Last night I went to a memorial service at the Newman Center, for Brittany and Courtney, two students who died in a car wreck on their way back to campus at the end of Spring Break. The Newman Center is a very modern church building, with big abstract stained glass windows and a large video screen positioned above the band. I sat towards the back and watched a slide show of the girls’ lives while waiting for the service to begin. The room was full, and people shifted in their chairs, had murmured conversations, tilted their heads up towards the screen. Music was playing from the speakers in the center of the sanctuary, and the songs that the kids who put the slide show together had chosen were cheerful. They played Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” a song I love, and while an old, stiff part of my soul wondered about it’s appropriateness, I found myself surrendering to it, to the sentiment it expresses. Every little thing will be all right, even in the face of death.
The priest continued that theme once the service began. He lit the Paschal candle and talked about its meaning, a symbol of new life in baptism, a symbol of continued life at burial. A visual reminder of the hope of the resurrection. I was aware that not everyone in the room was a Christian. My life as a college chaplain has been about meeting the spiritual needs of a wide variety of people who are at different places in their lives of faith, or living lives entirely without faith. But I was glad that the priest took time to explain the meaning of the ritual. I think that everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, can accept an authentic ritual, and that sincerity of belief is more welcoming than attempts to hide it.
These assumptions were challenged, however, when the priest offered the mike to the people there, inviting them to memorialize Brittany and Courtney. The first person to get up was a girl who had known one of the students, and the first part of her talk was a true memorial, a list of memories that honored the dead. But then she began to preach. She said that she’d come to Christ in the last year, and that everyone should follow her lead if they wanted assurance of heaven. She said that her faith had “saved her from a gay lifestyle.” I cringed. And I felt sorry for her. This poor child was being taught that she was somehow unacceptable to God, and that God is not loving, but judgmental and cruel, always weighing our actions and all too willing to send us to hell. But she didn’t make me angry. This was how she was dealing with her grief, and people who are sorrowful cast about for certainties.
The next speaker made me angry. This was a tall young man, who had been sitting next to the first speaker. He got up and came forward and told us that he didn’t know either of the dead girls. He said that we couldn’t honestly know if they were in heaven and hell. They may have claimed to be Christian, and members of their Catholic and Methodist churches, but that didn’t mean they’d really “come to Christ.” Nor, in his mind, did it mean that Christ would have any inclination to save them. He threatened us. Come to Christ or you’ll go to hell.
Fortunately, the priest stopped him before he went any further. “This is about Courtney and Brittany,” he said. “This isn’t an altar call.” The young man returned to his seat. I watched him. He was obviously angry at having been stopped in the middle of his tirade. His friends tried to reassure him. The memorial service went on. Real friends of Courtney and Brittany got up. They talked about the specific truths of the girls’ lives, how Brittany was always singing, how Courtney’s smile could give solace at the end of a hard day. They honored the specificity of the girls’ lives, and I honored them for it.
This morning I woke up thinking about that tall, angry young man, and the girl who proceeded him. Did they think they were being loving? How is it that they could be so indifferent to grief, so hopelessly callous towards the wounded souls in the room, so ignorant of God’s true love for the world? I began wondering, and I wonder now, if they haven’t been abused in some way, at some point in their lives. Maybe they’ve chosen a form of Christianity with an abusive ethic because abuse is familiar to them, so familiar that it’s almost comfortable. Maybe they’ve been told that they, as individuals, don’t matter, and so they assume that individuals don’t matter to God. Maybe they’ve been taught to run away from the specificity of their own lives, and therefore can’t imagine that God would care that both Courtney and Brittany liked to wear bathrobes in the morning, that Courtney always made Brittany’s coffee, that they were kind and loving people, and full of joy.
My perfect church would be a community of people who supported each other in their lives with God, and didn’t try to control the direction in which anyone’s faith led them. A community of saints, that was concentrated on God’s love for the world, and therefore tried to imitate that love. Jesus tells us that God knows every hair on our heads. Because God loves us so much, the specificity of our hair matters. The specificity of our bodies matter. We matter to God, in all of our moments – at a bar, drinking coffee on the sofa in the morning, when we’re with our loved ones, whoever they may be. That’s how one remembers the dead. By trying to see them through God’s eyes, in all of their glorious and wonderful variety. The truer Christians were the friends who got up with no purpose other than to tell stories about Brittany and Courtney. Truer, because they acted more like Christ, whatever their faith may be.