A Celebration of Life: Mary Jo Searles
One sunny cold day in February, Mary Jo and I met at Panera Cares for lunch. We spent a couple of hours over salad and coffee talking about home repair, the harsh winter, and her anticipated move into Henry Ford Village. She felt good that day and our conversation was filled with joy. The next time I saw her was Ash Wednesday; she was in the hospital with shingles. I brought her ashes and communion. Little did we know, then, that her body was failing quickly, and she’d leave us seven weeks later.
Like the rest of you Mary Jo has played a significant role in my life. Mary Jo was one of the wardens of the Vestry when I arrived here in May 2011. Along with Pete Kenney, who was the other warden, she anchored me in the ways of this parish and guided me with wisdom, humor, and insight.
Mary Jo lived a remarkable life, and all of it right here in Dearborn. The Dearborn Patch has a photo of Mary Jo and some of her friends meeting at the Good Times Café in August of 2012. They were meeting to plan their 60th high school reunion. Mary Jo was voted best athlete in her Dearborn High graduating class of 1953.
She was an accomplished tennis player, and was fortunate enough to attend both Wimbledon and the US Open with friends. She loved sports, whether participating or viewing. She especially loved college sports and the local Detroit teams. Just a week ago she was able to watch some of the "March Madness" with her son Ron.
Mary Jo spent many summers with her family in various National Parks, where her ex-husband Chuck, was a National Park Service Ranger. These were great experiences for the family and instilled a love of travel that the whole family enjoys. Once Mary Jo retired she began more adventurous travel. She explored Machu Pichu, the Galapagos, Turkey, and took an African Safari. With children and a grandson living in either Hawaii, Colorado, Italy, or now Utah, Mary Jo made frequent trips to visit them.
Mary Jo earned her Bachelor’s degree in 1957 and her Master’s degree in 1980. Mary Jo worked as a teacher and then a librarian. She was an advocate for women's rights and education and was a member of American Association of University Women, serving as its Vice President and then President in the 1970’s. She spent thirty years serving on many other civic and educational Boards.
Mary Jo was invested in inter-faith relationships and was involved in the local Middle Eastern community. She requested readings from the Qur’an and our friend Eide Alawan helped me select today’s readings. Eide and Mary Jo have been good friends for over a decade.
Recently Mary Jo was a member of an Epicurean’s group and enjoyed monthly dinners with the group at local restaurants.
Mary Jo had an artistic side too. She loved to cross-stitch and a number of her beautiful pieces are on display downstairs where we will have lunch. For many years she had season tickets to the Detroit Symphony and enjoyed going to concerts with friends and dining afterwards. She loved classical music and it was played constantly in her home. Mary Jo specifically requested the Postlude, Tocatta No. V, which will be played at the end of this service.
Brene Brown, in her book, “The Gift of Imperfection,” writes: “Practicing courage, compassion, and connection in our daily lives is how we cultivate worthiness. The key word is practice. Mary Daly, a feminist theologian, writes, ‘Courage is like…a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts.’ It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.” Courage is speaking one’s truth from one’s heart. When I think of Mary Jo, these are the qualities that come to mind. She was a woman who spoke her truth from her heart, practiced compassion, and was invested in all of her relationships.
This is our job now. In the coming days and weeks and months, our job is to remember Mary Jo by sharing stories about her life and how she impacted the world around her. In fact, those were my final words to her – that she had made a difference in the world. Honor that Mary Jo played an important part in shaping who we are. This is evident because her death has left a huge hole in the center of our being. This hole, that once was Mary Jo’s presence in our lives, will stand as a reminder that we are to live courageously, with justice and kindness, loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving the stranger, too.
Remember Mary Jo’s love of life. Remember her passion for justice. Remember her openness of spirit and hospitality. Remember her love for this parish. She has been a member of this parish all of her life, born into it, married here, baptized her children here. She was an active leader in this church, serving as the Co-chair of the Search Committee that called Dan Appleyard , and as a member of the Vestry, the church’s governing board.
We come here today to celebrate the life of Mary Jo and to hold up the Christian understanding of life and death.
As Christians we believe that death is not the end of a life but a life changed. This is a spiritual reality of faith. Grounded in God we come to understand that in death a person is born into a new life with God. In this new life, all pain and suffering is gone, transformed into peace.
Brene Brown also wrote: “Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty. We need both faith and reason to make meaning in an uncertain world.”
There is no doubt that Mary Jo believed this. Her faith was deep and grounded in trust. She was smart and reasoned. All of these traits sustained her sense of peace and cultivated her courage and compassion.
The Christian hope for life is that we know God’s love in our lives. God’s love is conveyed in and through the people in our lives. We believe that life is a gift. With this gift of life we are to share love with others through acts of compassion, hospitality, gentleness of spirit, respecting the dignity of every human being. We are to share this love graciously and abundantly. This is the legacy that Mary Jo has left us, for this is how she lived and she expected nothing less of us.
And so, it is a jumbled up day with all these emotions of despair and grief, hope and love, assurance and peace all mixed together. Slowly, over time, jumbled up emotions will settle. God’s peace will take hold of today’s grief and soothe its brittle pieces. The grief will always be there, the gaping hole that was Mary Jo’s presence in your life will remain, but through the grace of God and the love of God, God’s peace will prevail and the ragged edges will soften.
May Mary Jo’s love for each of you be sustained in your memories and the stories you share, in your tears and in your laughter. Through you, part of Mary Jo will live on, for the difference she made in the world will be enlivened every time you act with courage, compassion, and justice.