A SEARCH ON FACEBOOK let me know an old friend had died at the beginning of COVID, on 26 December 2020 “after a short illness”. I’ve been cataloging my memories of Minka Sprague since then in an act of anamnesis, a Greek word that means “remembering” and also implies “making present”. It’s what happens at the Mass when we “remember” the Last Supper and the Cross while, somehow, being there at the same time. It’s both/and. So here’s a blogpost of memory, of being there, of making-present all at once.
I’m first of all surprised that I have no pictures of Minka and myself. But then this was the 1980s and 1990s. We were not prone to “selfies” and there were no social mediae. I feel like somewhere there is a group photo from camp, but I don’t know if she’s in it. She’s not the only important person without a photo. I have no photos of anyone in the stories below. The photo in the header is from an obituary, but it captures Minka fully. Nothing written below violates any confidentiality, but if it feels like it does, that’s because that how much of herself Minka shared with others.
The first meeting occurred in February 1983, at a Catholic Conference center in upstate New York. We were there for an Episcopal Youth event. All the Episcopal Dioceses in New York and New Jersey sent kids to this every year. I had gone with my college chaplain, Fr Mills Omaly, who was trying to get me away from a very toxic college environment for a weekend. (My initial choice of college was not the best of all possible choices.) So, here was this weekend away and off we went. I met there a number of folks that would be my mentors for the next 20 years. In addition to Fr Mills and Minka, I also met another priest, Fr Todd, and a woman named Marcia who ran the Diocese of NY’s Youth Camp. All of these are woven together. Minka was a fellow at General Seminary, studying Biblical Languages. She said, “This is what a ‘fellow’ looks like” – making a gender joke – and we all laughed.
That weekend she spoke about something that has stuck with me all this time. For me, the meaning has changed, evolving now into something that’s more orthodox and Catholic, but it began there with Minka drawing a chart on the wall. I remember it still. Beginning on the left with “Genesis” and across from left to right a list of a bunch of other books to “Revelation” she pointed out that we think of Biblical history like this. But, in fact, different books were written at different times and not always in chronological order. Here she moved the Gospels to after the Epistles to underscore that Paul was writing first. Then she added some later history, here commenting that sociologists think of “generations” as about 20 years each so, simple math, says we’re all in the 200th generation of Christians. This offhanded comment making a unified family of countable (and counted) generations out of our faith was the first mind-blowing thing.
Then she drew a horizontal line across the board and bisected the line with a Cross and she wrote, “If anyone is in Christ they are a New Creation”. And, without ever mentioning Patristics or what I’ve come to understand as “recapitulation,” she explained how Christ was the beginning of something new. She had a list of things that had changed in the New Creation and she went over them that weekend. It will surprise none of my readers if I say that, naturally, the New Creation looked a lot like liberal, white, America did in the early 1980s. All the rules were tossed out and basically, Jesus’ plan was post-1960s Boomer religion. We are all a product of our time and place after all. But that worked for a room full of Gen X kids at that time and that place. What got me, though, and what pulled me in for the next two decades (and still) was how that conversation started: in learning the text, in learning the story, in learning the history, and in understanding Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic). Knowing the languages and the content pulled us into the deeper meanings. I’m still riding this train today – as anyone who has read my writing or heard my Bible teaching knows.
The biggest change, from the Old Creation to the New Creation was, as she said – and kept saying, and I still say: In the Old Creation people said “no” unless there was a good reason to say “yes.” In the new creation, we say “yes” unless there is a good reason to say “no.”
Minka always called me “Bailey” for reasons some of you will understand. She was the only one who did this. Not even my fraternity Brothers called me that. (I’m reminded that people who met me through Minka also called me Bailey. That’s another thing…)
Early in May of 1983 when my brother was killed in a motorcycle accident I was at the end of my Freshman year of college. I had achieved something really cool and managed to get a dorm room on my own. This was not the best place to be mourning however. And so, my first night in college after the funeral as I was sitting there in the dark the phone rang.
Bailey‽‽‽ How are you?
– ok, I guess.
It’s the shits, isn’t it. It’s always the shits.
We had just met a couple of months ago. That was my sister in Christ reaching out. But this story overlaps with another – also tied to that initial meeting, to that dysfunctional college, and to that very weekend. When I was home, we couldn’t find my chaplain, Fr Mills. On the day of the funeral, we heard the news: Mills was in St Vincent’s Hospital. Walking through the graveyard with friends one of them asks why Fr Mills hadn’t come. “He’s in the hospital.” She gasped and new instantly what had happened.
So on this phone call “it’s the shits…” we made plans.
Mills was diagnosed with AIDS. They used to seal the doors with plastic sheets and make you wear masks, gloves, and gowns to visit AIDS patients. The nurses wouldn’t go in the rooms because we didn’t know anything about AIDS then. People were scared to breathe the same air.
I was in college in Westchester County and so had to travel to NYC. After dinner with her family at General Seminary, Minka took me to see Mills in the hospital. I had already decided to transfer from my small college in upstate to NYU. We talked about that as we walked around Chelsea smoking cigarettes.
We put on all the protective things and sidled through the plastic sheeting and then the nurse who was helping us ran back to the safety of her desk. Minka and I took off our plastic protections and she kissed Mills on the forehead hello – I followed her example. I sat with Mills and chatted while Minka sat on the windowsill and smoked a cigarette.
In those days the journey from diagnosis to death was usually only 1-2 years. Mills Omaly died 13 months later. But because of Minka’s fearlessness, I was able to be there for most of that journey.
Minka helped me write the eulogy for my late Grandmother – having herself just preached the same sermon.
When Minka was ordained to the Episcopal Deaconate she invited me to serve in the liturgy and so I was there for her. She said she wasn’t called to the Episcopal priesthood, but she always supported me in my vocational journey. She presented me once with a stole that had belonged to the first Episcopal priest that had died in Texas of AIDS. This was a gift I did not feel worthy of at any time. But when Minka finally was ordained to the Episcopal Priesthood in 2006? or so? I gave her back the stole along with a pectoral cross. Some of you will get the joke, perhaps.
She told stories as part of her teaching method. And when I teach Bible I think of the story she told of running to catch an airplane, back in the days when there was no line and you could catch last-minute flights:
She was running to catch an airplane and went through a metal detector which went off. So she took off her boots which had metal toes and her belt which had a big metal buckle. She tried to do it again and the metal detector went off. So she took off her turquoise cross and she took off her turquoise bracelet and she sat down her cowboy hat. And she went through and it went off again. This happened a couple more times until she was basically wearing a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Finally, the metal detector did not go off and she was very late for her fight. So she grabbed everything and started to run away. The man at the gate said what do you do? And she turned around in bare feet, a wifebeater, and jeans, and she smiled and she says, “Me? I’m just a Bible teacher from Missouri.”
We are all Bible teachers if we let God open our lives and write the Gospel there. I purchased her book recently and read it.
It’s filled with language I recognize and remember, it’s filled with her voice. It has “say yes” in it. And generations. It’s got a more liberal theology than I care for, and it’s still got that same love for the scriptures and the on-going story of Christ that I recognize. We are in the New Creation – like it or not. This is our story.
She always pushed people to love (jumping off the veranda she would call it, in an inside joke). One year she was leading our annual diocesan youth camp which was a week long. She was talking to the kids about phases of life, about not pretending to be adults before you weren’t, about parents not treating their kids like tiny adults, etc. And she talked a lot, as always, about love.
Two of the counselors that year, N & E, fell in love. Minka smiled a lot and visited with both of them all week long as they figured out what was going on, these two friends who had known each other since they were kids at camp and were now adults. Minka knew the boy’s Mom, made sure everything was Ok. On the day when people pack up and go home, she suggested that the boy get a ride home from the girl (who lived on the opposite end of the Episcopal Diocese of New York).
As N got into the car with E, Minka said, “Love is communication. Never tell a lie. And that will keep you together.”
I was at their wedding and I think the advice still holds: love is communication. Never tell a lie.
As there, Minka always created around herself a web of love and people. Through her – and through my connection with her – I know or have met people that changed my life fully and completely: Canon Edward West, Canon Bill Willoughby, though him, this woman named Heidi who was secretary to the Presiding Bishop. Through her, I got a job at the Episcopal Church Center in NYC where I worked for nearly 10 years. Minka was there the whole time. When I moved to SF, we stayed in touch. The last time I saw her was in the early winter of 2001, just after 9/11. I was in NYC planning a GenX vocations conference called “Gathering the Next Generation”. I was staying at General Seminary that weekend and Minka came over and we went to lunch.
I told her I was leaving the Episcopal Church. And so, in never telling a lie, I want to admit there were changes I made in my life that Minka wasn’t very happy with. When I became Eastern Orthodox she was very concerned – moreso than during the ten years or so of my life when I didn’t describe myself as a Christian. If I can borrow a line I heard credited to Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco, Minka and I no longer “see eye to eye any longer but we can connect heart to heart.” Christ is there, in that connection, writing his Gospel in the New Creation of our lives.
Rest in peace, old friend. I hope you’re there when I jump off the veranda.