Sherrill Hay’s appearance: I’ve said this before and, likely, will say it again—my God sightings occur primarily in two ways—through books and persons. Sometimes add music. I couldn’t begin to say which of these is more powerful. Sometimes they have come together (I remember a particularly amazing wondrous moment when a performance of the “Sanctus” from Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” and Kazantzakis’ telling of St. Francis receiving the stigmata coincided and blew me into another dimension altogether.)
Yet, most often through persons: I taught high school English in Red Bluff, CA, for five years. These were great and difficult years. (This is the period when Jeremy died and we adopted our daughters.) But I loved teaching—and I loved teaching at Red Bluff High School. I discovered myself there: I discovered that I am a teacher. I remember as if it were yesterday my sense of coming home, of arrival, when I walked for the first time into “my” classroom: Deep breath. Sigh. I’m home. (Not sure what my students have felt over the years, but I know that I am never more joyful or more certain of purpose than when I am in the classroom; I think that has as much to do with learning as it does with teaching. My students have always taught me—and I am grateful for them; but, like so many another, that's another story.)
I have often said that I might have stayed in Red Bluff for the rest of my life. My friend, Dennis Allwardt, who started teaching there at the same time, did, and I know had a rich and fulfilling and meaningful tenure. But God called me from there. Not sure how else to explain that: it was a very powerful, clear call, confirmed all around. I was going into ministry and, so, I was going to seminary. That’s another long story that I may or may not tell.
What did happen and how Sherrill fits into my story is what this blog is about. I found work with the national Board of Christian Education during a really remarkable period of its very remarkable history. This is the era of Don Courtney, Bob Dulin, Jr., Ken Prunty, and Sherrill Hayes—they, along with a very wonderful support staff, headed by Edith Lindeman, and an amazing board, chaired by Arlo Newell, created an amazingly gifted, powerfully influential, and charismatically transformational agency. It was good; no: it was very good.
I was hired to work in the basement, becoming one of a long line of “illustrious” basement workers who personed the mailroom, the library, and the print shop. Yet, as grateful as I was for employment, I was pretty desolate. After all, I’d been a teacher in my own classroom, a welcomed part of a fine faculty, entrusted with the care and feeding of hundreds of students, and a respected member of the community. I had my own classroom! Now, I was a flunky—and there were days when that was really, really hard. Really hard.
One day, I was on the verge of leaving it all—really depressed and struggling with my identity. All I could think about was what I’d left behind. I was pretty much walking around the basement on the verge of tears. I was so desperate that I was praying for help.☺ I needed someone to talk to. Anyone. Standing there at the big table we used for collating—another of the mindless tasks that were mine—I heard steps on stairs just outside my door. Someone was coming down. I see this so clearly: steps down, the door opens, and in steps Sherrill. Didn’t know him at all, at that time, except he was nice enough and kind. He walked in, walked past me, into the library. A few minutes there. Out he comes, out the door, and up the stairs. Damn! He hardly even noticed me, let alone my desperation. Then, the steps stopped, reversed, and he was back in my space, speaking liberating words: “I bet it’s really hard for you to be here after your years as a teacher.” Well, yes, I did embarrass myself, broke down, and a long conversation ensued. Now, what I want to say here is this: that among many other developments out of this conversation, the most important is that I was heard—Sherrill is particularly gifted listener.
How to describe this orange crate man from Ashtabula, Ohio; this swimmer in baptismal pools? Probably can’t—however, I think this story does in some key ways. Full of life. Full of ideas. Full of love. Full of friends. Full of laughter. Great teacher. Powerful mentor. Thoughtful interpreter and exegete. Irrepressible. Big-hearted. You feel bigger and better and smarter and more joyful just to be around him. You feel loved. He is the “light fantastic”! He and Fritzie invited my family and me in—all of u—and made us part of their home. They are welcomers; that is the right word—they not only practice hospitality: they are that practice. That long year in Anderson was made immeasurably lighter because of them. These friendships have lasted to this day. Sherrill wrote the book on creating space for persons to grow, to become, to talk! My life changed after this conversation. Sherrill talked to Don Courtney and, suddenly, I was invited in.That circle of hospitality that Sherrill created grew larger. I was part of the conversation—no longer outside, no longer a flunky—valued and welcomed into the planning, the fun (of which there was a great deal); I was heard. Amazing. To this day. Amazing.
Just minutes ago I went to another bookshelf to find a book on which I knew I’d find a photo of Sherrill and Fritzie. The book reminded me of another gift Sherrill gave me—I was the editor and forward writer for a small collection of “precious memories” Sherrill wrote upon his retirement as Executive Secretary,from the national Board of Christian Education, in 1998. I opened to the first page and discovered that I told this story there as well. As I read it, I thought this is a better account of what happened, probably because I was closer to the event. Although I guess it witnesses to its importance that I am still telling it as one of those God sighting that changed my life. I thought briefly about just “re-printing” it; instead, I’ll simply quote the last two paragraphs:
Sherrill Hayes—full of good humor and good will, full of stories that amuse and move. Creative facilitator, bridge-builder, and reconciler. A bit of a chameleon who cannt keep the twinkle out of his eyes and which twinkle may be the glint of tears. Ashtabula promoter. Fierce advocate for the teaching church of which he is a child, loved by that church into healthiness, loving others into wholeness. Thoughtful. Resourceful. Consistent and congruent. Along with Fritzie, a good parent and a proud grandparent. A teacher of teachers, a teacher of learners; like all good teachers, a learner himself.
Sherrill has never ceased to challenge me, encourage me, and delight me. He reminds me that I am called to be on a journey—sometime difficult, often exasperating—and that the pilgrim is best served by a wry eye, a friendly, welcoming smile, and godly companions.
I am thankful to God for the gift of Sherrill and Fritzie!