A rambling post about Vera Clark

The Middle of Nowhere is approximately halfway between Rochester and Buffalo on a windswept ridge at the edge of a frozen wildlife refuge. As in New Zealand, where sheep far outnumber humans, Canada geese outnumber people here by about a million to one. Presently it’s so icy that even the geese have fled. On Saturday afternoon, the only sign of life was a twittering flock of snow buntings on summer holiday from the Arctic Circle.

I was on my way to a funeral service in a church in the Middle of Nowhere with my mother, sister, and niece. In the car, we decided that the funeral might be kind of fun, that is, the kind of service we could belt out “Victory in Jesus” at the tops of our lungs. I grew up in the evangelical tradition, and though I have extremely mixed feelings about its theology, I still love the metered hymns of blessed assurance that Jesus loves me just as I am. Forget Mozart and Bach. This is the music that, in the right setting, cracks open the flintiest of hearts.

We arrived. The white clapboard church in the Middle of Nowhere was packed. The floorboards creaked. In our pew, I pulled my coat into my lap to make room for a stranger next to me. Golden light flooded through stained-glass windows, and the smell of ham and scalloped potatoes drifted from the back kitchen.

The service celebrated the life of Vera Clark, pianist, missionary, and, for me, childhood fixture. For more than forty years, she taught Bible classes to the religiously impoverished children of Orleans County. She also played the piano in church every Sunday until she was nearly ninety.

It blows my mind now to think of Christian missionaries in our midst, working among the rich, privileged Americans of fancy paradise. But in the 1960’s and 70’s, when the Bible Club Movement swept over the country, men and women moved Mormon-style into unlikely places from the burnt-out cores of urban Philadelphia to the burnt-over district of Western New York. Two of those missionaries taught a class in my parent’s living room every Thursday after school. In my child’s eye, The Promised Land was a large piece of cardboard covered in blue felt. Moses was a paper doll with a fuzzy backing, slightly bigger than the Golden Calf. Every week we sang “Trust and Obey.”

One of the missionaries, Vera Clark, had attended Wheaton College with Billy Graham. White-haired and stout, she radiated goodness and calm. “Someday,” she warned us, “you may be persecuted for your faith and thrown into jail without your Bible.” This is why we needed to memorize all six verses of “Be Still My Soul.” Just in case.

Sure enough, when her funeral began, we belted out, “Victory in Jesus.” We sang about streets of gold, our helpless estate, and the Prince of Darkness grim. We sang loudly and enthusiastically of the day the clouds will be rolled back as a scroll.

In her book "Plan B," Anne Lamott writes about the nature of the human heart. First she describes it as a prism refracting light. Then she wraps an opaque body around the heart, like a meatball encasing a diamond. The image struck me after the funeral, while everyone was lining up for ham and scalloped potatoes. I saw my own diamond heart, sparkling beneath Vera’s careful etchings.

»

Comments

Ramblings from the "Middle of No Where"

Brenda,
I doubt you will ever see this post as it is nearly a year since the original post, but I will post this reply none-the-less. A couple of comments if I may...that white clapboard church in the "middle of no-where" as mentioned in your blog, is the the church in East Shelby where Pam and I were married (no, I am not embarrassed to say where it is) ...where, almost twenty years ago, a small group of faithful souls, including my parents, Eric, and Vera and Annabel, put their trust in God to provide for them a place to worship. It took faith and a significant portion of their pocketbooks to make that dream a reality. If the church was packed during the service, it is more a testament to the impact Vera Clark had on the community of Niagara and Orleans County than on the smallness of that rural House of Worship. We used to attend with our children on a regular basis until my deployment to Iraq. We have not found a place quite like it since.
That clapboard church in the "middle of no-where" epitomized Vera Clark. Her work was built on simple faith. All she asked was to be listened to and for you to have Christ do with you what he will. I missed her funeral because the Army deployed me to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. I'm sorry I missed it.
I have never considered myself, nor my peers at Bible Club "religiously impoverished" (Thanks in part to Vera and Annabel). I detect in your comments a superciliousness of one who has a disdain for their roots. I feel sad for you for that sentiment. I live now in the house I grew up in...built in 1865- the year that saw the end of the Civil War...it is a place where a soldier, a teacher, a father, a husband can go for refuge. I have seen Babylon, Eden, the cradle of civilization...whatever your name for it. I choose to live, not in the middle of no where, but home.

Hi, Doyle,Thanks for

Hi, Doyle,

Thanks for writing!  It's funny that you read snobbishness into my piece when at the time I wrote it, I was almost embarrassed by the love and nostalgia I felt for both Vera and Annabel and the key role they both played in my childhood.  I admire Eric Olsen and his congregation for what they have been able to accomplish in East Shelby.

If you had been able to attend Vera's funeral, you would have heard her story told in the same terms as you read in my post. Vera's house on the edge of Lake Ontario was described as "remote" by her grandson, who later said he appreciated my post.  The head of their missions headquarters spoke of their work.  He said Vera and Annabel believed they were reaching children who were religiously impoverished. That's why they devoted their entire lives to living and working in Orleans County.  For kids like you and me. 

I imagine they would be proud to know you've served in Iraq!  Thanks for writing!

Brenda