December 26, 2020 The speculation about intended nighttime shootings was only one comment about Stembridge in a week in which I believe the citizens were virtually all preoccupied at times with with similar musings and declarations of the man’s ugly past. His guilt of that earlier killing was now declared unanimously and other bad deeds were added. I gleaned from all this that for once a lot of people were newly convinced that the future of similar men should be different than it had been in the past. I heard my Father speculate that the next time a known white bad guy killed a black person there would be extra-judicial justice to prevent any future possibility of another decent white person being killed by that bad guy. His good family background had fooled people I was told. Lesser transgressions had been looked over or minimized, and similar behavior would not be repeated after this.
Of course the funerals of the young judge and lawyer were attended by huge crowds of local citizens, as well as some of the dignitaries whose speech making opportunities were replaced with invitations to hug grieving family members and deliver “never again” sort of eulogies or funeral comments. The parade and the ball were replaced with somber services for the fallen.
About Tuesday or Wednesday my Father called me from the store to ask if I would like to join himself and Mr. Frank Moore for coffee at a quiet local pharmacy’s only booth. I said I would, of course. It was not the first time I had found a way to have coffee with my Father and his adult friend, the humorous and very wise son of one of one of our town’s most beloved and admired citizens, old Joe Moore. Joe Moore was so often referred to as a-saint-in-this-world that i believe I heard him called that numerous times before I discovered that everything after the “Moore” was a description of him and not an unpronounceable proper name.
The coffee meeting that day was unusual for being very much concerned with the sad business of the murders, their impact on the town and the necessary matters of burying the slain lawyer and judge. Usually the two men spent most of their frequent coffee meetings swapping stories. Frank always had the advantage in having stories worth telling. He was the chief attendant in the work of comforting the bereaved and the ceremonies for the deceased. His Father’s conduct and words were the stuff of heart warming and frquently humorous stories. No matter how sad the death seemed at first, Joe Moore was a worker of spiritual wonders that somehow left you feeling that there was a wonderful positive takeaway from the life of the deceased. Joe Moore’s shining religious enthusiasm was a magic potion which never failed to leave those who attended the funeral smiling at least a little, even if through tears. Much later in my life I learned about the Hasidim of Judaism from Martin Buber’s books of stories about these joyful celebrants of God’s loving creation and man’s capacity to experience God in everything. These stories reminded me of Joe Moore. He was a Southern Baptist, and an undertaker whose appearance reminded me of old farmers in Sunday suits. At all times he exuded the joy of a person who was always conscious of God’s loving kindness in every aspect of existence. Frank’s stories reflected his Father’s amazing ability to see holiness in the mundane and even the sordid and sad. Like the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, Joe Moore’s stories and sermons transformed the humble into transcendent glory.
But this coffee sitting on this occasion was about two responsible adults who were having some serious difficulties with the realities of the unexpected calamities of the moment. They talked about their memories of the murdered men and their devastated families, and about the practical business of helping themselves and others to turn from the expectations of celebration back to the business of coping with life’s ordinary problems. They were not morose, but scarcely in a mood for good story telling. I do not know for sure that the Moores handled the arrangements for the victims and their families, but I certainly believe that is likely. My Father also talked quietly about the tasks his store had to handle in finding dark suits and white shirts for men who felt the need to dress well for the final rites of the men they had admired.
Once or twice one of them made some semi-humorous reference to someone else’s silly gaffe or clumsy response to all this, but there were none of the usual tales of Joe Moore’s gentle puncturing of false piety, or soothing assurance that the difficulties of the moment were filled with “pregnant positive possibilities” as the old man called his expectations for future outcomes. Their demeanor bespoke their Stoic acceptance of challenges in the present and near future. At least once my Father alluded to his own expectation that Joe Moore would somehow find a way to make some of the lemons of today into the lemonade of a brighter future. As we broke up to go our separate ways Frank told my Father he would call later to talk about the next funeral, a matter about which I had no interest at that moment. There had been funerals enough for me for now. These funerals seemed to me to be especially the burdens of adults.
So I was very surprised to learn at the supper table that night that I had been invited to attend the graveside service for the murderer! The invitation had been passed from Joe Moore through his son to my Father, who was initially a little dubious. My stepmother said she thought I ought to go if I wanted to go. She and my Father agreed that I had shown a lot of respect for the undertaker, and they agreed that Joe Moore would not have invited me unless he planned to make sure those who attended the service would somehow be lifted by the old man’s eternal joy in God’s love for us. Of course Stembridge was neither a good man nor a repentant sinner, so Moore would have his work cut out for him. But we were all sure that service would somehow end with greater positive feelings than those we had at that moment. The departure of an evil man by his own hand did, after all. have possibilities for realizing the sureness of God’s justice on the workers of iniquity. It crossed my mind that a silver lining might lie in a renewed awareness of the need to avenge the murder of black folks. The horrors of the week would not have happened if the courts had dealt properly with Stembridge much earlier. I still had such thoughts when I dressed for the service a few days later.
Shortly before the service was to start Frank Moore called my Father and asked if he could ride with us instead of taking his usual seat at the wheel of the hearse. It soon appeared that he was not exactly disapproving of what his Father was doing here, but that he felt very uneasy about it. The Stembridge family would not be there and had apparently been reluctant to even allow the burial in the family plot. Frank said there were a lot of folks who had said this murderer’s body did not even belong in the same burial ground with decent people, including his innocent victims, who had already been buried nearby. The emotional wounds were still so deep that you could not blame anybody if the only people at the service were those invited by Joe Moore. Frank said he had real reservations about “this time”, when he wondered out loud if his Father was not carrying the banner for decent Christian burials too far. Although he could not quite say what was wrong, Frank said that his Father was up to something, and his normally admiring son wanted distance from whatever that was. When my Father reminded Frank on the way to the service that his Father had always found something positive in the worst situations, Frank just muttered something about how this situation was different somehow.
I rode in the back and my Father drove. in the passenger seat in front Frank returned to his concern. He spoke to my Father clearly, knowing I was hearing every word. He seemed to be trying to purge his guilt about the occasion before the fact of the expected transgression. “I don’t know what Joe is doing this time. I usually get told in advance something about the service and my Father’s thoughts about the sermon he will preach. I don’t have any idea this time what he will say.. As you know I have had misgivings from the start about the wisdom of having an eleven year old child at the Christian burial of a moral monster.” My Father reiterated his faith in Joe Moore’s goodness and wisdom. “It will be all right , Frank. It always has been when Joe is in charge.”
We parked the car and joined the small group of men under the canopy. After a few minutes the last almost late men arrived and we were set with fewer that 20 in all. All were standing as no seats had been set out for what would be a brief ceremony. Joe Moore took his place at the head of the bier and opened his Episcopal Prayer Book. He looked intently at his friends gathered there and quietly thanked them for being kind enough to take time from their lives to be “here for me. I know none of you have any reason this afternoon to mourn for the deceased, so your presence reminds me again that you are my faithful friends, so you have answered my request.”
He continued with dignity but not a trace of pity or sadness. “There is nothing any of us can do for Marion Stembride now. Understandably there are some of us who wish we could have done something TO him earlier. Our heavenly father has given us a full range of human emotions for various occasions. We are surely likely to need to feel anger at what this man as done, especially what he did to our beloved friends on the last day of his life. We love this town and we can be forgiven too for resenting the joy Marion Stembridge has taken from us and the pain with which he has replaced the celebrations we all deserved and towards which we worked and dreamed.” The voice stayed even and measured, the words appropriate and reassuring. Men muttered approval and concurrence several times.
The prologue to his eulogy was vintage Joe Moore. the epitome of the Christian voice of our community expressing its natural sentiments. He wrapped up the salutation with the short announcement of how the rest of the service would go. “This service will be very brief. I ask that you will bow your heads for a few minutes while I read a short paragraph from one of the speeches of Job. Then please keep your heads bowed a few minutes while I talk to my heavenly Father in prayer. There won’t be any need for singing or preaching in this service. When my prayer is done, you may want to join me in saying Amen. Then let us all quietly return to our cars and leave the workmen to finish this burial.” We nodded in grateful approval.
Of course we bowed our heads and most must have closed their eyes as I did. So far so good I thought. This sort of of thing was exactly what we need to simply close the book on the life of this evil murderer. Then we would begin to try to forget the terrible tragedies of the week and the murderer who caused them. We would just get on with our lives–as the saying went.
But I was so mistaken. What Joe Moore did in the following few minutes shook my moral universe to its roots. The impact would keep remolding my entire long life afterwards.
The old man read the words of Job clearly and strongly. I had expected some lamentation for the suffering we shared with the biblical character, but was faintly surprised. Instead, the familiar profession of unshakeable faith.
” I know that my redeemer liveth. and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.” It was unexpected and yet somehow vintage Joe Moore.
But as he read his voice began to crack as though under the weight of a terrible burden! Then throughout the prayer his voice was to rise and fall, never murky or confused but always with that gravity which comes from great sorrow and almost unbearable grief!
“My loving and ever merciful heavenly Father, I have been filled with anger and hatred over the terrible deeds this man has done. He has shot to death our beloved neighbors and brought grief and dishonor upon our entire community. You have given us the capacity to feel and to somewhat express those feelings, and the expression somehow seems to relieve a little of the horror we do not have words to adequately express.”
He paused and I thought maybe Joe Moore a-saint-in-this-world was about to say Amen. But he resumed, and though he continued to say the words clearly and with strong volume, his voice now shook as though the very soul of the prayer was in almost unbearable agony. He prayed slowly as though each word cost its speaker immeasurable passion and pain!
” Some years ago you brought Marion Stembridge forth from his Mother’s womb–a tiny baby! Ten tiny little fingers and toes! Tiny ears and eyes! He was a perfect innocent little baby! YOU MADE HIM that way because he was your baby boy! YOU made him that way because you adored him! He was YOUR baby boy and you loved him! You loved you baby boy!” The old man’s grief was beyond consolation or calming. We stood frozen in shock and overwhelmed by this unimagined and irrefutable recitation.
The old man shook and the words came now among sobs. Maybe Joe Moore was sobbing too. I looked to see tears pouring down the old man’s face and spilling onto his shirt. Others were crying too. I was crying. For a long moment I thought we might all collapse onto the ground beside that casket. In those few seconds we were all overcome.
The old man said a few more short paragraphs that described the privileged life of the early Marion Stembridge, his wonderful parents and education and athletic and academic achievements, his beautiful wife and healthy children. At the end of each paragraph there was a refrain: “YOU gave him these blessings because you loved him. He was your baby boy.”
In the recent years there had been steady drinking and confusion and bitterness and increasingly ugly deeds. And at every turn Joe Moore said to his God that He had brought people to reach out to try to help the man, but they had all failed and no one could surely say just why. But all the while Joe said “You loved him. He was your baby boy.”
The crying became softer but it was there thoughout the prayer. At the end the old man’s weeping eyes looked towards the heavens and he sobbed “Oh my sweet heavenly Father, if I could offer anything to soothe your grief I would do it at once, Anything. For you are as helpless to change what has happened as we are. All I can do is to give you my own grief that you must suffer so. I do love you with all my heart and I am so grateful that despite our wrongs to you and to each other, you love each of us so very very much.”
There was a long pause, quiet except for the muted sounds of weeping that came from each of the grown men and one boy. Then Joe Moore quietly said “amen”. The rest of us mutely made our way back to our cars and to a world that had changed for each of us in a moment, and for the rest of our lives. Amen.