On the Passing and Presence of Saints: Life Near Death
By Dr. Willie James Jennings
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
Last spring, I received a call from my father who lives some distance from me. He told me that my Aunt Martha had died. It did not come as a shock to me because Aunt Martha was in her nineties and in ill health. But it did overwhelm me.
Aunt Martha was a crucial connection for me to my deceased mother, Mary. They were twins, not only of body but of soul. To be with my Aunt Martha was to again be with my mother. Her ways marked a path familiar and comforting. From her smile, to her laugh, to the wisdom of life that poured from every word she spoke, she reminded me of the rich, undeserved legacy of Christian faith given me by these brilliant black women. Whenever I went home to visit I would take Aunt Martha to lunch and see and hear her (and in her my mother), and remember who I was and who I am.
Aunt Martha always reminded me that she saw me as a minister, someone who was responsible for witnessing the very Christian faith that she had helped impart to me. She had a standard set of questions that she asked me with during our lunch visits. First question: “You been preaching, Willie.” Answer: “Yes, Ma’am.” Second question: “Anybody get saved?” Answer: (swallowing hard) “I hope so, Aunt Martha.” Then she gave me the look, a look that asked implicitly a third question: “Don’t you know if anybody got saved?” Aunt Martha was too kind and loving of me to press that third question. But the question was as evident as the smell of the fried chicken we were eating together. Aunt Martha’s informal inquisitions worked to bind me to her and her world in ways that I yet find inescapable. I am responsible to her, and now in her death I will always be responsible to her. Her life in memoriam will now, and for as long as I live, press a question on me: “Is anybody finding redemption in what you do, Willie?”
A constant reality for those of us in ordained ministry is that we live near the dying and the recently deceased. It is one of the first things that young ministers have to get used to – their proximity to soon-to-be saints. But the danger of living in this place where we are in sight and sound of people passing/becoming saints is that we might take for granted what their lives mean for us and what we do. Each death of a long suffering faithful Christian brings an inescapable question of accountability to us. These questions of accountability should not bring a sense of dread. They should help anchor us in our life and our work, saying to us: “I have run my race, stayed the course and so will you.” In fact, the life of a faithful Christian ended or ending in front of our eyes also says to us: “I trust you to carry forward my hopes, my dreams, and my love of the savior and please make a difference in this world with those hopes, dreams, and holy love.”
Equally important, a dying-forever living saint also says to us: “Remember what is important, please, remember what is important.” You, unfortunately, will never get the chance to meet my Aunt Martha in this life, but I like to think that through me you will see what was important to her. I was talking to a pastor a few months ago who told me that he had in his career conducted over five hundred funerals, thus far with no end in sight. I asked him what that was like and his answer was not only theologically sound, but it also felt just right. He answered: “Each one is always with me.”