You have to get a mental picture of Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen has the picturesque charm of every sweet grandmother, school librarian, neat, tidy, and practically perfect in every way Mary Poppins you've ever met or conjured in your imagination. But let me tell you a small secret. Mary Ellen is no Mary Poppins. Mary Ellen is a mensch. The first time I ever heard Mary Ellen speak it was at our church's annual member meeting. We were voting on important matters of budget and conscience. But Mary Ellen defined the UU experience for me by rising and sweetly chastising the congregation for holding our annual meeting while the gay pride parade was preparing to begin. What kind of Unitarians do that? That, my friends is my friend Mary Ellen.
I thought about my friend Mary Ellen two days ago when I read Damomma's account of a scary incident. I thought about her for a lot of reasons. Small group ministry is supposed to be rather like Vegas...without the slot machines, stage shows or alcohol...but what happens in small group is supposed to stay in small group. I hope the laws of Vegas, small group and the divine Mary Ellen will forgive me for sharing this. Mary Ellen is the most committed atheist I've ever known, a strong, willful humanist woman. On this day we were discussing prayer, and she told us the only time she'd ever truly prayed was on the day that she rode in an ambulence with her son who had been hit by a car while riding his bike. Her prayer was not a request, it was a demand, "God!" she yelled out loud in the audience of a stunned paramedic, "Don't you hold this child responsible for my non-belief!" That's my Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen has had a hard year too, much harder by far than mine. Always busy with her work for hospice, caring for her aging and sick husband, she missed our last few sessions of small group last spring. "Under the weather," she reported simply via email. I learned during the summer that she had been diagnosed with cancer. It spread quickly and her doctors have spent the summer trying to keep up with it. As it goes with things like this, one week we would get an email telling us that she was doing better, the next week there would be some new challenge. But always the emails ended with a reminder that Mary Ellen needs her rest to fight this thing, so while cards and letters were very welcome, please don't plan to visit. But today the email was different. Today the email was simply it is time to say goodbye, here is her room number, if you have something to say, you'd better say it now.
Mary Ellen also told us that in her work at hospice, she often became very close to people and their families at the end of their days. It was not uncommon for families to ask her to pray at their bedsides or funerals. She said she didn't feel comfortable with this, as she was indeed an atheist, but a Unitarian as well, and she encompassed well our fourth principle, the right to free and responsible search for truth and meaning. So she would generally suggest that a family member or close friend might be better suited for the task. But occasionally, she said, she couldn't get around it. So when she prayed for these people, she tried to pray as she thought they would have prayed themselves. I am trying, and will continue to try to pray for Mary Ellen as she would do. By standing up and speaking out for what is right, by taking up the cause of the defenseless, by nurturing humor and compassion with a strong voice and a steady hand. And I hope you will too.
It's been a long time now since I've seen my friend, and I'm a bit afraid of what I'll find when I do go to see her. I'm so angry that she's saying goodbye, just as I was learning to say hello. But this is what life give us. I'm thankful I got any of it at all.