One Sunday morning in 2002, as I was in the sanctuary at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland, preparing for worship, I saw an elderly African American couple I had not seen before. It was my practice to arrive early, while the choir rehearsed, to greet folks I knew, and to personally welcome people I did not know. When I walked up to Joanne and Earl that morning, they stood, and Joanne spoke first, introducing herself, and then her husband: “this is Earl,” she said. “He’s a Bishop,” she added. I saw the look of pride that moved across his face at that moment.
An African Methodist Episcopal Bishop, Earl had chosen to have a community outside of his denomination to make his home in retirement.
I came to know that every emotion showed in Earl’s face: tears shed, eyes shut tight in laughter, a wandering look when he was wondering. Every emotion showed and was quickly replaced by the next emotion. Sometimes anger and frustration, the next moment, joy, laughter. After a time, Bishop Earl volunteered in the church office, and often as I worked in my study there, I would hear his booming voice as he answered the phone, and laughter – also booming – from the office staff, and from Bishop Earl himself.
My husband has an expression that he saves to describe certain people, and I think it applied to Bishop Earl: “he was helplessly himself.” And for those of us who knew him, his being himself filled our lives with kindness, with sincerity, with happiness.
Over the years I pastored at Lake Merritt Church, Earl and I spent lots of time together. One day, we visited the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, where Earl parked his car and walked to the stone crypt that held his oldest daughter. He cried, and his little dog, who stayed in the car with me, whimpered as she watched him in that sad and lonely place. When he returned to the car, Earl was all words again, and soon we were laughing, enjoying the day. Sometimes, Earl would take me to another of his favorite eating places, and we’d talk and laugh over lunch together. When my mother died, he was one of the first to talk to me, to offer his condolences, and he preached for me that day after she died, on short notice.
I can remember the exact place in Oakland where, stopped at a stoplight, Earl and I were talking about our favorite kinds of music. I told him that I loved the blues. He burst into song, singing the blues – in his deep, resonant voice. We laughed, and laughed again!
My mother-in-law, Betty, was a reserved woman from a small community in Wisconsin. On one of our visits to see her, she answered the phone to hear Bishop Earl asking to speak to “his children.” She handed the phone over to me quickly, not sure what to make of this!
Joanne’s health failed before Bishop Earl’s, and they moved away. On one of his return trips to Oakland, where their daughters still lived, Earl invited me to hear him preach at a small church near my home. That’s the last time I saw Earl; as I walked away, I watched him court the women, speak with respect to the men. Many years have passed, but I still think of him when I pass that little church.
There was no one like Bishop Earl. I miss him.