This evening we went to an event at St. Stephen’s Episcopal church here in Sherman, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Father James Garrard, who was the rector from 1968 – 1995. Father Garrard was one of those exceptional people who knew how to be a regular fellow while still being an exemplary priest. He had a great sense of humor and an infectious grin that cut through the resistance of many of the staunchest non-believers around. It was as though Father Garrard knew the secret to making non-religious people feel seen and understood. He was even better with the believers he encountered because he was a fine example of Christian love. He would be at a church member’s side at anytime day or night if the need arose, and never complained for a second. When my brother John died, Father Garrard called and asked if he could come over. I said, “It’s okay, Father, I’m all right.” Twenty minutes later, he was knocking on my front door. “Len, I’m supposed to come over when someone dies. That’s my job.” He stayed for several hours while we talked about John’s life. I was glad he decided not to take no for an answer.
Long before that encounter, Father Garrard presided at the wedding blessing for Ray and me (we got married by a judge in a park in Mountain View, Arkansas) and he required that we come in for pre-marital counseling even though we were already officially married by the state. The counseling was fairly low key, but Father had one point that he wanted us to truly understand before we left that office. “Out in West Texas,” he said,”there are lots of 2500 and 3000 acre ranches, and on those big ranches, the divorce rate is pretty much at zero. Do you have any idea why?” he asked. We shook our heads. “Because those people need each other. The neighbors are too far away to be counted on. The husband and wife have to depend upon one another on a daily basis.” He leaned in close. “Make sure you two don’t get too independent from each other. Those marriages often don’t last. Instead, understand that being there for the other will keep your marriage strong and healthy. Oh, and laugh a lot too. That’s another sure fire way to keep things going strong.” At that point, he had already been married for at least 25 years to his wife, Mib, who was a woman he clearly depended upon for her insight and keen wit. He and Mib were living examples of the principles he was espousing.
I held back tears a few times during the service because the church was filled with many old friends who had also come to the memorial, and it felt as if time had turned back thirty-plus years. I half expected to see my mother walk in and sit down in the pew beside us. We were, after all, sitting in “her” pew. We sang several hymns that were favorites of our family, including one that usually causes me to really boo-hoo. However, the organist played this hymn so fast that I could barely keep up with the words. I felt glad the tempo was so upbeat; otherwise, I might have moved into one of those embarrassing shoulder-shaking crying jags.
I am grateful for the sense of community I feel here in Sherman and also at St. Stephens. As much as I love LA and St. Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood, I realize that the basis of my faith and church experience comes from my hometown Episcopal church in Bonham, and also St. Stephen’s. I feel much the same way about the people in all of these churches. They provide a bedrock of stability for me whether I am here or in CA. People are people no matter where they are. The same can be said for Episcopalians.
I am pleased that my beloved Father Garrard was honored tonight. He is one of the finest priests I’ve encountered in all my years in the church. Also, I am so happy we were here for the celebration. I feel heartened that Father Garrard’s good works continue to be recognized and that the church family that he headed for so long returned in full force to pay their respects.
He was a very good man.