Remembering the Rev. Suzanne Meyer

The Rev. Suzanne Meyer was the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta’s Associate Minister from 2001-2003. On Sunday, January 31, we celebrated her life and service. I wrote this eulogy for her.

In the late 1970s, Suzanne attended a memorial service at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Unitarian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of her co-workers at the time had died of cancer, and she went to pay her respects. “I had been to my share of funerals,” she says, “and I found them dismal. I had planned to stick my head in the church, sign the guest book, and make a quick exit. Was I in for a surprise!” And she was. The experience, in her own words, was nothing less than a “homecoming.” Nothing less than a “life changing event” that would put her on a path of emotional and spiritual healing, open her to a call to ministry and almost 30 years of service, surround her with beloved friends and colleagues, and ultimately strengthen her with hope and grace in her last days and dying moments. That memorial service, decades ago, and this one today: a homecoming. Completing the circle. Coming home with Suzanne.

Here’s the story, as she tells it:

“Was I in for a surprise! The memorial service was a typical Unitarian Universalist service—uplifting, life-affirming, positive—unlike anything I had experienced in the Baptist church [growing up]. There was no sermon, no alter call, no mention of heaven and hell. I forgot about my plans to make a fast exit; I found myself glued to the pew.

“It was a beautiful and inspirational service. Even so, I began sobbing uncontrollably—out of grief for my father [who had died after a long and difficult illness], out of grief for my failed marriage, out of grief for the deeper issues concerning criminal justice that were being surfaced by my job with the Offender Aid and Restoration organization, but most of all I cried for the loss of a spiritual home which until that very moment I had never realized I missed so much and needed so badly.

“I was an instant convert to Unitarian Universalism, not for intellectual or theological reasons, which would come later, but for emotional reasons. Like so many other UU converts, I had experienced a homecoming at that memorial service. Even though I had not known that I was looking for a home until I had found one. I knew that the Unitarian Universalist church was for me.

“I came to understand that the memorial service and my reaction to it was a kind of epiphany—an experience of the divine in my life. I knew something inside me had changed. I was fearful and excited. I started going back to church for the first time in a decade. I knew something in my life was about to change in a big way. […] I felt I was being called to something, but to what?

“One night, at church, waiting for a meeting to start, I had a brief but significant conversation with my minister at the time, Terry Sweetser. I explained my dilemma to him: graduate school, yes or no? To stay in the field of justice reform: yes or no? To go back to Texas, yes or no? Unlike most people who were quick to hand out advice, he asked me, “What is it you really want to do with your life, Suzanne?”

“For the first time in my life, someone important was taking me seriously. I was stunned. […] In a stumbling way, I told Terry that I wanted to connect with human beings at a deeply personal level; I wanted to continue to work for social change; I wanted to explore the spiritual dimensions of existence; I wanted to make a difference in the quality of life on this planet; I wanted to save the world; I wanted to write the truth; I wanted to help people. I wanted to do everything.

“I retrospect, I am surprised Terry didn’t laugh out loud at my naïve idealism. Anyone else would have written me off as an overly dramatic 25 year-old-woman without much direction or focus in her life. But Terry smiled and said, ‘It sounds to me like you want to become a UU minister!’ I laughed. Me, a church drop out, a minister? But that night as I walked home from church, I kept hearing Terry’s words echo in my head. I knew what I had to do. I had a calling.”

And that’s Suzanne’s homecoming story, in her own words. A memorial service opening up the door of her life, putting her on the path. A path that would take her to seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School and then, beyond that, almost 30 years of service in the larger Unitarian Universalist Association together with congregations in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, here at UUCA in Georgia, Missouri, and Wyoming. “This is the true joy in life,” I can hear her say, along with the writer who originally penned the words, George Bernard Shaw. “This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” I can just hear Suzanne saying this.

And she was a force of nature. Says UUCA member Helen Borland, “Suzanne was a big woman (5’3″ or 4″ and heavy set) with a big personality. She had the coloring of a modern-day Cinderella; dark brown hair and fair skin. She complemented those assets by always wearing dark lipstick and dark nail polish.” Elaine Eklund puts it this way: “I loved her long nails and outlandishly red nail polish and flashy Chico’s clothes. She was a genuine Steel Magnolia.”

A consummate professional, as well. Beth Stevenson says she was “quite ‘classy’ in her sense of professional ethics and responsibility as a minister. “An excellent administrator of her areas of responsibility,” says Janet Paulk, “always available to work with UUCA congregants on programs and issues of importance, offering just the right mix of leadership AND support which encouraged others to contribute and be more dedicated to and effective at the work in which they were involved.” Janet in particular remembers her contribution to compiling a notebook detailing UUCA’s social justice programs which culminated in this congregation receiving the 2002 Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action, a major award honoring the congregation that is considered to have done the most exemplary work in social justice in the entire Unitarian Universalist Association.

“With each congregation,” says Suzanne, “my goal has been to help them discover and celebrate what makes them special and to honor their own history and culture. At about the same time, I have tried to educate each congregation about the history and theologies of Unitarianism and Universalism.” Teaching was definitely one of her gifts. Dotty Powers remembers her offering such courses as “The Transcendentalists,” or “Religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” or “From Jesus to Christ,” and (says Dotty) “the one I very possibly enjoyed the most: ‘Southern Spirit: A Look at the Psyche and Spirit of the American South through Modern Literature.’” She was a terrific teacher,” says Dotty, “and she helped me grow spiritually.”

Suzanne was a consummate professional. But at times, she had to assert this against unfair prejudice. Undeserved cruelty. Beth Stevenson recalls a story she once told, about how, as a female minister, she went to a funeral home wearing her black robe to officiate at a service. As the time to begin neared, she approached the funeral director and pointed this out. Time to start. But this is what the funeral director said, to Suzanne, standing there in her black robe: “don’t you think we should wait for the minister?” Too many of my female colleagues have had to struggle through prejudice like this, from men and from women, even in the here and now. Pettiness like this.

But she was undiminished—the torch of her life burning brightly. A force of nature, in service to a mighty purpose. Says Helen Borland, “I remember that she was an extremely fast speaker and I didn’t know if it was because she thought she’d only have one chance to speak in our pulpit and had a lot to say, or if that was her style.” It was her style. Lots to say. A brilliant mind and brilliant writer. “Because our theology is ethical rather than metaphysical,” says Suzanne, “we emphasize two things: relationship and behavior. What is our relationship to the moral imperative, to each other, to the earth, and so forth? What does it mean in this context to be a good human being? What is right relationship? What is our duty here and now at this juncture of history?” All these urgent questions, rolling down like thunder in and through her ministry.

She loved what she did. And it helped ease a pain that she carried with her most of her life, which was loneliness—her long sorrow at not having a spouse and children. As an only child she dreamed of being surrounded by a large, loving family. But it was not to be. Or, it was to happen in only a partial way, through collegial relationships and service in congregations around the country.

Colleagues and congregants meant everything to her. Elaine Eklund talks about her friendship with Suzanne, how they shared a common culture growing up: “poor white trash ancestors who moved into the middle class.” Also a love for southern culture and flashy fashion. Just before Suzanne left UUCA to become the Senior Minister of First Unitarian in St. Louis, Elaine took up money for a gift and bought her, she says, “an ‘in your face jacket’ from Chico’s (her favorite store) and a copy of The Encyclopedia of South Culture.” Says Elaine, “I wanted a copy so badly I could taste it, so I knew she’d like it.” A genuine Steel Magnolia.

Another story comes from Beth Stevenson: “Because Suzanne was from Texas (like myself) and grew up in Galveston, we tended to cook some good Texas fare. She loved good spicy barbecue. We had her for Thanksgiving one time and she walked in just laughing, having passed John and my brother-in-law Brad frying a Cajun turkey on the driveway. Not only did she love the fact we cooked up things spicy, but that it was always an adventure eating at our house. ‘I fully expect,’ she said, ‘to show up some time and you all will be using a blow torch to cook the food in some wild and dangerous way!’”

Not everyone saw this side of Suzanne, though. Some people, or even many, experienced Suzanne as “professional and correct” only, strongly boundaried. Marjorie Girth says, “I did not doubt that she enjoyed my company, but soon decided that she had learned too well the lesson that apparently all ministers are taught about NOT having friends among your parishioners.” And Marjorie is right. As any minister knows who has left one congregation to serve another, you pour your life and energy into helping build a community which, in the end, you must leave behind to the colleague that follows you, and you must do this “no strings attached.” Being both minister and friend is a tricky thing. Ministers are reminded of this all the time when, for example, they are at a congregational event having fun and they let down their guard, and either what’s said or done becomes gossip, sometimes hurtful gossip; or, in the blink of an eye, on the turn of a dime, someone raises a pastoral care concern, or asks about some congregational business, and the professional minister in the man or the woman must step forward instantly and infallibly. Being both minister and friend is a tricky thing, and it requires compassion and understanding on all sides.

Perhaps it was only in her dying days that the sense of loneliness left her. It was then that Suzanne was surrounded and strengthened by hope and grace, and I want to touch on this part of her story now.

It is interwoven with the deaths of three dear people in her life: her mom, the Rev. Martha Griffith (who served this congregation for a time), and Marshall Bever, a beloved congregant from her time at the church in New Orleans. In all three cases, says Suzanne, she “learned to experience the ‘grace’ of friends and church members who were so supportive and kind….” And in the case of Marty and Marshall, in particular, she found role models and guides who taught her how to face death with dignity. “Even as it became clear,” says Suzanne about Marty, “that the chemotherapy was not working, Marty spoke often about how her faith and her Unitarian friends gave her strength and hope. Her death was peaceful and brave.” Marshall in fact was a support to Suzanne in the months before Marty’s death. And soon after that, when he himself was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Marshall ministered to Suzanne in ways that she could not. Marty and Marshall taught Suzanne how to face death with dignity. “I can speak from personal experience, says Suzanne, “that my faith has enabled me to face grief and loss as well, if not better than, the more orthodox religion of my childhood. Both Marty and Marshall spoke openly about how their UU faith gave them comfort as they faced the end in their lives. I know,” says Suzanne, “that I can preach and teach the Unitarian Universalist ‘gospel’ with the confidence that comes from facing my own ‘dark night of the soul.’”

“My health failed me in the end,” she says, “but my friends did not. I never felt abandoned by God, or punished; in fact, my cancer brought me closer to God by bringing me closer to other people’s suffering. My greatest life-long fear was that I would die sick and alone in some indifferent institution. Thanks to my loving friends, I never felt alone or isolated. I was overwhelmed by the love of friends. Through them I caught a glimpse of heaven.”

Suzanne, we surround you with our love today. Thank you for your ministry and service in the larger world, and within this community. We’re coming home with you today, coming full circle, in this memorial service—remembering, in the midst of all the rush and gush of life, in the midst of all that is mere noise, all that is petty—remembering what is of true importance and value. Unitarian Universalist faith and community. Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. The love we show each other that can take us all the way to heaven.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

That’s what you have done, Suzanne. You have done it.

I’ll give Carole Galanty the last word here: “Suzanne, I miss you, I love you, and may you be in peace. Namaste.”

Advertisements

12 comments

  1. Absolutely remarkable! The quote included by George Bernard Shaw was beyond inspiring. Thank you for sharing this riviting story with us all.

  2. I was saddened to come across a notice of an upcoming memorial service for Suzanne at the 1st UU Church in St. Louis. I thank Anthony David for the eulogy. I heard her give an outstanding sermon once when we visited her church. As a long time member of another St. Louis congregation, I had been intrigued enough by her sermon title that I got my husband to go with me to hear her. We were not disappointed. She chose a difficult life and made a positive impact on the lives of others.

  3. Anthony, thank you so much for posting the eulogy. It was a shock to come across it in my feed reader tonight, as I hadn’t heard of Suzanne’s illness or passing. Suzanne’s tenure at UUCA fell during one of those all-too-rare periods of time when I attended regularly, before and during my pregnancy with our younger son. I cherished her sermons, wit, and presence, and I was saddened when she moved to St. Louis. I feel blessed to have been a member of one of “her” congregations.

    Blessings,

  4. Dear Rev. David,

    Please accept my sympathy for the loss of Rev. Suzanne Meyer as felt by you and the members of your congregation.

    I write to draw your attention to a post about Rev. Meyer and two other alumni/ae of Meadville Lombard Theological School who recently passed away. I used an excerpt from your eulogy in the section of the post about Rev. Meyer. The post may be found at http://www.mlflash.org.

    Many thanks for all of your support of Meadville Lombard.

    Faithfully,
    Douglass T. Davidoff
    Consultant for External Communications
    Meadville Lombard Theological School

  5. I’ve been searching the WEB to find someone, anyone to express myself to about Suzanne’s passing.
    Why so desperate sounding ? I went to the memorial for Suzanne this morning up in Cheyenne, WY.

    For Suzanne – You would have loved your service memorial Suzanne. It was filled with such a mix of different people really locked together focusing on your passing. By the way, Suzanne, what meaning do you make about the word ” passing ? ” You orchestrated your own ” passing ” past the point of passing, and when I learned this I realized in part why you touched me Suzanne. We only knew each other through email, a book or CD sent here and there, little taps on each others’ shoulder to say I am thinking of you, you impressed me. When Vets come home from war, they can arrive in a multitude of ways, from adapting all the way to being so traumatized, that they give up, either on an installment plan killing themselves softly, or with an abrupt bang. But when they do come home, they find those who hopefully can help them through the rough waters, to continue to fight a different fight, now for their mind, a heart and soul. We passed each other quickly, maybe too quickly, but Hashem called that play. Suzanne, what matters is that you, I, others I believe who are dedicated to being present to the good fight in oneself and others, try our best to not become the very thing that brought us towards the light of a better understanding and way of being. I thank you for looking, listening, I mean really listening with a third ear to the song behind my yelling, that so few people have the perceptivity and willingness to hear. Oh, yes, no tomatoes, but the food after your Memorial, was fantastic. People brought food from their heart, I did. I brought some stuff I canned. If they were in season I would have brought some very ripe, very sweet ones. But it’s winter now, and I can not wait until the ground warms and life comes back.
    Bruce

  6. Thank you for your eloquent words that honor our dear Suzanne.
    She inspired my faith and spirit during her tenure at All Souls (Tulsa) and after her departure we continued to stay in contact. Her writings enlightened me and her warmth nurtured my soul. Only she could grant my wish for a Bruce Springsteen sermon paying homage with insight, understanding and care worthy of devoted fans. Thanks for answering the call, Suzanne and touching my heart. I will miss you dearly.

  7. Anthony, you did Suzanne proud. Thanks especially for illuminating her life in that transition that led to Meadville Lombard, where she was a student when I first met her (as you were, some years later, when I first met you). Suzanne was a live wire then as ever. Running into her along 57th Street, I never knew if we’d soon be roaring with laughter at one of her stories about Texas or an event in this Southern city or that, or deep in a discussion about social justice or church polity. My goodness, did she ever challenge my treasured assumptions!

    Suzanne always knew at her core what mattered. In worship she was mature far beyond her years, radiating ministerial presence even long before her ordination in that light-filled Vancouver church immediately following the 1983 GA on the UBC campus a few miles away. (I’m never sure what people mean by ministerial presence until I think of Suzanne back then, and then I have no doubt at all.) We seldom ran into one another after that, usually at this GA or that installation. I hadn’t known she’d been sick until learning of her death, and hadn’t known she’d left St. Louis and gone to Cheyenne until well after that. But ministers leave their mark as they carry out their ministries, even though they–Suzanne certainly among them–must move along, must stop actively serving some in order to begin serving others. To this day it is her mark on me, as much as any other, that calls me to examine my thinking, embrace the ultimate, and act out the meaning of my faith in love.

  8. I just now found out about this. This upsets me. Rev. Meyer married my wife and I on Sept. 8, 2007 and for the very brief time I knew Rev. Meyer, she made a lasting impression on me. She did an awesome beautiful service and seemed like such a remarkable lady.

    God Bless you, Rev. Meyer. Thanks for being a part of one of the best days of my life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s