A reflection on a life, and some regrets
Well it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted on here, but I have several things brewing that will show up soon I hope. Those thoughts were interrupted by horrible news, the sudden and unexpected death of my friend, the Reverend Craig Gates.
A week ago Sunday was the closing Eucharist for the Diocese of Mississippi’s Annual Council. Ever since leaving for sunny Florida, my plans were to attend Council (as I am still canonically resident in MS). My body had other plans – a very fast moving infection in my leg, along with a very high fever, had me in the hospital all week, driving to Natchez from South Florida was not an option (and I didn’t get out until Saturday). On that Sunday a week ago, all the Clergy of the Diocese processed in together as is our custom. Amongst them was Craig Gates, now retired and living at Sewanee, but ever present at such events.
Craig was one of a kind. Loud and opinionated, a force to be reckoned with. Most of all though, a force of love, pure and unconditional, love of Jesus and love of every one he met, all of whom he called “child of God”. He tolerated nothing but love for one another, he preached it and he practiced it.
I first met Craig when I was Curate at St. James in Greenville, MS, in the heart of the Delta. He was Rector of Nativity in Greenwood, and we met a time or two before my ordination to the priesthood. On that day, I knelt before the Bishop, with my fellow priests gathered round, all laying hands on me, as they sang the Taize version of “Veni, Sancte, Spiritus”, with Craig’s booming voice leading the way, and then I stood up a Priest. I was vested in a beautiful red chasuble, was asked by the Bishop to proclaim the Peace to the congregation, and then greeted my family. After this I was sharing the Peace with my now fellow presbyters when Craig grabbed me, said “welcome to the club you beloved child of God”, and kissed me dead full on the mouth! That was Craig Gates in a nutshell. Singing loud, kissing, welcoming, loving.
Craig was a real mentor for many of us in our diocese. Never afraid to speak his mind, he always came from the aspect of inclusive love for all. I loved sitting near him at Clergy Conference and Annual Council, it was always entertaining. Last year I was sitting close as our Bishop gave his address. Being President of the Standing Committee, I knew Bishop Gray was going to announce his call for coadjutor. I also knew Craig would respond loudly. And he did, as soon as the Bishop issued that call, Craig hollered “Nooooooooo!”. He loved and supported our Bishop so well.
I began attending Clergy Conference in 2002. So many of the “old guard” are no longer there. We have quite a few wonderful young or new-to-us Priests, they are all delightful and so gifted. But I had the advantage for years of sitting in the bad-guys-and-girls corner at Clergy Conference where I was entertained by Craig and Chip Davis and Shannon Johnston and Tom Slawson and Andy Andrews and Joe Robinson and Stan Runnels and the wonderful Ruth Black. And of course there was Bo Roberts, 40+ clergy conferences under his belt.Cottage 3 rocked in those days and I am afraid that tradition has moved on as well. These Priests helped mold and shape me, mentored me, made me laugh and challenged me in so many ways. That was a room full of experience and wisdom, snarkiness and delight, eye rolling and the occasional “nooooo”. And Craig was always leading the charge.
And now Craig is gone. It will never be the same.
Which brings me to the regrets. For how many centuries have people said the same – I wish I had said how I felt about this person to them when they were still alive. Facebook is full of great tributes to Father Craig, he was loved by so many and made such a mark on us all. I hope he knew that. I hope he knew how beloved he was, how helpful he was, how he taught us just by being the “child of God” that he was? I am so, so sorry I never said it directly to him. So sorry.
I hope to change. To be more like Craig, to see EVERYONE as a child of God, beloved. I wish I could sing like him. I hope to be a Priest like him. And I hope I can, from time to time, let those who have meant so much to me know it, on this side of the kingdom as well as the other.
When I first heard the news about Craig, I thought, “I will never attend the Dead Priest Society gathering again. It will be too painful, his absence too real”. Then I thought some more. Instead, I would love to be there next year and at the end of Clergy Conference, when we pass the candle around and name the priests who meant so much to us that are no longer with us, the first time around the circle I hope we all will say, “Craig Gates”. I know that would make him laugh that laugh.
Rest in Peace, you beloved Child of God. You are already missed. I thank God for you, for your life, and for your witness. My prayers are with Dorothy and family. May you go from strength to strength, my friend.