November 12, 2015
Dear child of the future:
If you’re a student at Geraldine Claytor Magnet Academy in Bridgeport, CT and you had to research who she was, I wanted to tell you about the Gerry I knew. Yesterday, I attended her funeral with my wife and the service was everything I could have expected — the kind of service I would want, and the kind of service which I hope you will have someday, after you’ve changed the world. It was a funeral with lots and lots of people, giving her funeral the appearance of a famous dignitary. Yet, I don’t think anybody , save one or two, who were there because she was a “dignitary”. We were there because she was a friend who touched their life in some small way, and there had to have been 500 people there.
My friend Chris Drew posted on Facebook a picture of a manger with a back on it with the caption “First king-sized chair”. Gerry would have liked that because that is how she lived: knowing that small things make a big difference — and that small people are important. She was a para-professional at schools in Bridgeport, and now she is the first para-professional to have a school named after her. Why did she think this way? Mother Theresa is known for saying,“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” She and Gerry would have believed that because they believe that all life is important. Every living thing is important to God, so people were important to her.. She would want you to know that you are important to God, and whether you can do great things or not, you can do everything with great love, and Gerry would have been impressed.
Gerry’s life stuck out among us because… well, there was no one like her. She said “I love you” to literally everyone. She had the most incredible smile and everyone who she every came into contact with saw it. It would be incredible if you met someone like her in your lifetime, but I hope you do. Also, Gerry did things which the present world seems to have forgotten. You’re reading this, so she was “famous”. Yes, she had power (or rather was a powerhouse) in Bridgeport. BUT — and this is the big thing. She never did things for fame or power.. She did them because they needed to be done. That is how you change the world you live in.
When other people wanted power, Gerry fed the homeless. When other people wanted fame, Gerry made sure children had a better life. Oddly, (or not, if you believe in Christ’s example) she got all of it — power and fame, fed people and safer children). Gerry stood out because she didn’t chase the things other people wanted. She was “that lady at the diner who smiled at the owner”, then “that lady who gave a child a hug”, then “that lady who gave out turkeys” and so on… Why did she do this? Because she could, because it was what she thought God called her to do, because she liked hugs and smiles and food, so she gave them out — that whole “do unto others” thing you have heard of.
In thinking about her contributions to Bridgeport, and knowing her personally, I would have to that she was a great role model for children and parents in the inner city — and anywhere else she went, as well. Years ago, when I was in seminary, a Black friend asked me if the UCC had anything like the role of “Church Mother”. I guessed at it for twenty minutes or so, and it was apparent that, no, we didn’t have a role in our denomination like that. Years passed and — with enough contact with Black churches — I got to see it in action. I don’t know if Gerry was a “Church Mother” at Rev. Kenneth Moales’ church, where she attended after Benny died. I do know that she was that to the community at large. Church mothers have a slow, quiet dignity about them — a measured respect that comes with time and faith, and I suppose suffering. They are faithful and they just keeping moving toward their final destination, keeping their eye on the sparrow and The Prize both.
One of the things that concerns me about this rising generation is that they don’t seem to believe in work giving dignity or meaning to life. Perhaps because they have seldom seen it pay off, perhaps because they have technology which does so much for them, or perhaps because they are simply too distracted. In any case, Gerry was the model of working every day. She just lived her life doing things, making a difference here, making a difference there. She got up, worked for the Lord, and went to bed. The next day, she got up, worked for the Lord, and went to bed. This kind of a rhythm is boring to the younger generation. It’s tedious and not fast-paced. Gerry did this every day of her life, as far as I can tell, and Bridgeport is soooo much the better for it. Any kid who follows this pattern will go far in life, and the idea that children like you will have to study who she was means that Bridgeport will grow stronger day by day, year by year.
The other thing that I hope children learn is that they can overcome difficult lives. We never spoke about it much, but over the course of time, little hints here and there suggest that Gerry had a tough time of it growing up in a deeply racist society in the South. When we lived in town, she was terrified of our German Shepherd/Akita mix dog, I think she had seen German Shepherds in her childhood with police or others at the other end of the leash. This past summer, when my family went to Florida, we stopped in the town she grew up in, and she said there were a lot of stories to tell my children about racism there when she grew up. If she was in the pre-Civil Rights area she would have seen horrifying things — dogs, fire hoses, etc. I heard last night about a life-threatening event in New York City which I had never heard. Her life, as a Black woman, was never easy, in all the time I knew her.. When others knew about “environmental racism” as a concept and something to be concerned with, Gerry just would just say it was wrong, and it was affecting people. So, she got up, worked for the Lord and did what she could, and went to bed one more “day at a time”. I don’t know how she did it, she just did. Yet, I never heard her complain a day in her life. Other than the period after her beloved husband Benny died (when I was away from Bridgeport), she was unstoppable. It is ok to have limits to how much you can take, as well. But Gerry couldn’t stay that way, and neither should you. If you’re still alive, there’s work to do.
Finally, I think she would want you to know that if you are a Black child, you are special because you have access to cultural things that White culture doesn’t really like and doesn’t think it needs. This article is called “Legacy in All Caps” because when Gerry wrote on Facebook, she would write IN ALL CAPS!!!! in just about everything. In the White world, ALL CAPS is a bad thing. I’m White (but Gerry never held that against me) and we don’t like being yelled at, and so when we see ALL CAPS, we tend to write “Stop yelling!” in response. Gerry yelled all right — but what she yelled wasn’t at people for being bad. It was yelling to people that GOD IS GREAT! or I LOVE YOU!!! EVERYDAY!!!! or PEOPLE NEED TO BE FED!!!! or I AM PROUD OF YOU!!!
I knew her best and spent the most time with her when she and Benny had their church meeting in my congregations’ building. During that time, I saw her shout a lot. She was shouting “HALLELUJAH !!!!!” and dancing in joy — a lot. When she was out of church, you knew that was she was saying and doing that on inside, as well. Gerry was JOYOUS!!! and she brought joy to everyone who knew her, no matter what their lives we like. She made it a point to do that during her “Feed the People” ministry, but it was no different than who she was all her life. She was just that way now with the new people in her life, people who had never experienced anyone like her — people who had not experienced a good word or a good deed or respect for them in years. That’s who Gerry was to me. Her service last night helped me to know I wasn’t alone in that. Even the powerful were delighted to call her “friend”, because that’s who she was.
Gerry Claytor was a friend because she was a woman of God, a friend to people because she was a friend of God’s. She got up because God made the sun come up, and she went to bed exhausted, thankful that God had made the sun go down. If you only could have known her, you’d have been amazed.
Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau, former pastor of Olivet Congregational Church in Bridgeport and a friend of The Prophetess, Geraldine Claytor.