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Essay

Honour and Shame

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Like parents and their children, it seems inappropriate for a minister to have favourite parishioners. But—appropriate or not, fair or not—parents often do, as do clergyfolk. And it’s not simply those who she may call dear friends and spend more time with or those who are her best leaders; rather, the favourites are those who in some way touch the pastor’s heart and bring joy. For me his name was “Joe”. (Joe wasn’t really his name but for some semblance of semi-privacy it will suffice as such.) I can’t recall…I may have shared about Joe before on the pages of The Twelve and if so, indulge me to do so again.

Joe approached me some months after arriving at my second call here at Trinity. He asked if he could arrange a time to come speak with me during which he wanted nothing more than the opportunity to get to know me, and me, him. And we did. What I had already known of Joe was that he and his wife were regular at worship, they sat on the left side of the sanctuary about half-way back. He was facially, a responsive listener during the sermon which I appreciate immensely as a preacher and can be rather uncommon among our more Teutonic congregants. She was a member but apparently he wasn’t as he was “Catholic,” although they had raised their two sons here, baptized and confirmed, both having been active parishioners for nearly forty years. They were immigrants, came to this country for a new beginning, and they made it, succeeded.

During our conversation I found out a little more. He had come from Austria, his wife from a German village in Yugoslavia. She was Evangelische, he was Katholische. They’d married in a Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. His mother had operated a small café in Vienna and was not able to come to the States. He incidentally never informed her he had married a Protestant. He stifled a chuckle sharing that. That was many years ago. Anyway, Trinity Reformed was now his church home. They had raised their children and grown old together. They had had a good life.

It would only be later that some of his closer friends in the parish would share with me why Joe had come and visited me. Although it was never mentioned during our conversation, he wanted to make sure that when the day came, I would do his funeral. The next few years were good for Joe and his wife. They enjoyed their “golden years.” But eventually, a severe cancer diagnosis came and they relocated to Connecticut closer to their children. We all stayed in touch and the church prayed for them regularly. Eventually the day came when the entire family returned to the neighbourhood and I officiated Joe’s funeral.

The thing that made Joe one of my favourites was his overall joy that he shared in life. He was a kind and generous and thoughtful person, someone whom I never heard speak ill of another, and almost always greeted you with a smile.

During the funeral there were pictures of Joe from throughout his life placed around the funeral home parlor. One in particular stood out to me. On an end table stood a simple portrait of him during his very much younger days as a soldier back in Austria. He was a mere boy. This was Austria after the Anschluss, after the 2318 invasion by and annexation or forced union with Nazi Germany. On Joe’s upper arm shows the uniform’s insignia of the swastika.

History is complex and not nearly as historic as we make it. Also, war is evil, necessary or not, justified or not. Joe and I never spoke about World War II, we never spoke about Hitler or the Nazis, Austria after the Anschluss. That seems common to many of his generation. (My Grandpa seldom spoke of the Pacific theater nor my Grandma about Hiroshima after the bomb.) Not that there need be, but I wonder if there was shame? Not necessarily at the individual level but cultural/national level?

To honour the fallen does not necessitate a celebration of war or by any means an honour of the evil.

I thought of Joe yesterday evening while preparing dinner listening to the NPR news report on the goings on at the South Carolina statehouse regarding the removal of the Confederate flag. I heard some Representative’s impassioned pleas to honour the brave soldiers who defended the great state of South Carolina, how the Confederate flag was flown in their honour, and how to remove it was a disservice. I immediately thought of Joe, how honoured I was to know him, what—generally speaking in my life—how I knew him to be an honorable man. But at the same time I thought how to honour him, to remember and respect him, did not in any way require a celebration of the insignia he once wore. The swastika represents evil. It is not an emblem to be celebrated. It is an historical relic. The swastika and Confederate flag are obviously not the same thing. Nonetheless, unabashedly I believe the Confederate flag to be similar, and if a worse attribute can be applied, it is treasonous.

In the place and necessity of honouring history and heritage, I wonder what’s the place of shame, for a people, for a culture, for a nation?

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