From Carolina to Kathmandu
From Darrell’s Desk for March, 2008.
Virginia Ward was already retired from the U. S. Foreign Service when I arrived as the new minister of the First Universalist Church of Sampson County at Red Hill, in Clinton, North Carolina, in the fall of 1974. She walked with a cane, her frame bent over, her body under attack everywhere from crippling arthritis.
Eastern North Carolina was about the worst place in the world for arthritis, since it was located in the southwest corner of The Great Goshen Swamp. It was great for growing dragonflies the size of robins, bad for arthritis. Red Hill was completely flat, getting its name from the very large clumps of wild rose bushes that appeared from a distance as red hills.
Like a number of church members, Virginia had been born and raised in the Universalist Church, went away to college and career, and retired back home. It made for a congregation far more sophisticated and worldly than the locale would indicate. Virginia, for instance, had spent a number of years in Kathmandu, Nepal, helping local women better care for their families in various ways: teaching nutrition, first aid, and even a little family planning.
I loved visiting her home. Outside, it was a new townhouse in Wilmington. Inside, it was Nepal. It was the first time I had seen a real home decorated with such beautiful, exotic things. It was as though everything she used, even the smallest teaspoon, was a work of art. She was also the first person I met who had meditated, not as a New Age discovery, but as something she had learned in Asia decades ago. Her meditation helped manage her arthritis pain.
One summer, I broke my ankle and returned to worship in the fall wearing a cast. After a few weeks, it came off. I went easy on the leg, of course, while also being impatient to get back to normal. One Sunday, she called me to her after worship.
“Don’t limp!” she said, most emphatically. I didn’t realize it, but I had fallen into a slight limp, because I found, if I limped a little bit, I could walk a little faster. Virginia saw that I was doing something she must have worked very hard not to do for many years.
“Walk as slowly as you have to walk, but don’t limp!” she explained. “If you favor the leg now, it might never heal properly. If you walk slowly but straight, you’ll be fine. All it takes is fighting through a little pain now.”
Of course she was right. She knew about fighting through pain. Just to leave home and come to church was an act of will.
When I visited Kathmandu in 1996, I did so at least in part because of Virginia. The way she described the land, the people and the culture made it sound wonderful and exotic and she was absolutely right. When I spent a week trekking around base of Anna Purna, I did not limp.
Rev. Darrell Berger
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County
35/47 Cleveland St.Orange, New Jersey 07050