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.”