Some radicals get the title because of the words they speak.
But the best radicals—the ones who change your understanding of the world—sneak up on you, not with their words, but with the beauty of their lives.
Beverly St. John was the best kind of radical.
As her pastor for almost a decade, I marveled at the beauty of Beverly St. John’s life. Here’s what I noticed:
- made room at her table;
- had bread to share;
- listened with an open heart;
- shared the gift needed in a given moment, whether that gift was a smile, a word, or comfort to those who needed care;
- created beauty with a brush or a pen.
And, while I’m not certain how she did it, I always left her presence feeling better about the world, and about myself.
I loved to hear Beverly tell stories. She would sometimes laugh at herself in them, like the time she mistakenly drank sangria before attending a session meeting. She insisted that she thought it was just punch!
But other stories carried the wisdom that I needed from her.
And one story in particular holds the key to Beverly’s life.
When she was a young child, she remembers saying to father after worship one morning, “I didn’t get anything out of worship today.” By some miracle of grace, her father’s response changed the contours of Beverly’s life: “Who ever told you were supposed to get something from it?”
Beverly never forgot her father’s words.
With her father’s question guiding her practice of worship, Beverly discovered the truth. True worship leads us to ask the question, “How then shall I live?” And once we worship God, all roads lead to a life of service, a life of love, a life committed to living by the way of Jesus Christ.
It’s clear that Beverly “got” something from a lifetime of worship.
One of Beverly’s poems, “The First Shall Be Last,” gives a window into what Beverly’s life of worship gave her. She writes in the opening stanza:
“O Church, thy name is Innovation,
With pimps and hoods in the congregation,
Cabbies, cops, and prostitutes,
Bookies and men of ill repute.
A soldier, a marine, and a cute beautician,
A maid, a clerk, and a politician,
And here and there a saint or two,
Plus a preacher and banker to round out
Indeed it is a motley horde,
Exclusive for those who love the Lord.”
Beverly “got” something from worship, all right. She feasted at the banquet table of God’s grace and saw a table far wider than any she could have imagined. And she made her table wide as well. She heard story after story of the breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy, and she determined to live the same way.
Beverly did what God hopes we will all do.
She became the liturgy she celebrated.
And her life took on the beauty and fullness of the God we meet in worship—a God who welcomes the prodigals home, who eats with outcasts and sinners, who tears down the walls that divide, who is always at work to make all things new.
I will miss Beverly St. John. And I am grateful for the ways that her life bore witness to the wideness of God’s mercy and love.
***I wish to thank Mark J. Davis (Communications Ministry Team Leader for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church) for inviting me to submit a reflection on the life of Beverly Saint John, and for granting the permission to re-post it here.