket. I read about how Marie found God in a Wordsworth poem. I preached universal love found in Paul’s letters to the Romans, and committed Marie’s body with familiar yet revised words about ashes to ashes. I prayed that we honor Marie by loving God and loving each other. Brother Dick had the last words as he placed flowers on the casket: a red rose to signify Christ’s blood; a white rose to represent how Christ’s forgiveness purified Marie’s soul; gold mums to represent the streets of gold on which Marie now walks. Brother Dick ended with yet another prayer. He prayed once again for Marie’s soul. And, with precise words of praise, he thanked the ladies who were brave enough to go into the jail week after week to take the word of Jesus Christ.

As we prepared to leave, Brother Dick couldn’t help but thank me and the other ladies just one more time. We shook hands and smiled. But I did not escape the inevitable question before we departed. Brother Dick took a breath and asked, “And what church did you say you attend?”

“I am a Unitarian Universalist.”

“Oh,” he responded. He didn’t ask any more. He just said “oh,” and turned and left. He sounded disappointed. His response sounded like a rock dropped on a sidewalk.

Perhaps I read too much into his dull thud of a response. I was thrilled that two very different ministers met the needs of the family. While my prejudice about his looks bore truth, my prejudice about Brother Dick’s sermon was just that: prejudice. I feared a sermon of fire and brimstone, and all I heard was a sermon about love.

Somehow the love we preached actually became present. It was love, exactly the same love that Brother Dick preached, that transcended my prejudice. It left me with a vague yet surprising affinity for Brother Dick that I wished he had for me. Perhaps one day Brother Dick will understand that we ladies didn’t take Jesus to Marie or convert her in any way. We just let her find her own way, and that was her salvation.

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