I sometimes think that the people who know me well often can get frustrated and confused by my distractability and forgetfulness. Or perhaps more specifically, by the inconsistency of these traits in me. One day, I am extremely organized and on top of things and the next day I seem to have forgotten everything. One day, I am thoughtful and appreciative of important events and moments, the next day I forget to say things like thank you or Happy Birthday.
Thinking of Mark’s retirement has been no different. In many ways, as a member of the Interim Search Committee I have been thinking of his retirement for a couple of years now. As a member of the Board, I have met with him monthly or more and we have talked about his departure and the transition and changes ahead. I watched his last service a few weeks ago and was all weepy at the end. And yet here we are at the end of June, Mark is (almost) retired and I am looking around like “Where the hell did the time go?! I thought we still had another year ahead! After all, doesn’t the church need to be reopened before he can actually leave it?!” I had all intention to proactively reflect on what Mark has meant to me and yet it seems as if I blinked and his time with us is pretty much over and I am kind of looking around with one big “d’oh” expression on my face. But if you are prone to run behind like I do, then the words “Better Late than Never” can be a mantra and the time to reflect can happen even in the last seconds of the shot clock.
Neither Will nor myself had a background or knowledge of Unitarian Universalism as a denomination; however we just so happened to get married by a UU minister in Durham and decided that once we moved to Asheville we would make a point to stop into one and check it out. After a summer of settling in, we finally walked through the doors in the fall of 2006. Fortunately for us, Mark was at the pulpit. I wish I could remember the topic he spoke to that day but instead all I remember was the inclusion of poetry. I could be totally wrong but for some reason Emily Dickinson and Audre Lorde come to mind. I remember we smiled at one another as we listened to him talk and after we left, we spoke about how comforting the experience was and how we almost wished we had had a notebook to take notes in so that we could reflect back upon them later. We decided to come back the next Sunday and then we just kept coming back. Mark had hooked us both with his words.
Over the first few years, we were pretty quiet and kind of stuck to ourselves and our direct interactions with Mark were typically brief and infrequent. Will and I found ourselves both feeling connected to this strange sense of Mark as a father figure of sorts but aside from always giving him big hugs in the foyer as we exited the sanctuary, we didn’t really speak often. When I finally started to reach out to Mark more directly, he probably would have preferred that I hadn’t. I embarrassingly remember sending him emails about the name change from church to congregation as well as my thoughts regarding when exactly “Joys and Sorrows” should take place in the order of service. Despite my uncomfortably long hugs and my entitlement emails, he always seemed to be genuinely happy to see me. We kept coming back.
I think perhaps a big shift in how I saw Mark came in May of 2009 when my brother tragically died in a car accident. Returning to be with my family in Eastern North Carolina, I was struggling to find a spiritual space for grieving amidst the evangelical voices all around me and found myself wanting to reach out to Mark for some kind of framework or anchor or, hell, maybe an answer to what had happened to my brother and why. Though I was an official “member” of UUCA and was down with hugs and emails, I am not sure if I truly felt a sense of belonging or of actual relationship until that moment. It might just be my faulty memory but I actually think that when I sent Mark that email, I prefaced it with an introduction/reminder of who I was as I figured that he might not really be sure. His response however was as kind and strong and genuine as his embrace always was in the foyer. He responded with heartfelt words of condolences and he shared poems and reflections that I was able to use for my own processing. I had never really felt that I would want or need a “minister” to help me make sense of my own life and yet there I was.
Over the years, Mark would go on to be involved in more important moments in our lives. When Rainier was born and still just a babe, Mark blessed him in front of the congregation, doing that magical thing with water and fire and flower and if I remember correctly, he blew into Rainier’s face. Ha! Can you imagine that now?! For part of the dedication, Mark held our son in his arms briefly before Rainier began to wiggle and lean his way back to us. It somehow seemed like an actual blessing having Mark dedicate our son in front of and with our congregation. A few years later, when marriage equality was finally realized, Will and I knew that although we had in our own minds been married years before in 2005, we needed to “get married” again. On October 22nd, 2015, with our 5-year-old son serving as our Best Man, Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper recording and volunteers from the Book Sale serving as witnesses, Mark “officially” married us in the UUCA Sanctuary. It was on the same day as our 10th wedding anniversary.
Over the last few years, my relationship with Mark has continued to change.
As president of the Board, I have met with him at least 2 times a month and gotten to know him better as a minister, as a caring part of the congregation, and as an individual. I have to admit that it was a strange shift in relationship at first (maybe still) as I have had to learn to work WITH Mark rather than under him. After all, when someone feels a bit like a father figure of sorts, it can be strange to start having to think of them as your colleague instead. Rather than talk down or to me or attempt to “direct” me, he has consistently simply encouraged me to have some faith in myself, to get comfortable with my own voice, and figure out what leadership looked like for me. He has listened while I ranted and raved in frustration, while I cried dramatically with self-doubt, and supported and cheered me on when I needed it.
When I think back on our last 16 years here at UUCA, I am overwhelmed with awareness and gratitude for the changes that have taken place within me, within our family, and within this larger congregational community. I think of so many incredible, inspirational, and deeply wise people that I have gotten to know as part of this community including Rev. Claudia and Rev. Lisa as well as a crackerjack staff that includes/has included Linda, Tish, Jen, Kim, Susan, Benette, Taryn, Les, Milt, Lenora, as well as every member of the Board that I have worked with. But if I want to look for an origin story for how my family found ourselves here, it would be the day that we walked in and Mark was standing at the pulpit and how he made us feel right at home. I was 31 back then. I am 47 now and the man I have become has been largely influenced by Mark Ward. I will forever be grateful for that day and all the days since during which I have been fortunate to have been able to call him my minister and my friend. Thank you, Mark.
So what are your memories of Mark? What are you grateful for? What would you want him to know about how he has been a part of your life here at UUCA?
On Saturday, July 10th from 2:00-4:00, there will be a Retirement Celebration for him at the E.W. Grove Park (just a block past the church). Please come out and join us to celebrate his ministry and to wish him well as he moves into his next chapter! And perhaps consider writing down some of your own thoughts about what Mark has meant to you so that we can collect them all and share them with him to keep. The times ahead are ripe with excitement, possibility and change for both Mark as well as our entire congregation. Let’s celebrate this transition by honoring all that Mark has shared with us and who we have been together these last 17 years before we all collectively step into our bright futures.
Ryan Williams, President
UUCA Board of Trustees