One of the great gifts of the year-and-a-half I spent here at Trinity as interim rector was passing an hour each week in conversation with Elizabeth Hess. When I arrived in mid-2017, Elizabeth had just expanded her duties and added youth ministry to her ongoing role directing Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Because in my former life I had spent many years working with teenagers in both churches and schools, Laurel and I thought my supervisory experience might be helpful to Elizabeth as she made her way into this new line of work.
I wish I could tell you that my experience and wisdom transformed Elizabeth from a neophyte into a rock star youth minister, but I have to be honest and say that she was a rock star from the word go. In our weekly conversations we talked and thought together about particular issues and plans, but all I really added to those talks was a grandfatherly approving nod or some kind of profound remark like, “That sounds great”. Elizabeth brought all her natural intelligence, creativity, and passion from years of teaching both young children and college students into her work with teenagers. She was a natural from the beginning, and all I could really do was look on and applaud.
There are so many things to say about Elizabeth. Let me confine my remarks to two of them.
First: anyone who works with teenagers will tell you that they have a superior sense for sniffing out the bogus and the fake. In the early days of my working with Elizabeth, I spent a Sunday afternoon with the youth group as she led them through a process exploring images of God. She had exhaustively researched the subject, she provided them with hundreds of pictures to choose from, and then she sent them out on the street to photograph anything which spoke to them of the divine. She next convened possibly the best discussion I have ever heard on the subject, allowing the kids to express a wide range of preferences and ideas.
If you’ve ever run a youth group, you know that getting teenagers to talk is in itself a signal achievement. Getting them to talk about something risky and deep is a triumph. Elizabeth posed questions and made a space for the kids to share perceptions that even those of us who talk about God for a living find very hard to do. The three hours I spent watching Elizabeth work with the kids here felt like an adolescent pedagogy master class.
So my first observation about Elizabeth: teenagers can tell the bogus from the real, and they only open themselves up in the presence of those who are genuine. Elizabeth radiated authenticity, and in everything she did—from running a youth group to training catechists to teaching composition—her intelligence and compassion shined through.
My second is a bit more personal. I have lived and worked in the church for over 40 years, and my own inner teenager has given me a kind of sixth sense too, enabling me to sniff out the real believers among us. When you’re around church professionals as much as I am, you get a feeling for discriminating between those who are just serving their time and those whose life depends on the reality of their faith. I have been extremely fortunate to have had a few mentors (George Regas, Harvey Guthrie, Fred Borsch) who exemplified in their lives what they professed in their faith. Even though Elizabeth was young enough to be my daughter, I would count her among my most beloved mentors in the life of Christian faith and practice. Elizabeth really believed all this stuff, and the quality of her daily life and work exemplified the deepest truths of the Gospel. Like George and Harvey and Fred, Elizabeth was my teacher. I will always love and thank her for the way she showed what an unsentimental, hard-headed, smart but deeply and authentically pious Christian life looks and acts like.
As English teachers, Elizabeth and I also shared a love of poetry. Every once in a while, one of us would bring a poem to our meetings that we thought the other would enjoy. I’ll read this brief one she shared with me not long before I left Trinity. It’s a thirteen-line poem (one short of a sonnet) by the late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, and though it speaks in heavily gendered language of man and men, to me it will always reveal the many things of God we all learned from knowing and loving Elizabeth Hess.
By Czeslaw Milosz
[Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Pinsky]
Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me—after all I have some decency—
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.
Elizabeth, looking at you allowed us all to marvel at God.
Elizabeth’s untimely death is an unspeakable tragedy, and I know that she would regard any blithe or easy consolations with the skepticism she brought to all sentimental religious pronouncements. All of us, and especially Liam, Kevin, and Paul and the families of Trinity Church, have suffered an irreplaceable loss. I trust that the God who was faithful to Jesus will be faithful to Elizabeth and all of us who mourn her, and I know that I will carry my gratitude for Elizabeth’s many gifts to me in my heart till my dying day.-->