A few years ago, in one of her first conversations with Stasia, before we married, my grandmother explained that for her, the hardest part of growing old was “how much the world changes around you– and what you once thought were progressive views start to just sort of date you.” While in hindsight, I think this was probably just Nana’s way of letting Stasia know that she was eager to learn more about her Yoga studies, I was pretty struck by the authority that my grandmother could actually bring to those words.
She was 91 at the time, and a couple big changes had happened in quick succession– I remember briefing Stasia on the Metra on the way out to Wheaton, IL for this visit. Nana was still grappling with the loss of her life partner to a stroke that took most of him suddenly, and the remainder piece by piece over several pretty heartbreaking months of commutes to the hospice, which had left her in a vulnerable and introspective place. My grandfather was a Christian author and Professor at Wheaton College, and he and Nana shared with each other and instilled in their family and friends a deep and forward-thinking faith.
It was the kind of faith that grew from knowing true darkness in WWII, the kind of faith that had stood for peace during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, that threw support behind their son’s decision to be a sculptor, the kind of faith that saw the only Obama campaign signs in their suburban cul-de-sac firmly planted in my grandparents’ front yard.
And now the church in their community was being sold. This was a church that Nana looked at everyday out of her back window, across a field strewn with memories of her grandkids playing soccer and launching model rockets. It wasn’t the church she and Papa had attended, but the cross on its steeple had been a comfort for her over the last months.
Nana had learned in her book group that a local Mosque had bought the building. Reactions so far had been a greatest hits of thinly-veiled Islamophobia: “our home values will really take a hit, losing that church.” “The community used to be so close, everyone knew each other, I really wonder what happened.”
My family worried that this was all too much at once, and that Nana might become withdrawn, depressed. Maybe it was time to think about an assisted-living facility. But at 91, my grandmother chose to act on her faith to set a radical and loving example.
She organized a coffee at her house for the whole neighborhood, inviting members of the Mosque to her home for conversation, welcome, and healing — she told them about her husband, and the afternoon naturally fell into a discussion of Christian and Muslim views on the end of life, and the importance of faith and family. At an intersection in her life where no one would have blamed her for closing herself off for awhile, my grandmother chose to know her new neighbors, she chose an abundant and expansive vision of her community.
A few years later in 2015, when Professor Larycia Hawkins of Wheaton College was placed on academic leave after wearing a headscarf in solidarity with Muslims during the season of Lent, and asserting that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God,” I remember being taken by surprise at Nana’s frustration that her husband’s name be tied to an institution with such a narrow scope in their faith– her own, in many ways, had outgrown Wheaton.
The world will keep changing around us, and it’s not just the hardest part of growing old, it’s the hardest part of growing as a Christian. What felt progressive 50 years ago, 10 years ago, today, won’t be enough tomorrow. Our faith doesn’t let us rest on our laurels. My grandmother reminded her family through her lived example that to be a Christian is to be the constant vanguard of love, to cull a vision of community out of the darkest times, when we feel we’re at our most vulnerable.
A few weeks ago, at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. with Stasia, my wife turned to me and laughed, pulling herself to my ear– “I can’t wait to tell Nana about this.”
This testimony was offered at the 11am worship service on Sunday, February 19th by Evan Holmes as part of a series of testimonies by members of St. Luke’s about the people who have shaped our faith and taught us how to live out our Christian faith.