Here’s a story I shared with his family last weekend. His wife was there back at this event in 1994, but most of his children and grandchildren were not.
When my grandmother (Uncle Russell’s mother) died in 1994, just short of 100, many of us were not able to make it to her funeral. That next summer, at the family reunion, we did what Southern families often do: We went to the cemetery. We checked out Grandma’s monument, told stories to the younger kids, visited the graves of other family members and told their stories to our younger family members.
At a certain point, as things were winding down, my cousin Carolyn asked Uncle Russell [oldest child, oldest son … and thus patriarch of the family]: “Uncle Russell, would you lead us in prayer?”
Uncle Russell jerked his head up, looked her in the eye, and brusquely nodded “yes,” with an attitude of pique conveyed in that gesture. Then he turned 180 degrees, walking away from the family to his car. He opened the back door of the car, leaned in and reached for something. He spent some moments bent over in some sort of consultation.
None of us had any idea what he was doing.
Then he walked back to the assembled family with some sort of red, limp-leather bound book in hand, open, and said, “Let us pray.” And proceeded to deliver a prayer that I found quite articulate, even poetic, and spiritual. Best prayer I had ever heard … after a childhood and youth of growing up with Southern Baptist preachers invoking Jeeeeeezus.
Afterwards, the fundamentalist Fox clan tsk-tsked about how he “couldn’t even pray from his heart, but had to read a prayer out of a book.” Me? I thought it was the best prayer I had ever heard.
A while later, after the Episcopal Church found me in 1996, I realized he had gone back to his car to get his BCP and find a suitable prayer. But at the time, I had ditched the church in the early 1980s and was suspicious of any “church stuff.”
When I got to Wheaton for Uncle Russell’s funeral last week, I got out of my car, opened the back seat, and reached in for my red, limp-leather bound BCP. And I froze. I realized I was doing exactly the same. Apparently, Uncle Russell always traveled with a copy of our prayer book in his car. As do I.
KirkE commented here about Uncle Russell: “…and he looks like he enjoyed ‘hanging around the holy stuff’ too...genetics?” Genetics perhaps. Or perhaps just one more way that he inspired me to move beyond the “culture” in which I had been reared.
I have no idea what kind of prayers Uncle Russell prayed privately. But I believe it is a miracle that I gave up on the church in the early 1980s … disdained church … then found a welcome in the Episcopal Church in 1996 and am now happily and meaningfully involved in this church.
Thank God for Uncle Russell. I have no doubt that he is resting in peace and rising in glory. Not one.