Last weekend, I visited Ocean City, NJ. Some of you may remember my summer there for a leadership training program with CCO. My first stop when I arrived was the front porch of the Sheldon's home, the Pastor's family from 1st Pres where I attended. Mrs. Sheldon and I were catching up through various subjects and found our way, as women are wont to do, at relationships. She lamented that she had five daughters that she wanted married but that there were so few good men. The words were similar to those that Mrs. Bennet cries through "Pride and Prejudice", but here it was spoken by a rational, God-fearing woman who has sought her family's well being through many years. I murmured that I was lucky in this respect. She asked what I meant. I felt compelled in that moment, to observe to her and to myself that I have been blessed to count many Godly men as my close friends. Penn State actually possesses many men of character--or boys of character who are quickly becoming men. I can't praise my guy friends enough for their care, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and truth speaking. I think of "Theo Thursdays" started by Steve Sylvia sophomore year and hikes with Mooney and so many other instances of friendship from them. They've made me a better woman for being around them.
This conversation with Mrs. Sheldon made me ask: what was it that created such a community of strong men? I thought of Navigators, of discipleship, of pastoring, of good company, of good parents. While all significant parts of the equation, there was not one that applied to every man that I had in mind. C.S. Lewis, however, pointed me in what I think is the right direction.
Before church on Sunday mornings, a small group gathers in the Oakwood kitchen to read and discuss Lewis's work "The Great Divorce". Just two Sundays ago during our discussion of chapters 12 and 13, we discussed a passage that described one of the "solid people": a beautiful woman, almost like a goddess. When the speaker asks his guide who she is, the guide says:
"It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green...Aye. She is one of the great ones."
Following her is a large entourage of animals and people. They are her "sons and daughters" and lovers:
"Every young man or boy that met her became her son--even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter... Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives." (The Great Divorce, p354)
Walt asked if we knew anyone like this. I said that I did and found in my answer one common presence in my brothers who served me. Her name was Jessi Brown. She was a student at Penn State. We were not close but merely shared the same circle of friends, or rather, I shared hers. She was the hub around which friendship turned for several years, even for those who did not know her well. My direct interactions with her are few and mostly insignificant: her arriving after Mooney to the surprise party she had planned for him, finding her riding her bike around Stuckmann building when she was suppose to be in studio, her "fighting" Steve Sylvia and someone else in Redifer commons, seeing her through the open door at a Navs dance practicing ballroom steps with a few others.
What I do know and will always know and carry in my heart, is that she loved and was loved by a group of boys who became men. I don't mean romantically, necessarily, though that happened too. I mean that she was such a unique person, lively, kind, that admiring and respecting her changed my guy friends. They became better friends, better brothers, better boyfriends, better sons. I claim this for those of us definitely not men as well (better sisters, better friends, etc), but I think she had a special influence over them that was very different than that she held over us. She challenged them by her mere existence to be better men.
Two years ago, she and her boyfriend Eric Kauffman died in a car accident while driving to a wedding. I began to grieve as if she and Eric were closer to me personally than than they were. But she was heart to my community and it felt as if part of my own body had gone missing. I was separated from that community by living in Ocean City that summer and even though I lived in a house with friends, I felt alone.
Jessi's absence has taken a toll in ways I don't think any of us have understood or can understand. What I do know is that I have been loved and cared for well in the last two years by a community of men that I deeply respect. And I believe I owe this gift to the example and love that one woman gave to a motley crew of undergrad boys.
Jessi, I thank you.