Friday, August 30, 2013

Requiescat in Pace: Anita Jones

Anita Jones
A memorial service was held August 15th for Anita Jones, Integrity Lifetime Member and former Convener of the Atlanta Chapter.  She died August 2nd in Louisville at the age of 64.

An actuary by trade, Anita graduated from the University of Louisville and worked for Capital Holding Corporation and Ernst and Young.  But friends point to her work in social justice as her true calling.  In addition to Integrity, she was active in the I Have a Dream Foundation, an organization that promotes equal access to higher education by equipping children in low-income areas with access to tuition assistance and guidance to prepare them for further study.

Anita's funeral took place August 10th at the Church of the Advent in Louisville, and she was interred at Louisville Memorial Gardens West.  An additional memorial service was held at St. Luke's, her Atlanta church home, on August 15th.  The sermon from that service, by the Rev. Liz Schellingerhoudt, Associate for Pastoral Care, follows:

Anita Jones. Friend, sister, daughter, and companion in the Christian faith. Last summer, we said our goodbyes to Anita, but only superficially, knowing that she was on the other end of the phone and email, and that she would periodically come to visit us. Today we celebrate her life among us, her gifts to the world, and mourn her leaving us for good, much sooner than we would like.

A friend told me that she visited Anita this spring, and while driving to lunch, the car behind them laid on the horn in frustration with Anita, who wasn't turning right on a red light. Anita quipped to the driver behind her, "My friend, right on red is an opportunity, not an obligation" and she remained sitting at the light until it turned green. She would not be moved to do what she did not want or think appropriate to do. This little story says a lot about Anita, about her sense of humor, her sense of what was right to do at any given moment, her ability to stand firm in what she believed, and her ability to frustrate us at times!

Today's Gospel lesson is part of what's known as Jesus' Farewell Discourse, his last will and testament if you will. It is an intimate conversation between himself and his closest friends, his disciples. He is talking about his impending death, and imparting his teachings to them – the wisdom that he wants to be sure they carry with them even after he is gone. His prediction that he will not be with them for much longer is deeply troubling. His encouragement to them in their grief and confusion is one of the reasons that this passage is used so often in funerals. If you spoke to Anita this last month, you may have had a similar experience. She calmed us with her calm about her impending death.

Jesus says, don't be troubled, don't be distressed, don't be in despair. I'm not abandoning you, but I am going ahead of you, and preparing a place for you, a permanent, life-giving dwelling. A place where you can abide. It is comforting and continues a theme of radical hospitality and love that is Jesus' message. But his disciple Thomas isn't having it. When Jesus says it's going to be OK, I'm going to show you, Thomas's response is something like, how is this OK? It's OK, Jesus says, because I have shown you the way, and that way is through truth and love. The way of Jesus is the way of Love - radical, hospitable, and sacrificial love.

The promise of Jesus to his disciples is that although he will die soon and be gone, he has opened the path to God in a new way that will remain open to them even after he is gone. In John's telling of this story, he is helping his small, persecuted faith community recognize and claim the distinctiveness of their identity as a people of faith, as people who have chosen to follow Jesus.

Anita, as do many of us, had trouble with the last sentence of the Gospel reading though: "No one comes to the Father except through me." It rings of an exclusivity that is at odds with the way that Anita lived her life. In the Gospel story, John's community has been kicked out of the synagogue, the place where God can be found, and they are worried about how they will continue their relationship with God. Jesus assures them that they cannot be excluded by anyone from God's presence. They do not need to belong to any particular group or worry about being accepted by the religious establishment – they belong because Jesus has brought them before the Father, and that's all they need.

It is, in this sense, a statement of radical inclusion. No one or no circumstance, as our passage in Romans proclaims, can separate us from the love of God. We make a mistake if we think it is a statement about who is in and who is out. It is a deeply intimate conversation between Jesus and those who have chosen this way of knowing God, and how Jesus has broken the ways in which we try to decide who is in and who is out.

Anita was familiar with being excluded because of her sexual orientation, and made it her life calling to include the excluded. She lived out her favorite bible verse from Micah, "what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" 

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Anita's life reflected a commitment to do these things. In this way, she was a philanthropist in the classic Greek sense of the word. The concept of the philanthropist was first introduced in Ancient Greece by the author of the play Prometheus Bound. From the play, the word developed the meaning of someone who has a "love of what it means to be human" in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, and enhancing "what it is to be human." Love of humanity asserts that our nature and purpose in life is educational to make ourselves more fully humane through self-development, pursuing excellence of body, mind and spirit. Loving what it means to be human is reflected in our baptismal covenant – to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and peace.

Anita at a Kentucky Derby party
Anita was definitely a philanthropist in the classic Greek understanding. She committed her time to Integrity – acting as convener for several years; she committed her time, almost full time, to her Dreamers; and to her church. Once Anita got behind something, she had laser focus and commitment. Supporting justice for gay and lesbian folks in the Episcopal Church through Integrity; supporting education for our Dreamers; and praying daily for our St. Luke's community and the world in Morning Prayer are just of few examples. And once she moved to Louisville, she didn't waste any time getting involved in Church of the Advent, even becoming a vestry member and attending Morning Prayer at another Episcopal Church. The philanthropist in her pushed her and us to do more than we thought we could do. She held us to a higher standard than we would have held for ourselves.

There is another meaning of philanthropist, though, a more contemporary understanding. That understanding is of one who gives of their personal financial resources to support the public good. Unfortunately, the ancient understanding, of one who gives in other ways, has been lost.

But Anita was both. She gave, with strict anonymity, to the causes she cared about. Her sister, Debbie Jones, talked to her about disclosing her generosity after her death. Anita was open to the idea, only because Debbie wanted her life to be an inspiration and challenge to others. Her extreme generosity enabled Integrity, our I Have a Dream Chapter, St. Luke's and many others that we'll never know about to do important work. She lived frugally and managed her money well so that it could be a resource for the greater good, to make justice possible for those denied full access to the enjoyment of their own humanity – whether it was exclusion from full participation in the church because of sexual orientation or exclusion from education by being born into one community as opposed to another. Anita put her resources of time, energy, and money to improving the quality of life for so many.

I want to add a comment to the Dreamers here today. She loved you, each of you. She prayed for you daily. And she always expected your best, and wants you to continue to do your best. She was so very proud of you and you are her children. What Anita had to give, she gave intentionally, with purpose. She made a commitment to work for you, without pay, to volunteer her time, for 10 years, and she did this almost full time. The money she contributed, she earned herself, through an education, hard work, and developing expertise in something she loved doing. She denied herself a much higher standard of living than she could have lived because giving was of such high importance to her. It's the reason she was able to give more of herself than you'll ever be able to count, so that you can become the full persons you were born to be. She gave you her time, her expertise and her financial support, and she wants you to love your life.

Anita's whole life was a prayer. She had an often quiet, but always strong, presence. With the precision of her actuarial mind, she examined everything carefully – from the details of the IHAD program to how we prayed together in Morning Prayer. She insisted that our prayers pay attention – when we prayed for the president, governor and mayor, she insisted that we also pray for all local leaders, arguing that not all St. Luke's members live in the city of Atlanta. She insisted that we pray for the women religious of the Catholic church when they were struggling for justice with Rome. And when the news broke about the Atlanta Public Schools several years ago, we prayed for the victims of the scandal – children and parents in particular, but we also prayed for the school board members who had caused the scandal.

Anita's challenge to us is to look at our lives and ask "In what ways can we do more?" In what ways can we become philanthropists lovers of what it means to be fully human – and how can we challenge ourselves and enable others to be fully human, the best we can be? In what ways can we make our whole lives a prayer and do as the Lord requires, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?


No comments: