June 29, 2019
Emily was quite specific about her wishes for this memorial service: red balloons, lectionary scriptures (whatever they might be on that given week); support the Goodwin House Foundation or Heifer International rather than spending money for fancy flower arrangements; listen to Marion Anderson sing “My Lord, What a Morning” and Simon & Garfunkel’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” She was always direct and clear about her preferences.
Her choices give us a thumbnail sketch of Emily. Red was simply her favorite color, not a political statement. By choosing the common lectionary, we know she saw herself within the common body of Christians, not someone who needed special attention. Giving to the Goodwin House Foundation and Heifer International empowers people at the margins. She remembered the time when Marion Anderson was not welcome to sing at the DAR Hall, and in response, she provided leadership at the Potter’s House on Columbia Road as a meeting place for people of all kinds: rich and poor, black and white, male and female. During those years, she and Carl also sheltered more than a dozen foster children after their own children were launched. I think she saw herself as a bridge over troubled waters – even though she would not have said that. Listen to the lyrics when it comes later in the service.
Peter and I met Emily in 1976, just as the Seekers community was forming. She had just survived cancer surgery and would soon graduate from George Mason as one of the first “nontraditional students” in the women’s studies program. Her feminism ran strong in those days. She was active in the campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, and she was profoundly disappointed when the Virginia legislature refused to ratify the ERA.
After a period of Bible study at Seekers, she noticed that many biblical women had no names. Instead, we read about the Samaritan woman, the bentover woman, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet. “Every woman should have her own name,” she said. And it wasn’t long before she decided to change her own last name from Benson – which came with her long marriage to Carl – to Gilbertson, which was her father’s name – and then to Gilbert, because she was nobody’s son. To Carl’s credit, he never complained (at least in our hearing).
When I felt called to become a Steward at Seekers, I asked Emily to be my sponsor because I sensed that I had much to learn from her. She soon observed that I needed to develop my sense of humor, so she sent me to clown school! Actually, she urged me to attend a clown class that was being given here at the School of Christian Living, even though she was not interested in it for herself. I barely made it through. The week we went into whiteface, I felt “blanked out,” obliterated by my own hand. Even though that was the whole point of the exercise, I dreaded telling her that I simply could not continue. It felt like committing suicide.
When I did tell her, she smiled a little and said, “Then don’t.” And, of course, that gave me permission to keep at it.
Her understanding of feminine psychology was profound. Instead of emphasizing the rules for membership, she teased apart my need for control. She once gave me $1, and told me to spend it on myself – as a spiritual discipline. The task was harder than you might think. I thought my purchase needed to be whimsical, but memorable. I finally bought a funny wooden camel at the Cathedral for our Christmas tree. And now, every year, as we decorate the tree, I give thanks for Emily’s wisdom and her sense of humor with this wry comment on foreign astrologers coming to worship the baby Jesus.
Emily was plain-spoken and direct, given to wearing denim instead of dressing-up. She loved her family fiercely, was proud of her Scandinavian heritage, and always stood by those in need. Her friend Sharon was a paraplegic, crippled years before in a diving accident. Emily made sure that Sharon had access to public events before there were laws about that, and Sharon was part of the Benson family on holidays. Emily even rode with Sharon through a blizzard to attend a Faith@Work women’s event at Wellspring. And as we planned for the renovation of this building, Emily made sure it was accessible for elders and people with disabilities.
Concerned that Seekers would lose Virginia residents in the move to this location, Emily, Muriel and I formed the Living Water mission group which met from the beginning at Emily’s apartment at Goodwin House. We were also able to encourage her outward mission there when she stopped driving.
During her second term on the Goodwin House resident’s council, she noticed that the residents on the memory unit were sometimes overlooked in scheduling worship services, so she found someone to play the piano and she led the services herself. Because of her experience at the Potter’s House and Seekers, she was used to taking leadership and not afraid to lead worship without the blessing of some higher authority.
Emily also made it a practice to eat with those who might not have a prior friend at Goodwin House. She never settled for exclusive groupings, but she was also faithful to old friends at the same time. She continued attending worship at Seekers and Living Water enjoyed many birthdays in the Goodwin House café so she could be part of the fun.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which we heard Emmy Lu read earlier, Paul named the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In the many years that she spent at Seekers and Goodwin House, we saw ALL of those gifts embodied in Emily – especially those we might overlook: kindness, generosity, faithfulness, self-control.
Paul also wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” I believe that Emily was guided by the Spirit in all that she did, especially because she avoided “holy” words and sanctimonious behavior. She walked her talk and lived her faith.
And now, as we bid farewell to her earthly presence, she is freed to become even more present as the spiritual guide that we knew her to be.
May it be so for all who knew and loved Emily Gilbert.