Almost thirteen years ago, the south was hampered by a horrible winter storm, complete with school closings, power outages, and a big mess. Tim and I were one year into our new marriage and we were in the midst of figuring out how to be parents of Molly, our three week old. We lived in Raleigh, NC and the storm found us in the middle of our 'introduce Molly to Georgia' trip. Suffice it say that the snow in no way hampered our plans. We were in such a bubble of narcism, we probably thought the whole affair was in our honor!
Our trip was to take us to all sorts of places to let all of our loved ones meet our little girl. We also had plans to interview at a little church in Covington at the end of our pilgrimage. Everything went off without a hitch, even though travel was slowed and the lights were off. I remember thinking how funny it was that we had to hand wash our clothes and hang our skivvies on the fire place screen in Atlanta to get them dry to drive over to Covington. We were tired, sleep deprived and, I must admit, somewhat hopeful that our Covington meeting might be postponed. Luckily it was not.
It was a gray afternoon, and we entered the somewhat dismal office area of Good Shepherd. I'm not sure I planned on being impressed. After having a child, I didn't think anything other than her was very impressive! I doubt we would have made the trip to Covington if we hadn't just come by the church a bit before and met a future friend who was preparing the altar for the following day's worship. Evelyn was our friend instantly, and I recall driving away with a strange notion that we may have just gotten a glimpse into our future.
The room where we met looked a bit forgotten and the walls seemed a gray. I had no idea then that we would soon meet folks in that very room who would light up the way for us for the next twelve and a half years. We began to talk and to laugh together - they asked good questions and we all tried to get to know each other. I don't ever remember a time where I was so struck with a yearning to know people better. Now that I know those people so so well, I see their faces smiling, wondering and laughing. Some of those friends are gone now, but oh what friends they became.
Good Shepherd had been going through one of those 'hard times' that all churches go through from time to time. Some folks had left. There was a small core group who held things together. They were ready to be loved. The people had a light all their own, but the circumstances were tough. It seems surprising now that we accepted the call to Covington. I will always be grateful that we did. If ever there was a 'God' thing, that was one!
We were new at being married. We were new at being parents. We were new in Covington. Tim had never before been a rector. I was new at being a clergy spouse. (Perhaps I could have just written that we didn't know what in the world we were doing!) It should have been a shaky start. It was not.
On that first day of meeting and learning at Good Shepherd, some precedences were begun and they never ended. I remember that Catharine picked me up to give me a tour of Covington, and I was shocked at the confident way she threw my tiny baby (carseat and all) into the backseat of her Nissan van and sped off. That was the beginning of the way that folks would always take care of us and give us direction over the next decade.
At the end of that city tour, we went by to see Lee and Bob. There they sat, warm fire roaring, casually snacking on some hot and delicious artichoke dip. I must admit, that looked like the life! If everybody was this relaxed and warm and happy in Covington, we must make the move! I guess the fire didn't burn every day over the next few years, and I went in and out of many homes where there wasn't always a freshly prepared homemade snack - but that was the beginning of the way that folks would always welcome us over the next decade.
I cannot imagine a place where folks could be more loving or welcoming that Good Shepherd church. We spent the next twelve years loving and laughing and building and grieving and celebrating and crying and praying and working and eating [:)] and worshipping and hugging. I remember arriving in Covington and I remember our first Sunday at Good Shepherd. Instantly, the people of Good Shepherd were our people and we theirs. That was the beginning of the way that we would always be a family. When one of us died, we would grieve together. That's what families do. When one of us celebrated, we would be happy together. That's what families do, too. We would spend hours together in our dens and in the hospital waiting room and on the square and laughing in the Parish Hall.
We would worship together, in dignity and awe, whether we were at the old church or the streets of the town or the cemetery or the bright new church on Clark Street. That first Sunday in that sweet little church, I saw the signs of how we would worship God together.
A dreamer named Tim Graham married a dreamer named Deana Graham. Those two dreamers met the flock at Good Shepherd and it was immediately evident that we would spend the following years dreaming together. In 2000, we couldn't have known what we might do together. We couldn't even begin to fathom the impossibilities we would overcome. It would be amazing, to be sure.
The spirit of Good Shepherd will go on for decades and decades to come. Little pieces of all of us who have loved and worshipped and cried and sang will live in it forever.
I will never go to another church where all three of my children were baptized. I will never walk the aisles of a church where I used to pass off one of my babies to a loving parishioner on the way back from communion. Good Shepherd will always be my children's first church - and, I imagine, a picture of what a church looks and acts like. Tim won't ever become a rector in another space and I'll never again worship with others who are beginning to figure out parenting along with me. There are firsts at Good Shepherd that will always be.
Regardless of where we go or where we worship or where we live, Good Shepherd will forever fill a place in our hearts that can never be replaced. I will be eternally thankful for all that I have learned and loved alongside my friends, sisters and brothers of this amazing space. I have pictures filed away that I will see as long as I live. I'll see the ones of you I've laughed with. I'll see some of you kneeling at the altar rail. I'll see the sneaky laughs of the ushers as they rush us in late and I'll see the face of Edna Ruth as she turns to check on the newcomers. I'll see those of you who have sung like angels and I'll hear Joanne playing the piano like no other. I'll see the faces of the children I watched be born and then laugh and then walk and then acolyte and then grow, grow, grow. I'll see my kids at Good Shepherd, too, and I'll never forget how you watched them with the eyes of unconditional love. I'll see Tim at the altar chanting and I'll see all who have joined him in the act of worship. I'll hear you reading and I'll see you in the bookstore. I'll imagine you at Holy Comforter or the Food Pantry or at coffee fellowship. I'll see you laughing at Camp Mikell or at the Christmas party or getting giddy after a long meeting. We've done it all together, friends, and I have a million pictures filed away. I'll see them often and I'll pray for you.
There aren't words to describe a place like Good Shepherd. It's a feeling I wish everyone knew. A few years ago, one of my kids said something childish and prolific at the same time. "I feel sorry for all of the people in the world who don't go to Good Shepherd - don't you?" Yeah, I do. I actually do. My prayer is that everyone has a place in the world that they love as much as we love Good Shepherd. I can't imagine a life without the source of strength and love that we have known for these many years. Everyone should know the feeling of love and acceptance and awe that is present each time the doors of Good Shepherd open.
The only thing left to say is Thanks be to God.