Written by Rev. Meg Riley
I had a different topic planned for this morning’s blog, but news of Forrest Church’s death last night—peaceful, at home, surrounded by loved ones—is right in the center of my heart and mind. As I grazed in my raspberry bush this morning, letting the bees sleep while I picked the most luscious dark berries, I felt as if I were in communion with his spirit, savoring the gifts of life as he so often instructed us all to do.
I know that others who were closer to him, more serious and systematic about reading his works, or otherwise more appropriate eulogizers than me have been writing and will continue to write tributes to him. (see UUA.org or www.allsoulsnyc.org).
I also know this: Forrest Church impacted me profoundly. In this way, I join hundreds of thousands of other people who read his books, heard him preach, went to events where he spoke, talked to him, enjoyed his collegiality. I’ll share just three gifts he gave me here.
- Forrest and All Souls Church in New York City were bold and courageous during the early days of AIDS in a way which was both steady and lighthearted. It’s hard to describe this time to folks who weren’t alive or conscious yet, but the fear focused on people with AIDS (and, by extension, gay men) was similar to that which came down against Muslims after September 11. Right wing preachers made no apologies for declaring that AIDS was God’s punishment; President Ronald Reagan literally never said the word AIDS from 1980-1988. It was a scary time. The personal witness of someone like Forrest was profound, and all too rare. His lack of fear was contagious. He woke up courage in me, sparked by his own, and led me to understand ministry as much more public than I had previously understood.
- Forrest taught me about the profound connection between the pastoral and the public spheres of ministry. He was deeply grounded in the personal relationships that arose from his particular congregation of people in Manhattan, and yet he was always aware that the private and the public, the personal and political, lives of people are inseparable. He had a keen eye for understanding which public issues tapped into people’s deepest places, and he mined those well for sermons, op-eds, and public witness.
- Forrest taught me that you’re going to make mistakes—bad mistakes—and you need to keep on going. His own foibles are as public as his triumphs, and I am sure this caused him pain and embarrassment. Yet, he did not fade quietly away, but held to his strength and dignity and ultimately lived a life that was a model of courage, kindness, compassion and integrity. In his last few years with cancer, his very body became the content and context of his theology, and many of us gained immeasurably from being in his presence.
Forrest, thank you for making your life a torch which burned brightly, to help all of us see.