I spent this past weekend with my family back east and when I arrived Friday night I found out that the schedule included a memorial service that my dad was planning to attend at church the next day. Initially I thought that I would probably not go but when I spoke with my dad the next morning and found out the service was for Alice Gabriels there was nothing to decide. I had to be at the service for Alice.
Alice was a friend of mine from growing up in the church. She was always around and involved with the children and youth programs and was a chaperon on our Junior High youth group trip. As I went back and visited each year with my own family Alice was there to greet us and take an interest in my kids. And I looked forward to seeing her and made it a point seek her out. She was a ruling elder, having served on session multiple times as well as many committees and groups within the church.
Professionally, she had been a social worker and upon retirement had actively volunteered in various classrooms around the city as well as for organizations of interest to her. In her spare time, when she was not volunteering one place or another, she enjoyed folk dancing.
At the service the gathered community spent a significant amount of time remembering her as there were many stories to tell. I will tell you one of mine in a minute. But as one of the speakers said, “God made each one of us unique. And then there was Alice.”
You also need to know that Alice grew up in an observant Jewish family in Holland. During the German occupation of the country the family split up and went into hiding. After the war when they reunited Alice found her two siblings had survived but their parents had been betrayed and died in Auschwitz. Alice chose not to remain in Holland but to immigrate to the States sponsored by her uncle who was already living there. While the siblings scattered geographically they remained in close touch through the years and the service included readings from letters written by her sister and nieces.
Needless to say, Alice’s personal experience made her a powerful voice when social justice and human rights issues like immigration, oppression and racism arose. She was not shy about her life story and was glad to tell you if you asked. In those classrooms she volunteered in it was said “she would tell the young children about St. Nicholas and the older children about the Holocaust.”
One of my stories about her begins with the church sponsoring an Indonesian family that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. The mother of the family spoke at the service about arriving at the airport knowing nobody and not knowing the language. But they did know Dutch, as Indonesia had been a Dutch colony, and Alice was there to greet them and provide one small piece of familiarity in what was otherwise a very confusing situation. Their oldest son was my age and was a friend of mine growing up.
Fast-forward to a few years back at the memorial service for the father of that family. I have a vivid memory of Alice getting up at the service and singing a hymn in Dutch to honor their heritage. I don’t know what she sang but I know the tune was Beecher so it could have been a Dutch version of “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” While Alice had no problem speaking in front of groups, singing was a different matter. Talking with her after the service and thanking her for doing that, as she was clearly uncomfortable doing it, she acknowledged that but also expressed her respect for the gentleman being honored and felt that some tie to home should be offered.
Which brings me to the final question for today: What was the journey of an observant Jew to become a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church? From knowing Alice I was aware of two important pieces of this. The first was that when the family went into hiding they were hidden by fellow Dutch Christians and this dangerous act of sacrifice had a profound impression on her. The second was that when she found herself in Rochester, while she did have natural family in the area that had sponsored her, over the years the church became her family and in the community of faith she found support, identity and a sense of belonging. (And as a symbol of that, after the service there was no receiving line as we were all her family and we just gathered around cookies and some of her mementos to share stories.)
But during the service I found out about a third influence. As a young adult she had begun reading the New Testament and the stories of Jesus she found there also raised her interest and started to draw her in.
So on a side note, as we discuss the relative importance of the Proclamation of the Gospel, Nurture and Fellowship of the Children of God and Promotion of Social Righteousness, for Alice it was all three that combined to draw her into the Body of Christ.
Alice will be missed. I have lost a friend and a sister in Christ and look forward to being reunited before the throne of God. And in this week when Americans give thanks for what we have it is only appropriate to say “Thank you Alice” and thanks to God for her life and witness and the opportunity we had to know her.
As an acknowledgement of her heritage and history, a tie to her journey, the service concluded with a reading in Hebrew and then a unison reading in English of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.)
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon...
[Ed. note: The title of this piece unapologetically borrowed from the title of Rev. Pat’s meditation at the service.]