So here’s a little bit of Christ Church lore on the occasion of the passing of Harper Lee, reclusive author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. Nelle Harper, as her childhood friend, Thomas Lane Butts, knew her, was a frequent attender of Christ Church during my early decades here while she still maintained an apartment in the city. Tom was an old lion of Alabama Methodism who had endured cross-burnings on his lawn and many threatening confrontations for his out-of-step-views concerning race. In this way he and Nelle were close companions having grown up in the same small town where Jim Crow was the accepted (even Christian) cultural norm. Well, you know about that from the novel.
Tom and I had become acquainted some years earlier, and as both a mentor and friend he was very willing to assist me at Christ Church in the summer months when I left the city for several weeks with my little children. Nelle was a life-long Methodist, and while she did attend sometimes, she never wanted to be known, generally arriving late and leaving early.
She very much approved of my inviting her old chum to ascend the pulpit, so over the course of ten years or so, I had occasion to have her over to my apartment and gratify her taste for scotch and conversation along with her Alabama friend. It was all very hush-hush because of her need for privacy, but accommodating that need now seems unnecessary and it feels good to reminisce in this way about people that have mattered to me and many others.
One year I was asked if I would like to accompany the unholy duo to a newly opened gaming establishment in upstate Connecticut owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe known as Foxwoods. Both had a penchant for the thrill of risk—up to a point—and were seeking a fresh venue to try their luck. And while their hospitality of including me was genuine, they were just as likely hoping I’d say yes since I was the only one with wheels. Nothing terribly memorable happened that day, just the commiseration of losers and a sense we were doing our small part in rectifying the awful injustices inflicted upon native peoples.
Harper Lee has died in what has come to be known as Black History Month which seems oddly fitting given the nuanced themes every American student absorbs while reading her prose. And I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to reflect and share and consider the distance we have traveled in these United States, and the distance yet to be covered. In our season of vexatious political hyperbole I invite you to pause in a spirit of gratitude for those who have pointed the way forward consistent with the highest and noblest human aspirations. The struggle continues, but we have excellent mentors, and we have each other. Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Dr. Stephen Bauman