When I opened my email today, my news feeds were full of the death notice of Sen. Claiborne Pell of Newport. He was 90, and retired from the Senate in 1997, when I was the Assistant Rector at his parish, Trinity Episcopal Church.
Senator Pell and his wife, Nuala, were fixtures that winter at Church. He always say in the balcony in a section that had been reserved for the servant classes in the old days. Tall and angular, he didn't quite fit in those seats and so stood out. The pulpit was also a bit anachronistic, as it was in the center aisle and up almost to what would have been the second-story of a house. So, when I preached, he and I sat eye-to-eye.
His Parkinson's was not really apparent, nor did many people know he was struggling with this disease, but his eyes were bright and he always followed the sermon with a faithful and incisive mind. Whoever was preaching that morning, he would pull aside and offer his thoughts and reflections. I must confess that the first time this happened to me, I was terrified. Like I said, he was tall, patrician and one of the most successful leaders I have ever met. What could I possibly say, a young priest who wasn't quite thirty yet, to this lion of the Senate?
"Preach the Gospel, Marshall," were his words when I voiced my concern. "The rest will take care of itself. If I worried about what other people said about my style or personality, I wouldn't have been able to do a thing in my life." Those words came back to me today, and I remember how they felt like reassurance and challenge, all at once.
When he retired from the Senate, I asked him how he felt about that moment. He said, "The funny thing about retiring from a place you have worked for as long as I have is that the people who are your friends get a chance to say that they love you and to say goodbye...and that the people who have challenged you for so long have to do the same as well.
"I really enjoyed both, very much."
This was a man who established many of the "good" things we see in today's American culture. He built the structures that enabled many of my friends from Appalachia to go to college. He founded the Arts endowments that allowed great works of art and literature to be created-even if they were not to his tastes.
He was a great man, and I will always give thanks to God for the honor of learning from him what it means to face life as a gentleman and as a gentle man.
May you rest well, Senator. You have labored to the glory of God in this vineyard.