When You Wish Upon a Star …

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I know. My photo is not  a great picture of the chapel, dedicated to the memory of our 60 parishioners who died with AIDS and to those who loved and cared for them. Our prayers and response to the AIDS crisis tested and deepened our faith community  and formed me as a priest.  At the top of the chapel window is a little star named Philip. And this is the star’s story told mainly by his sister Ann and a little bit by me.

This is my last Around this Block post and it is about a far-flung All Saints’ family.  As a matter of fact, one brother lives on as a star!  The sibling closest at hand is All Saints’ Connie Curry, a longtime civil rights activist, lawyer, writer and great public servant for the city of Atlanta.

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Connie with Mississippi’s Winson Hudson, the “grandmother of the Mississippi movement.”  Connie has given voice to so many civil rights heroines. Her books focused on the  previously ignored stories of the  women.

Here is an article that gives you a sense of Connie’s journey.  We have quite a legacy, dear Saints, in the Civil Rights Movement.   Connie can’t get to church much but she lives in midtown and loves to hear from her friends.

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Silver Rights was Connie’s  breakout book.

When you are lucky, one relationship leads you into a new world, and getting to know Connie led me to her brother Philip and a family that loved him strong and well.  Here is Sister Ann’s memory of that time.

When I traveled from my home in Savannah to Atlanta earlier this summer, I wasn’t thinking of All Saints Church or my brother Philip Holloway, who had been a member there. My mind was on my sister Connie Curry, who had recently been in and out of the hospital multiple times. Though she is as headstrong, funny and irreverent as ever, Connie needed help .

Then I learned that Martha Sterne is the church’s interim rector. Martha had come to see Connie at Emory Hospital and had a chance to see our sons, Walker and Coran. I hadn’t seen Martha in years and years.

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Ann Curry and I just hit if off during Philip’s illness so many years ago. One of the great joys of this year is reconnecting with people with whom I had shared the deepest human experiences—baptisms, renewals of vows after you’ve lived into them a while,  terrifying illnesses and operations, wondrous healings and yes, heartbreaking but also healing funerals.

Ann again:  After such a warm reunion with Martha, I attended early church, listened to her homily, took communion, and studied the tiny star in the chapel window our family had dedicated in memory of Philip.

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Here is Philip’s star, top of window closest to the chapel altar on the cemetery side.  God bless Lisa Bell-Davis who climbed way way up on a ladder to get this pic. Hello Philip! I think his sisters and his mother got NASA or somebody to really name a star after him!

Philip’s darling sister Ann, again:  In July 1995, Philip was living and dying at Haven House, a hospice house for people with HIV/AIDS. No one thought he would make it to the Fourth of July, so I came to Atlanta from Tennessee to join our mom Isabel, who had been staying in Midtown for several weeks, and Connie, who lived there. I remember walking with Connie to Haven House, through Piedmont Park to 14th Street, expecting to see a hearse. Instead we were greeted by hundreds of runners pouring into the park as the Peachtree Road Race ended. As we stood there, unable to cross the street, I looked and on the front porch of Haven House, sitting in a high back wheelchair sat Philip, waving like the Queen of England. He lived another 15 days.

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This Halloween photo with his sister Ann is the closest I could come to Philip waving like the Queen of England.  OMG, he was adorable.

Haven House was an amazing place. The nurses worked so hard caring for patients. I remember Isabel, sitting on the porch with a nurse named Walter as he smoked a cigarette. “Walter,” she said, “you need a vacation!” (I bet my mother told him to stop smoking too!) Walter, who had the largest, gentlest hands, was never too tired to rub Philip’s feet since neuropathy had set in. Philip loved that.

On one early morning visit, I asked Philip if he needed anything. Without batting an eye, he replied, “YES, I want some cheese and crackers and some very fine champagne.”

(Martha here:  my memory of that time is stopping by occasionally to Haven House which I believe was yellow, to see Philip and that the day he died, the Spirit had nudged me over there. Philip loved  Robert Shaw’s  Rachmaninoff’s Vespers and I remember the Nunc Dimittis filling the room with this gorgeous good news:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

I believe that revelation happened in and through Philip at that very moment and into eternity.

Here’s Ann again:

Weeks later, before his memorial service at All Saints, another brother, Ian, and I went to Patterson Funeral home to pick up Philip’s ashes. We stopped by Ansley Mall liquor store and, appropriately, bought a case of champagne. As we drove back to Philip’s apartment, Ian said, “Do you have the ashes?” I said, “No, you’ve got the ashes!” … neither of us had the ashes. Upon returning to the liquor store, the nice woman behind the counter asked why we were back. “Aw, honey,” she said, after I told her. “I lost someone recently. I can help you find him.” I still think that would make a great country music song title, “I left my brother’s ashes in the liquor store.”

After the service (officiated those 22 years ago by Martha), Harry Pritchett buried most of Philip’s ashes in the church’s Memorial Garden. The remaining ashes were sent to be spread at the Valley of Elke in Northern Chile, a place Philip loved. Then, we celebrated his life with some cheese and crackers and some very fine champagne.

I learned a lot through Philip’s illness and death. I learned how incredibly loving and accepting my family was… How my mom took charge and cared for her son.. How patient my husband Enoch was, while I traveled back and forth to Atlanta… How doctors and nurses kindly helped AIDS patients die with dignity. On numerous trips, my brothers came from Florida and New Jersey to help care for Philip. Connie and the neighbors in Midtown rallied even as they had already witnessed the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS.

I’ll never forget what a great community All Saints Episcopal Church was during that time.  Philip died surrounded by love and song and blessing. To this day, he remains one of my favorite people and I miss him still.

Fast forward twenty years to June 26, 2015, I also couldn’t help but think of Philip and his partner of ten years, Bob as my husband and I gathered with hundreds of others in Johnson Square in downtown Savannah cheering and celebrating the passage of the marriage equality act. Earlier that morning my son Philip Walker, named for his uncle, sent me a text that read, “Mom all f%$@ing 50 states!” I took a moment to let that sink in.

I am grateful for circles and reconnections and grace and a tiny star in All Saint’s Chapel.

Ann Curry

(Martha again) And beloved Saints, I am grateful as well.  For all the love we share and for how God passes that love on and on and on even to the furthest star.  I’ll be taking a big pause from All Saints’ but God willing I’ll see you again.  God bless you and when you look up at that little star way way high in the chapel, remember all the days the saints have been through and thank God for the power and the glory and the love and the hope for tomorrow for all God’s children.  And remember, When you wish upon a star, your wish just may come true!  My prayers sure have spending this year with you.

Martha +

Star squared up

 

What do we owe?

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I am the temporary, but happy occupant of the Office of the  Rector of All Saints’, a space I have known well and loved for close to thirty years due to having worked for Harry Pritchett from 1988-97.  I am not bringing in books or hanging stuff on the walls except for what you see above –  a print of a newspaper page which Reece and Phil hung over the fireplace for me. Thank you, guys.

I did not bring it to the Rector’s Office  because it’s beautiful but rather because it is a symbol of courage and faith which belongs in the same room where Judge Elbert Tuttle and Ralph McGill and so many other faithful saints pondered and prayed over their city and nation  with their rector in their day.

My offering is a copy of a full page 1968 Jackson, Mississippi newspaper ad, a Statement of Belief and Intention that about 100 citizens including my father signed.  It starts like this:  We believe in the essential worth and dignity of every human being and all that such implies.

The prose is not deathless; the sentiments are not daring unless you happened to live and move and have your business and your family and your being in Jackson, Mississippi in 1968. They were lawyers and business people, ministers and docs (my father),  and teachers and such – a lot like us here at All Saints’.

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My father, James Malcom Packer, MD

They put their names out there in public saying here we stand because we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to speak up for justice. The leader was a dry cleaner guy.

All of our citizens should work untiringly and unceasingly to bring out to the fullest the best in us in the way of kindness, compassion, friendliness and understanding that we may all progress through cooperation. We owe this to ourselves, our families, the oncoming generations, and the development of all of our talents. 

What do we “owe ourselves, our families, and the incoming generations?”  Where do you personally need to stand and act for justice? When do you need to stop being silent?

I am back at All Saints’ because I believe the people—layfolk and clergy—who came  before us answered the What is owed? question faithfully in their day.  And I believe that worshiping and being in their cloud of witnesses/company helps us do what we are called to do in ours.

Martha +