Eulogy for a Friend

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Eulogy for a Friend

The Rev. Terry Burke. (Photo: Kathy Bangerter via TruthDig)

On Wednesday, Chris Hedges delivered this eulogy at the funeral of his friend and former divinity school classmate, the Rev. Terry Burke, who spent 31 years as the pastor of the First Church Jamaica Plain, a Unitarian Universalist church in a working-class neighborhood of Boston. The service was held at the church.

The night Terry died it was raining. Lightning streaks rent the sky. I walked after I left the hospital in the downpour to Harvard Divinity School on Francis Avenue. I did not go there because of nostalgia for the divinity school. Terry and I had more than enough of Harvard’s elitism—which he had already got a good taste of as a Harvard undergraduate—and the university’s propensity to turn the poor and the oppressed into airy abstractions. Most divinity students and nearly all divinity school professors stayed clear from the inner city of Roxbury [a poor, primarily African-American neighborhood in Boston], where Terry and I lived and worked. Being an intellectual, Harvard showed us, is morally neutral.

But I wanted to look at the darkened Gothic stone face of Andover Hall because it was where Terry and I were young. It is where we studied to be pastors. It was where we built a lifelong friendship. It was where we tried to fathom what it meant to live a life of faith. It was where we understood that if truth was to be heard, as Theodor Adorno wrote, suffering must be allowed to speak. It was where our ministry began.

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It does not seem that long ago. I can still see him making his massive pot of red beans that we kept in the refrigerator in Roxbury and ate night after night, sometimes cold, because we had no money and because it was the only thing he or I knew how to cook. We were readers. Money, when we had it, was spent on books. We traded books back and forth, Will Campbell’s “Brother to a Dragonfly,” Daniel Berrigan’s “No Bars to Manhood,” Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, the work of our great mentor at Harvard James Luther Adams, James Cone’s “Black Theology & Black Power,” Cornel West’s “Prophesy Deliverance!,” Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, William Stringfellow, and poems by Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and the works of William Shakespeare. As Terry was nearing death he told [his wife] Ellen: “I am shuffling off this mortal coil.”

Ellen’s arrival into Terry’s life—I heard a lot about her before I met her—made him giddy with joy. He talked about her incessantly, her red hair, her warmth, her love of music. He told me that when they were walking in Central Park in New York City a man shouted to him that he should marry that “big, beautiful woman.” Which Terry, being Terry, probably decided was a commandment from God. And perhaps it was. As his health declined, he folded, physically and spiritually, into Ellen’s embrace. She was his angel. And he knew this. Never, he told me, did he love Ellen so much as when he knew he was facing death.

Ellen, miraculously, knew how to cook things other than large vats of red beans. And not only that, she was willing to teach this culinary knowledge to Terry, including how to bake bread. Yes, he may not have graduated much beyond pasta and overly steamed carrots, but this was still a great leap forward. I had the habit of arriving, usually unannounced, at dinnertime to visit Terry and Ellen at their basement apartment in Cambridge. There was always another plate on the table. I still feel a little guilty about this, Ellen.

Terry and Ellen—she played the organ and handled the music—have given 31 years of their lives to this church. They have been here on Sundays. They have presided over weddings, baptisms, funerals, church suppers, retreats, Sunday school, Christmas pageants and the blessing of the animals, including the stuffed animals. They made this church a real church, where all—trans and straight, men and women, from those who were healthy to those struggling with HIV, from black to brown to Asian to white, from the disabled to the abled, from the young to the old, the well-off to the destitute, the sober and those trying to become sober—found respect, reassurance and community. The remarkable intertwining of the lives of Ellen and Terry to create a thing of beauty, a thing we cannot see or touch but can only feel and sense, is what ministry is about. If there is a more meaningful way to spend a life I do not know it. 

Terry had a fondness for puns, which I do not share, and he looked somewhat askance at my nocturnal carousing and membership on the Greater Boston YMCA boxing team. He loathed disharmony and violence. He had the seriousness of a scholar, and while I admired him for it, I was too easily distracted by the passions of the world.

Terry knew early on, as Montaigne wrote in “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die,” that we must constantly examine and slay the old self to create a better self. This is the act ritualized in the Eucharist. A constant death. A constant rebirth. And it is why the Eucharist meant so much to him. The ancient church rituals, icons and saints, the liturgical music, the formality of high Mass buttressed this death and rebirth. These props, symbols and rituals offer guidance and support that many Protestant denominations, stripped down to a dangerous intellectualism and rationalism, often fail to provide. 

In the Dark or Middle Ages Terry would have been an abbot, singing Gregorian chants in a long black robe before sunrise, leading high Mass with rows of candles and incense no doubt wafting upwards from a swinging thurible. He would, much as he did in this church, have provided refuge to pilgrims, nurtured the sick, fed the poor, educated the children, comforted the bereaved, denounced the oppressor and copied out Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil and Catullus so it would not be lost to human civilization. ...

I loved Terry for his brilliance, his deep intellectual curiosity, his humility and his incredible compassion and gentleness. He hated emails. He sent handwritten notes, often on cards he had taken the time to pick out, to say thank you or express condolences or tell you he was thinking of you. I expect that nearly everyone in this church today received such notes, along with books he thought you should read or small gifts he wanted you to have. There was something very human about this practice in an age of instant electronic communication. I will miss his handwritten messages. I will miss the books he sent. One of his last gifts to me were the three volumes of “The Gulag Archipelago.” And when I came to Boston this past year to visit, we would talk about Solzhenitsyn’s insight into human nature, oppression, resistance and faith.

Solzhenitsyn writes of a Serb, a teacher in forced exile in the Soviet Union named Georgi Stepanovich Mitrovich. He had been recently freed from the camps. Mitrovich would not give up his dogged battle with local authorities for justice for his students. The description of Mitrovich is a description of Terry.

“His battle was utterly hopeless, and he knew it,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “No one could unravel that tangled skein. And if he had won hands down, it would have done nothing to improve the social order, the system. It would have been no more than a brief, vague gleam of hope in one narrow little spot, quickly swallowed by the clouds. Nothing that victory might bring could balance the risk of rearrest—which was the price he might pay (only the Khrushchev era saved Mitrovich). Yes, his battle was hopeless, but it was human to be outraged by injustice, even to the point of courting destruction! His struggle could only end in defeat—but no one could possibly call it useless. If we had not all been so sensible, not all been forever whining to each other: ‘It won’t help! It can’t do any good!” our land would have been quite different. Mitrovich was not even a citizen—he was only an exile—but the district authorities feared the flash of his spectacles.” 

Terry, who came from a working-class family in Flint, Mich., and whose fierce loyalty to workingmen and -women and the destitute never waivered, chose sides. He stood with the oppressed. Life was about making the world a more humane place. It was about treating everyone with dignity.

He knew the dark side of human nature and the tragedy of human history. He knew the propensity of human beings to do what we should not do. He wanted to save souls, which meant saving people from squandering their lives chasing wealth, power or fame. And this was only possible, he knew, if we placed the sacred at the center of existence, if we realized that in the end it is not about us but about our neighbor, about the stranger, about the outcast and about this precious planet that we must protect.

If you stand with the oppressed you get treated like the oppressed. You have enemies. You evoke hatred. You can be killed. Terry, when he visited with me in El Salvador during the war, was profoundly moved by the mortal danger church workers, who documented and denounced the savagery of the death squads, faced daily. Many paid for this witness with their lives. This is what it means to lift up the cross. It is the fundamental call of the Christian gospel. It was why Christ accepted suffering, why Christ was abandoned, beaten and left to die alone on a cross. There is no justice without self-sacrifice. Loving deeply hurts. And Terry bore this hurt.

Confronting evil has a price. And we must be willing to pay this price. And this is why Terry was willing to go to jail in acts of civil disobedience for workers who had lost their jobs and to defy fossil fuel corporations that are destroying the Earth.

Flannery O’Connor, in a passage Terry loved, recognized that a life of faith entailed a life of confrontation. “St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: ‘The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.’ No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”

For Terry, simple human kindness, divorced from creeds or freed from ideology or religious doctrine, kindness that does not ask if the recipient deserves this kindness, is, as Vasily Grossman wrote, “what is most truly human in a human being.” And this kindness, as Grossman wrote, “is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man [or woman] tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.” The highest morality is the morality of kindness. It is higher than a morality based on principles, doctrines or creeds. It is one person reaching out because another is alone, in despair or in distress. Nothing is nobler than a life dedicated to caring for others. And kindness, as Rousseau wrote, is the single quality that makes possible all other “social virtues.” Terry lived by this. And because of that, his life was magnificent.

Willow, Amelia and Lucy [Terry’s children] were raised, as I was raised, in the embrace of a church community whose beating heart was their mother and father. And, years from now, you will run into someone who will tell you how your mother or your father helped them to endure tremendous suffering or showed them kindness when no one else would. These are the invisible acts that go into a ministry. They are tiny miracles. And there are many, many people in this church whose lives, if not made whole, were made endurable because your parents cared. And this is what we are called to do.

We face today the mystery of life, death and love. In the great, inconceivable span of time that is the universe, all of us are ephemerons, creatures whose lights momentarily sparkle and then vanish. How to use this brief gift of light. This is what Terry showed us. When you use your light to sustain and nurture others, that light is eternal. It passes from soul to soul. It is with you. It is with me. It is with everyone in this congregation. It is Terry.

I want to speak especially to you, his beloved children, Willow, Amelia and Lucy, who were the alpha and omega of his existence, of whom he was so proud and whom he loved so deeply, to tell you this: The awful, gut-wrenching pain you feel will transform into something beautiful. Your father, for the rest of your life, will be your inner witness. His life will illuminate and guide your own. When you stand up for the wretched of the earth, Palestinians in Gaza, single mothers and their children in homeless shelters, those discriminated against because of their race or their sexual orientation, the impoverished and the neglected, those gunned down in the streets by police because they are poor people of color, when you carry out simple acts of kindness, when empathy makes you demand justice, you will feel your father’s spirit. He will be with you. I know this for a fact. I carry my own father’s presence within me. He was a pastor who, too, was good and kind. Every word I utter, every act I make, is done in fealty to my father. It is my voice you hear, but these are his words. And so it will be with you. And one day there will be solace in this.

The light of goodness and justice that Terry passed to you, to all of us, will be lit again and again through acts of kindness, especially to those deemed unworthy of kindness. It will continue to multiply and ripple across the landscape. This light has a name. It is love. It never dies. The capacity to love this deeply, the capacity to know that love calls us to take upon the suffering of others, is what made your father a great, great man. It is why I believe in God. It is why I believe in the resurrection. It is why I will always carry your father within me.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

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