We usually don’t get to thank the people who’ve made our lives possible.
Think of the schools you’ve attended, the camps that marked your childhood, the hospitals that have nursed you to health, the congregations that show life in its depths. Their founders, if their names are even known to you, are long gone. There may be dusty plaques or the odd eccentric historian who knows who they were, but you can’t go shake their hand and say “thanks.”
It was a rare gift then that I got to do that recently. The Rev. Laura Butler and her late brother the Rev. Ralph Butler and his wife Wanda gave the money for the endowed chair I hold at Vancouver School of Theology. She’s a feisty 95, bright as the morning sun, and someone without whom I would not be where I am. I got to shake her hand, look in her wise and lively eyes, say “thanks,” and pray with her. It pleased her I think. It certainly pleased me.
Her life has been remarkable. Her father, for whom the chair is named, the Rev. Ralph Butler, was a Canadian Methodist before the merger that made the United Church of Canada in 1925. The youth group at one Westmoreland Methodist in Toronto (a town once called the Methodist Rome) raised money to send a minister to help Methodist churches on the west coast of Canada as a summer intern. Ralph loved the place as soon as he got here. He also loved the daughter of the older minister who came to hear him preach, encouraged him, and invited him over for dinner. He asked if he could “correspond” with her when he returned to eastern Canada. She said she would like that. The property in Victoria he later purchased would grow in value as others discovered a similar love for British Columbia. It would fund the gift that their daughter would give that would bless my family and, hopefully, many others through and after me.
This year is the centennial anniversary of a big year in Ralph Butler’s life in 1915. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in Canada. He married that elder minister’s daughter with whom he’d corresponded, one Elisabeth Letitia Baker. And in case that wasn’t enough for one year, he also received his first appointment in the Methodist Church, to a parish in the appropriately named town of Mission, BC, then leagues from Vancouver, now becoming an outer suburb. He later served a three point charge in Washington state, encouraging his children Ralph and Laura to preach along with him. This meant young Laura was preaching in her early 20s in the early 1940s not far removed from undergraduate work at the University of Washington. I asked several different ways if it wasn’t exotic or objectionable to some to be a young woman pastor in the early 1940s. She ignored the question first, then shot back, “Only the people interested in hell objected.”
She was more interested in heaven, and in building outposts for it here, which is what institutions are meant to be. Her conference asked her to build a new church in a neighborhood in Seattle near a Boeing plant going full blast for the war effort. She went door to door asking folks if they wanted to be part of a new church she was starting. “`Sure, we’ll help!’ some said. ‘Hell no!’ others said.” She started a women’s group in one home. A youth group in another. A men’s group followed. A Roman Catholic layman started a store and offered its use to the fledgling congregation (“I thought that was impressive from a Catholic in those years”). She built a building from two previously existing buildings, one a quanset hut, the other an army chapel. She had walls and pews and church accoutrement, but no floor. Cement was hard to get in wartime. When it came, the day the volunteers would pour, the weather looked rainy. The smart thing would have been to cancel. Laura prayed. “And I don’t believe in praying for the weather,” she said, but she did that day. And the day dawned beautiful and cool. It worked. Church planters: don’t try this at home.
By the time she got to Boston University School of Theology to study for her seminary degree she had already served a three-point charge and built a church. Her professors were unimpressed. “Forget everything you think you know about the church,” faculty said. “We’re going to re-form you.” She was the only woman preparing for parish leadership in her class (others studied Christian education). Her first year on campus was Martin Luther King’s last (“We never met,” she said. “He wasn’t quite as well known yet,” she adds charmingly). The great Howard Thurman was the chaplain. Laura is proud that communion was only served by black and white hands together.
BU seems not to have wiped the slate clean with Laura’s ministerial identity. But it did shape her love for theological education.
Upon graduation Laura returned to Victoria, where she served Metropolitan United Church for 31 years, outlasting a handful of senior ministers, taking the parish away to a family camp regularly, preaching and teaching and leading and marrying and burying. I told her she looked like she could bounce out of her chair and preach right then. “I gave up preaching when I turned 90,” she said. She has also graced camps with her largesse. I told her many ministers count Christian camping as formative in their vocations, myself included. “It’s a good start,” she says. “What was Jesus doing with the disciples in the wilderness?”
I’m struck by the goodness, and sturdiness amidst uncertainty, of the institutions that the Rev. Laura Butler has blessed and by which she has been blessed. The goods of parish, of seminary, of camp, and the deep goods of human life made possible by them without which life isn’t worth living: friendship, the ability to spot grace and name it, gratitude, and worship. The goods inherent in church planting, in braving new places as a pioneer, in bringing God’s good news to those who otherwise would be without it despite obstacles and with prayer and joy. The parlor in which we met was right out of the Victorian era (appropriately enough, meeting in a town named for Vicky). Images of her minister ancestors grace the walls. “I come in here and say ‘hello family!’” It’s not a bad start to a day for any of us—to thank the family that’s made our life possible even if we never met them.
On the other hand, the danger of getting to thank those who’ve blessed you is that you realize just how heavy the mantle is they’ve placed over you. I’ll wear Laura’s parents’ names around while I work and live in Canada. Their love of place, of one another, of service to the church, will be heavy. Yet they wore them with joy, so I can too. And they’d agree the real yoke we wear is given by one who promises that it will be easy and light.
My visit in her home with Laura’s ministers Allan and Megumi Matsuo Saunders of First Metropolitan United Church was just concluding with prayer when there was a surprise phone call. It was Laura’s sister-in-law Wanda, who also had helped create my position. Another chance to say “thanks.”
REV DR. JASON BYASSEE IS THE BUTLER CHAIR IN HOMILETICS AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION AT THE VANCOUVER SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY.