The porpoise-driven church
It began with a phone call. "The name is Shafer. My wife died last Friday. I'm calling to see if you could conduct a memorial service."
I wasn't familiar with the name, but it turned out that Mrs. Shafer had never joined our church, but had been active in one of our choirs many years ago. She had requested that one of our ministers officiate at her service.
"One thing you need to know," Mr. Shafer said, "is that the service will be held at Brookfield Zoo. My wife was a docent there for years, and she loved the place."
As Mr. Shafer's voice faltered with pain, my mind raced to envision where exactly in the zoo this could take place. Biblical allusions sprang to mind. In the lion's den? Where the wolf and the lamb lie down together? In the tohu wabohu of the Living Sea?
"The service will be in Habitat Africa," he continued, somewhat tentative now, afraid I would back out of the plan. "There is a conference room that overlooks the rhinos and giraffes. We'll have an open bar and appetizers after the service."
An open bar? I guess we could dispense with finger sandwiches in the fellowship hall and live without suburban matrons stationed regally at our silver tea set. But, reaching for something familiar, I asked, "What about music? Will there be music?"
"No, since the animals will be so close by, I don't think we can have music."
That's when I began to imagine monkeys swinging from tree to tree, stopping occasionally to pick bugs out of my hair.
No sanctuary. No music. "Well, do you want this to be a religious service?" I asked, unsure I could talk for an hour about death without referring to Jesus.
"That's a hard question to answer," he said, relaying how his wife's faith was challenged as an 11-year-old child when her father died. "My wife certainly couldn't recite the Apostle's Creed with integrity, but she was a spiritual person."
That clinched it for me. If this woman went through a crisis of faith as a child, who was I to deny her the rites of the church in her family's hour of grief?
Though I still had my doubts, I told Mr. Shafer, "I'll be glad to lead the service."
In preparation for the service, I learned that Mrs. Shafer held masters degrees in social work and anthropology. Her home was filled with African masks, Buddhist Temple doors and Navajo sand paintings, as well as stacks of "National Geographic" and "Smithsonian" magazines. Her favorite book was Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth."
In keeping, I looked up some stories about African animals and found Joseph Campbell excerpts to incorporate into the UCC's "Service of Thanksgiving for One Who Has Died."
But on the day of the memorial service, Mr. Shafer informed me of a change in venue. "We're expecting more people than we originally anticipated, so we had to move to the Dolphin Underwater Viewing Area."
I panicked. I had no dolphin stories! But the service was set to begin soon. Ready or not, I headed for Brookfield.
At the service, as guests admired the dolphins gliding past several 15-foot-high windows behind me, I simply stood behind a podium that proclaimed, "Brookfield Zoo welcomes you."
With these joyful, elegant creatures swimming behind me, I shared my sermon, which included a line from Mary Oliver's poem, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" And I read from Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say rejoice."
Later, as family members and friends shared their memories, I also turned my gaze to the dolphins. While most swam by with little interest in our odd ritual, a few hesitated by the window, looking at us.
It seemed the dolphins even smiled and kissed the glass as a neighbor shared her memory of a chinchilla that her children shared with the Shafer family — two weeks at one home, two weeks at the other.
A former colleague told of the time they started a professional library at the mental health center, where Mrs. Shafer contributed a book called "How They Do It," detailing how various animal species, uh, multiply.
As the service unfolded, I began to wonder if our church architects might consider putting an aquarium in the chancel.
A guest said after the service, "Did you realize that while you were praying the dolphins were standing straight up in the water?" When I pray, I hold my arms out horizontally. Did the dolphins follow my command because I looked like one of their trainers? Or were they joining us in seeking comfort and mercy from our Creator?
In that moment — as it seemed that all creation, even the dolphins, were lining up to pray with us — I felt fully alive. And I was reminded of one of Joseph Campbell's stories: "We don't have ideology. We don't have theology," says a Japanese priest. "We dance."
That day I discovered a ministry that goes beyond words — in a porpoise-driven church.
The Rev. Julie Ruth Harley is minister for membership and discipleship at Union Church (UCC) of Hinsdale, Ill.