By Cathy Wirt, January 2016
My earliest memory of Lillian comes from the late 1970s when in my early 20s. By then she was almost 40, already about ten years into the job she started BEFORE SHE WAS even 30 years old, interpreting the life and times of the CC (DOC). She was leaning forward in her chair, with her vivid red hair, wearing BRIGHT lipstick, big jewelry, with an earnest look on her face, and sporting a wild orange bolero vest and skirt to match.
She was talking about the importance of telling our story as a church body. She explained that the passion with which we speak our story is what engages listeners. Listening to a story without passion behind it is hard to do, she told us.
I watched her with fascination throughout the meeting. Over the next few years, every time I went to a meeting with her I watched a powerful, self assured, articulate woman move through the room with confidence. I was enthralled.
By then, Lillian had already been traveling the world, had created a religion page for a newspaper in the capital city of Idaho over an 8 year period in her 20s, and landed this job interpreting a denomination at a time of great change and transformation. She was in the center of an unfolding, exciting story with interesting characters and undercurrents that come with eras of significant transformation.
The church had entered an entirely new part of its life in 1969 when Lillian started – the church had declared itself in “restructure” and many strong personalities were jockeying around for power and position. From 1967 to 1969 3,000 congregations withdrew from what had been called “The Brotherhood” as the Disciples of Christ declared themselves a “denomination.” The ground was definitely shaky and shaking.
Into the swirling stew of emotions, debates, and change, Lillian had the job of explaining the events and movements of the church to those inside this emerging new community shape and to the world around us. She was still a young adult, finding her way in the journalistic profession, had moved to the Midwest and was restructuring her own life, giving voice to a new part of the “movement.” She loved her church and she believed deeply in the global mission of the whole church. Lillian could see all the details of these changes in the day to day conversation in the Missions Building while keeping her eye on the wide view of what these changes meant on an international stage.
In her position in the communications office of the church, Lillian traveled the globe reporting on the world council of churches gatherings and our global mission partnerships. he interviewed famous and infamous people. She saw the world with a keen observational interest, and incorporated the best of what she experienced into her deep well of compassion.
After years of watching and reporting on the Disciples movement, Lillian jumped into the fray in a new way, she joined the Global Mission witness of the church by working for Councils of Churches in two African countries and later for a college in Botswana. In the middle of those almost 18 years, she was stateside for 6 of the years, working to interpret global mission to North American Christians.
What stayed the same throughout all of these years was her ability to tell a story in a way that engaged the listener and changed their worldview one sentence at a time.
Lillian knew the power of an image, a fact, a moment in a story. She would craft her sentences in such a way that they jumped from the page and drew you into the world she was spinning. She would notice an overlooked detail in a story and bring it forward to shine a light on a totally new way to understand an event, a person, or a decision.
And, because she was so observant, little got past her in a room. She was gifted at “reading the room” and knowing the underlying dynamics of the conversations and decisions being made by the participants. Lillian could do this because she was grounded enough in herself to not need events to be “about her”. This solid core within herself helped her to see beyond her own interests and needs.
She cultivated the reporter’s keen sense of story and she could make an ordinary event of carrying a box of yarn across the ocean in a suitcase into a riveting tale. Lillian told her stories with a loving grace, but not a soft and fluffy sentimentality. I never heard her tell a story in a way that made the people in it two dimensional, or overly sentimental, to make a point. While she could be sentimental about the people she loved, she was a journalist of the first order, seeking truth and clarity, always.
Lillian’s deeply ingrained moral compass guided her through her life and also informed the method of her work. Her sense of justice was well honed, so, therefore, she could navigate complex questions with agility and focus on the essentials within complex issues.
In 1993 I traveled to Zimbabwe with her on the woman to woman program. She took a group of 16 North American women with her to visit Zimbabwean women and church leaders. In the orientation to the trip, Lillian told us there were different ways to travel: 1) tourist – staying on the main roads, staying with your group from home, taking pictures, buying souvenirs 2) observer – collecting experiences by taking snapshots of a culture different than your own and analyzing it 3) traveler or a guest—opening your heart to make connections and friendships with the people you would meet, understanding them on their own terms without imposing comparisons to the categories you already held.
Lillian, of course, encouraged us to be travelers, NOT tourists/observers. She invited us to watch, listen, observe without judgement or comparison – to simply “see” the new place on its own terms. Simply BE there.
When we arrived in Africa, Lillian shook hands with many of the leaders at our first stop, Zimbabwe Council of Churches. She reached out with her right hand, holding her arm with the left hand supporting it. I thought she had hurt her arm. At the end of the day, I asked about how she hurt her arm. She looked at me blankly for a moment and then laughed and said, she had not hurt her arm.
She shook hands this way because it was polite to do so here. By having both hands visible, you would show that you had no weapons hidden with which you could hurt someone when they allowed you close to them.
Since Lillian’s death, I have thought so much about what made her so incredibly dear to all of us, so deeply grounded in her self confidence, so curious, so adventurous, so brave. I think the way she shook hands tells us more about Lillian than simply that she was culturally aware of her surroundings. Lillian truly did not use weapons – she didn’t hate, hurt, harm or deceive – she was without need of weapons – her genuine welcome and love made her approach safe and inviting.
As we were leaving for Zimbabwe, she pulled out a box of ashes – they were the remains of a woman who had served at Mt. Selinda Mission Site in rural Zimbabwe. While this missionary had served in Zimbabwe, her doctor husband had died (I think while trying to save someone from drowning) and she had been compelled to come home to the states. When she was dying, she requested that her ashes be buried next to her husband’s grave site in this remote African village. Since Mt. Selinda was one of our stops along the way, Lillian volunteered to take the ashes.
At each stop along the journey, the ash container was opened and examined and she patiently explained the contents and the purpose. Finally the day came and we arrived at Mt. Selinda and a group of people went up to dig a grave beside the site of the missionary’s long deceased husband’s remains. Some of the local folks asked if they could invite people to come to the burial the next day – they said some people would remember the family through the stories that had been told about their kindness long ago.
The next day hundreds of people came to see the ashes buried, hundreds of people came and sang in at least 10 part harmony sweeping up the hill to the place of burial. What a sound, the air buzzed with the joy and the sweetness of love. There was Lillian, carrying the ashes up the hill. A reverence and measured, respectful step guided her up the rise to the grave site. From Indiana to a hill in Africa, she had carefully carried a promise to completion. That was so Lillian! She kept her word, even when the task took her between continents or took years to complete.
Later in our traveling group, we asked Lillian why so many people would have shown up so many years later – she smiled knowingly, “It is because of the stories they kept alive,” she said.
This is the gift Lillian gave us again and again – keeping stories alive – interpreting people to each other, telling about little known places and people so that they would “stay alive” in imagination and heart.
Today that is what I want to give Lillian as a tribute to a courageous, brave, and barrier-shattering life – I ask you to take a moment and watch your parade of Lillian memories dance past and through your heart. Keep these stories alive in you. Tell them to yourself, tell them to each other. Tell the stories of the woman who could, herself, tell a tale and make you listen. Tell the stories of a woman who traveled the world and came back changed and more loving without becoming cynical. Tell the stories of a woman who never stopped learning and never stopped loving. Tell the stories of a woman who came home from Africa and her expansive global life to be present with a sister and her sister’s children as her sister died young. Tell the stories of the Auntie that loved those children and their children and carried their pictures around to show you with stories lovingly rendered. Tell the stories of a woman who made family where ever she traveled, treating others as sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, and elders.
I started calling Lillian mom at first in a playful conversation in the early 1980s, and it stuck. She would say, “How’s my daughter?” “I’m okay. How are you doing, Mom” I would answer. Lillian inhabited for me that spot of a mother with an adult daughter. In a true sense she did help to “raise me” from the time I was 21 years old. She did not have biological daughters, and by the time I was spending more time with her in the 1990s and beyond, I needed wise women and mother figures in my life as I continued to craft an adult woman self. While this aspect of our relationship made me feel special, what I have learned is that Lillian made many, many people feel special. Lillian’s ability to envelop others with acceptance drew people to her around the world. The tributes that have come in from our global partners bear witness to this fact.
As Lillian said, “It is the passion of the story teller that gets your attention and helps you to listen.” So too, it is the passion of a life well lived that brings us here today to listen to each other, to pray for healing of hurting hearts, to mourn our individual losses from Lillian’s death and to understand our shared loss, to celebrate her life, to marvel at Lillian’s tenacity, and to remember, remember, remember what it looks like to ride a wave of loving presence through life – climbing whatever hill we are called to climb, carrying through on the promises we have made and sharing the love of God that pours through our world.
May Lillian’s memory encourage you and hold you up. May her life shine in your memory and in your living. May Lillian’s courage encourage you. And may you never forget her witness and ministry. For as long as you tell and retell her stories, she is not forgotten and her witness to the love of God continues to be flung out into the world.
Praise be for a life so well lived. Thanks be to God for Lillian Moir.
Read more about Lillian Moir’s work with Global Ministries here.