Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This "Collect of the Day" assigned for this Sunday is the one I refer to as the "Lee Graham Collect" because this is the prayer Father Lee would use on Fridays before his homilies. And quite often, what Fr. Lee would share with our congregation of about a half dozen people were the ideas he had gleaned and considered carefully as he heard, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested the holy Scriptures over a long life of serving in the church. Somehow, then, it is fitting that on this Sunday, Fr. Lee Graham, Jr. went on to be with the saints who have entered into joy. He was 92.
I have written about Father Lee so often on this blog through the course of the years as I have gotten to know him and serve with him on Fridays at St. John's. He has lived an amazing life of overcoming his own prejudice as a young white Southern male priest who was one of the recipients of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham jail. The civil rights struggles in Alabama during the early 1960s tested Father Lee and he took up his cross to fight for equal rights for black citizens. Fr. Lee used to tell one story of the vestry meeting where he was instructed to keep quiet as the group laid out plans to get dogs to patrol the parking lot during an Easter service to prevent black families from coming to church. Fr. Lee listened for awhile, and then asked if they wanted to know what their rector thought of this plan.
"If you do this," he said, "I will not celebrate an Easter service."
"Are you quitting?" they asked.
"I didn't say that," he replied. "I said if you have dogs and patrols in the parking lot, I will not celebrate Easter." That ended the vestry's plan, but not the racial tensions in Alabama.
Fr. Lee and his wife, Betty, then moved to Tallahassee where he became the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church for almost twenty years. Racism was still an issue in Florida's capital city, but nothing nearing the brutal nature of Alabama. Early in his tenure, an usher who was a state Supreme Court justice turned away a black family from the church. Fr. Lee, recognizing that the man held a position of power in the state and was a muckity muck at St. John's, nonetheless quietly took care of the matter but never allowing the man to usher again. The Grahams were about bringing people, all people, into the church; not keeping them out. He survived the angst about women in the priesthood, girls as acolytes, a new prayer book and hymnal. He provided space for pregnant teenage girls in the county to attend an afterschool session, so they could complete their requirements for graduation (since the county wouldn't let them attend with the other children). His food and clothing ministry eventually became ECHO, a program that continues to this day in Tallahassee. The Grahams were always on the lookout for who was not experiencing the liberation of Love.
No place was that more evident than in the way Lee and Betty Graham treated me and others in the gay community. During the horrible aftermath of Florida's vote in 2008 to ban marriage equality in the state constitution, Fr. Lee was the only priest at St. John's who recognized the pain in my face, and offered words of love and encouragement to me at a time when I felt the world and even the church was against me. The Friday before that election he had used his homily as a time to preach about the evils of exclusion, and specifically called out the church and society for their treatment of the LGBT community. I cried. It was the first time anyone at St. John's had even dared to say anything in response to the lies that had been, and were being, told about us in the public square (mind you this was the church that under another rector had embraced homophobia as kinfolk). He openly praised Bishop Gene Robinson for his frank discussions of human sexuality, and didn't shy away from stating over and over that equal rights for the LGBT community was the new civil rights struggle for the church and for society... and both had better get on with establishing justice in the gate. And when I told him about a rally that would be happening at the state Capitol building for LGBT equal rights, he was there, in his priestly blacks amidst a sea of 20-and-30 year olds.
The Grahams also spent about eight years in Memphis where Betty Graham got the city police department up to speed on dealing with crime suspects who had mental illness issues. The police officers had no idea what to do with suspects who suffered from psychological problems and would usually use brute force or stun gun them. Betty and some others involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness met with the police chief, and offered to train the officers. Several of the cops signed up for her workshop, and Memphis became the model for the national movement to train officers in how to respond to the mentally ill.
I loved serving with Lee at the Friday noon day service. He kept things simple, but didn't lose any of the joy embedded in the liturgy. His homilies were teaching moments, and on occasion he would employ a rabbinic style of asking questions to get us engaged in our own learning, reading, marking and inwardly digesting of the message of Love. On one Friday, I remember walking into St. John's with him as we were going to vest and prepare for noon day. The feast day was that for the Ugandan martyrs. I shared with him my concerns about what is currently happening in Uganda with the LGBT community Fr. Lee decided that what he was going to say needed to reflect the reality of the current situation, and so he turned to me and asked me to share with everyone about the "kill the gays" bill, and that, rather than the text from Holy Women/Holy Men, became the basis for his homily.
Father Lee was a tremendous man, and I thank God I had the opportunity to get to know him. Prayers for his wife, Betty, and his children and grandchildren.