Yesterday, September 1, author, teacher, theologian and fierce lay person, Verna Dozier, died at the age of 88. Here are my initial reflections on someone who was and is a giant in my life.
To my knowledge Verna Dozier signed every note she ever sent with these words. They were her "Amen." My own experience of her was they came out of the very heart of her life, because she was always "Truly, Verna," nothing more and nothing less.
I first met Verna as a seminarian attending a conference on "Thinking Globally, Acting Locally," in the late 1980's. For one reason or another we hit it off, and, once I moved to her native Washington a year or so later, we struck up a friendship that became very important to me in my formative years as a priest. I say that because the one thing that was most important to me in our relationship is that the fierce lay person taught me much about priesthood. I know this is true for many. I suspect no lay person in the history of Christianity has preached at as many ordinations to the priesthood, mine included.
Looking back, "Truly, Verna," was probably attracted to me because I was so "truly, Michael." She was a prophet, so she valued honesty more than anything else. My sometimes brash honesty about being gay delighted her, most of the time, except when it worried her that I was being poitically foolish. Verna, it can be truly said, did not suffer fools gladly. She did not, in fact, suffer them at all. Even when they were her friends.
In fact, you knew Verna loved you the harder she was on you. But she was never harder on others than she was on herself. In the years we were closest through the 1990's she actually believed her ministry had had little impact at all, something from which I and others were constantly trying to dissuade her. In truth, she was suffering from at least some kind of depression, another bond we had. She often referred to me as "her gloomy Dane." And I was never more angry at anyone than when I arrived at her home one day to discover that she had thrown out every sermon and other piece of writing she had ever done. "Nobody's going to want to read that stuff," she said as I wept.
Among many things, I am grateful for the support I always felt from Verna in the struggle for full and equal membership for gay and lesbian persons in the church. Somehow it was because of that support, that I always knew I could live through the struggle, partially because of the struggle I knew she had been through as an African-American, a woman, and an uppity lay person.
I remember well the day her beloved sister Lois died in 1998. When I heard I rushed over to her apartment. She looked hard at me as I walked in the door and said nothing but, "He took the wrong one." Those of us who loved her were convinced that she was wrong (not that Lois had been the "right" one). She never was. 24 hours after her death, I can imagine she is still berating God for the mistake.
I would love to be a fly on the wall of heaven today for that reason and a couple of others. I once asked her what she would want to ask God when they finally met. "Do you have any regrets?" she said without having to think about it. And then there was the time I heard someone ask her if she believed in hell. "No" she said, with her typical honesty. "I think everyone goes to what we call 'heaven.' It's just that some of us aren;t going to like it there." She included herself, she said, because she was unsure she could live for eternity with some of the company she would have to keep.
Knowing Verna has been one of the joys of my life, a complex one, but she would have had it no other way. I have missed her for several years now since she became more and more incapacitated and isolated. I rejoice, however, that she's making her peace with God face to face, and I have no doubt that God has her work cut out for her.