Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Watching the School Bus Go By

This is the first fall in 21 years that I do not find myself frantically preparing for yet another fall term of teaching undergraduates. It is an odd sensation as I watch the ads for “Back to School” and see the photos on Facebook from the parents of students of all ages headed into their fall semesters knowing that I will not be joining them in the mad scramble to begin another school year.

Teacher Grandparents named Reed and Wright

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of my teaching career. Altogether, I have been a teacher for 33 years at four different schools and six different colleges with students ranging from fifth graders to Ph.D. candidates. I’ve also been just as happy to be on the other side of the lectern, having spent 31 years of my life as a student, 17 of them in higher education. With great grandparents named Reed and Wright, I always assumed teaching and learning were genetically encoded into me. In fact, I am the fourth generation of educators in my family, the second generation of college educators.

Clearly, I have always loved school. Since fall of 1958 when I entered kindergarten, I have approached each fall with joy, knowing another round of school was just ahead. I actually began first grade on my birthday, September 1, 1959. Naively, I assumed that school always began on my birthday and thus celebrated each new school year along with my birthday. Now, with my 62d anniversary of that birth approaching next week, I find myself at home watching the school bus go by and knowing I will not be boarding.

It is often sad to see a chapter of your life close.  Much of my identity has come from my teaching over the years. The three major passions of my life have always been education, spirituality and justice. I have tried my hand at each one professionally over my nearly 62 years and I am hoping to find a way to bring all three together in my life post-retirement. But of the three, it has always been teaching which has been my deepest passion.

This fall, I will miss the students who came to office hours alternatively to chew the fat or, upon occasion, to deal with existential crises. I will miss conversations with colleagues whose chosen areas of study inevitably sent me scurrying off to research the ideas they raised about which I knew little or nothing previously. I will miss the very fine people on staff at the departments where I worked whose hard work is often unacknowledged but without which the departments could not function. I will miss the excitement of a new school term and the faces of new students to know.

But I will not miss expending the inordinate amounts of time demanded by online credit hour facilitation and enduring the endless obligatory hype about how classes which excuse their students from being regularly present are somehow just as good if not superior to real classes. I will not miss online students who have confused their classes with Burger King, demanding to have it their way in terms of workload, grading and feedback and more than willing to use their consumer reviews at the end of the term to punish anyone who doesn’t play the ratings game.  And I will not miss the nightmare of trying to find pre-paid but never guaranteed parking on a jammed campus perpetually under construction and periodically cordoned off when ESPN once again convinces the university to become its means of production for Thursday night football.

I feel a once familiar heaviness return as I write those last words. It reminds me of some of the reasons I decided to take retirement at the earliest possible date. But as I have noted previously, I really have no regrets about that decision even as I find myself slightly melancholic at this new school year beginning without me.

No Time to Waste….

But my days on the other side of the lectern are hardly finished. A new round of education looms for me this fall. Next week I fly to Albuquerque for the first on-site session of The Living School. I have committed myself to a two year program of study of spirituality and change agency. The curriculum includes two week long on-site sessions each year, fall and spring, with directed study and online discourse in between.

Created by Franciscan writer and teacher Richard Rohr and grounded in the Perennial Tradition articulated by people like Joseph Campbell and Aldous Huxley, I am hoping that this program will give me both wisdom and insight as to how the remaining years of my productive life might be spent.  I am praying I will find work which can weave together my passions for education, spirituality and justice. As I begin this next round of education, I have a very strong sense that, just like my decision to close my practice of law, uproot myself and fly off to Berkeley to attend seminary 25 years ago, major change is coming to my life and nothing will be the same again. Let’s hope these tectonic shifts prove as productive as the last round.

And so I watch the bus go by and turn back to my reading for my new studies in between cooking tonight’s supper, washing the laundry and cutting back the jungle threatening to swallow up our home. It’s grown quite bold during my preoccupation with online classes, search committees and other time consuming, soul draining activities over the past couple of years.

Restoring some order to the chaos of the jungle is, like a sacrament, the visible means of a larger and much deeper healing process I have undertaken upon leaving the university so unexpectedly on such a bitter-sweet note. I have given myself a year to lick my wounds, to rest, and get my bearings. I am a strong believer that redemption of anything is possible. I also know it sometimes comes at a steep price. Today I begin that process.
Here’s hoping everyone has a great fall.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Friday, August 21, 2015

On the Art of Mentoring Students

Latin American Humanities, Valencia College (2003)

One of my very favorite students from my 30 years of teaching college has asked me to offer her some advice on mentoring students. She has told me that I had been a mentor to her. I am quite honored to be asked and humbled that she saw me in this manner. She has made quite a life for herself since leaving our university. She is now working with instructors who would mentor college students at Oklahoma State University where she now works. For this recently retired instructor, all this is very gratifying.

After thinking about this for several days, I wrote the following draft and immediately sent it two recent mentees, both very fine students who are now in graduate school. Their feedback is incorporated into the following and they are credited as editors at the end of this essay.
If I were to offer any advice, I think it would include, but not be limited to, the following:

·         The obvious – listen to your students. Don’t assume you know what they are going to say. You don’t. You may not even understand what they mean when you hear them. Ask them. When it comes to their world, they are the experts.

Beyond listening when the student talks, which is extremely important, it’s also important for a mentor to be attentive as they are responding to the student. When we talk to anyone it’s easy to focus solely on what we want to say, and it’s important to know what we intend to convey. But it’s even more important that we look to those to whom we are talking and try to determine what they are hearing.

It’s very likely you will use common terms, whose meaning may be obvious to you, that your student hasn’t heard before or may mean something very different to them. It is important to look for any possible confusion flashing across their face. They may well be translating what you said into something other than your meaning.

If you see that look, follow up on it. Clarify your meaning, give an example, or ask the student, “Do you understand what I mean when I say ____?” It’s important that you make all of those options specific. Simply asking “Do you understand?” will get a “Yes” 90% of the time with the student not truly understanding what you intended to convey simply because they can’t read your mind and know what you intended to say.

Don’t listen with a sense of how quickly and expeditiously you can meet whatever demand they are raising at that moment. They’re not in your office asking for an administrative service. You’re not their technocrat. The university will provide plenty of those if they need their services. They’re there to see a live human being capable of being fully present with them – you. Listen to what they are actually saying. They deserve your full attention.

In the process you may well unexpectedly discover volumes of information that you really need to know in order to mentor these students well when you do. You may find that some are working too many hours to succeed in school. That requires immediate attention. You may find that some have gone a little crazy once out from under their parents’ roof and the structure that provided them. That requires talking about balance. You find out that some have unreasonably demanding parents pushing them. That requires a reality check for the student (remembering that the parents are not your concern, the student is).

You find that some have serious maturity gaps and may not be capable of behaving appropriately just yet but perhaps can learn to do so if that is brought to their attention in a supportive way. It is a serious failing of the academy to insist that these students come to us as adults. They rarely do. And in an age of helicopter parents, many are even further away from the maturity required of an adult than in the past. In all fairness, many have never had much chance to make decisions for themselves and be accountable for them. But your students are in the process of becoming adults and you do have a role to play in that by acting as a sounding board and, upon occasion, as the accountability officer.

You may find out that some have serious behavioral issues from addictions to video games or drugs or alcohol to tendencies toward violence.  Most of these behaviors are adaptive in nature and point toward larger problems. Encouraging the student to identify and address what may be driving these behaviors could be life changing for them. But bear in mind, their issues may also be beyond your ability to help them. It’s important to know your limits and to be willing to refer a student to those who are trained to deal with such problems when necessary.

You may well discover that you have a genius on your hands who is by far smarter than you are. That can be intimidating but it hardly means you can’t teach them anything or learn from them in the process. It simply means they may take you up on your statements and challenge your perspectives. That is almost always a gift that requires you to do what you ask them to do – think. Receive it as such.

You may also discover diamonds in the rough, kids who are quite brilliant but have grown up thinking they aren’t. It is important to tell them the talent that you observe. For some of them, it will be the first time in their lives they’ve heard that and the cognitive dissonance they may experience in comparison to the self-image they have internalized may make it difficult for them to hear that. But be persistent. The United Negro College Fund is absolutely right – a mind is a terrible thing to waste. These diamonds in the rough deserve your encouragement, your support and your ongoing challenge to grow and become all of who they can be. This is one of the many places mentors actually have the potential to change lives. But remember that in the end, it is always the student’s decision as to how they will live them.

In every case, never forget your role. You are not their psychologist, their spiritual advisor, their grief counselor, their addictions therapist, their drinking buddy, and certainly not their parent. You are the faculty or staff member this student has identified as safe, reliable, authentic and capable of offering them advice they may or may not take and modeling a role they may or may not wish to follow. And they need you to be just that.

·         Call them on their crap. A good mentor is willing to say to a student that their last comment is simply unsupportable and indefensible. Ask them why they made their statement. What does it mean? Why would that be so?

Mentors will tell their mentees when their statements are hurtful to others for no good reason and why this is ultimately harmful to the student themselves. A good mentor will refuse to buy into transparently bogus excuses for non-performance and hold them accountable. A good mentor will love his/her students – all of who they are including the warts. But s/he will not confuse love for sympathy when sympathy is not due. Holding a student accountable is the most important thing any mentor can do.

·         Suggest alternatives – A good mentor will challenge students on unworkable plans and unrealistic dreams. But an important follow up is usually something along the lines of “have you thought about…?” It is not the mentor’s job to plan the student’s life. They don’t need your permission or approval to do anything. But you may well have a good sense of what alternatives might exist for a student’s current projects and even their life ambitions. You may also have a good sense of why their stated ambitions may not be workable.

There’s a fine line between encouraging them and acquiescing to an unworkable plan. Err on the side of asking questions, not making judgments. Remember, they may well see you as the substitute authority figure for the parents, pastors, teachers, or community authorities they have left behind. Take that role, whether you have asked for it or not, seriously. They do.

One of the hardest things to do is to watch a student whose welfare you care about make a decision which you know they will view as a mistake later. You may well want to protect them from making a misstep. But while you should give them counsel if they ask for it, you need to let them make their own choice and not be too forceful in your opinion. Remember, they often come to you precisely for a clear-minded viewpoint.

Bear in mind two things. First, it’s important to remember that you may be wrong about them regretting it. They are not you and each of us has our own unique path to follow. Secondly, even if you are correct, mistakes are often the moments in which we learn the most, painful as such lessons may be. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t state what you believe, just make sure it doesn’t come across as a conversation stopper.

If the mistake is made and proves to have difficult repercussions, try and be available to talk when it occurs. If the student is willing, let them talk through the problem and understand what happened. As someone whose counsel was sought before, your opinion may have a lot of weight in helping them process the situation and determining what they take away from it.

·         One size does not fit all – Mentors encounter all sorts and conditions of students. Some require major encouragement. They come to you already beat down by life and often prone to engaging in self-defeating behaviors so that the results of their efforts match their internalized impoverished visions of themselves. It’s important not to enter into co-dependent patterns with such students, a major risk for those of us in the helping professions. But many of these students simply need someone to care. Encourage them to check in with you as they see fit. And be fully present for them when they come.

The other end of the spectrum is the student who comes from a privileged             background and is either unable or unwilling to see how meeting their sense of        entitlement is not owed them and can be self-defeating. They may not appreciate            your wakeup call but in the long run, they may well see it as timely and necessary.     Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was prone to tell his mainstream Protestant seminarians that their job as preachers was to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Good mentors will probably find their jobs to be similar.

At the same time, be aware that Millennial students often report feeling very driven and pressured to succeed. The current phenomenon of multi-tasking is a good example of that. In all honesty, who is really capable of performing several tasks at once with any level of competence or quality of performance? And who should ever feel compelled to do so? While there is no small amount of ego involved in even attempting such, students often speak of a sense of meeting an unarticulated but powerful demand for such behaviors. Trying to get your mentee to see their lives and the expectations placed upon them in realistic terms may be your biggest challenge. Remember, they don’t have your experience to draw upon.

·         Follow that dream! –The recent obsession with STEM disciplines and the tendency to approach higher education in instrumentalist, vocational terms has discouraged many students from pursuing other educational paths they may desire to follow. While it is reasonable for parents to want their child to be employable at the end of the four to six years they will spend in college, there is much to be said for what Joseph Campbell called following one’s bliss.

Forcing anyone to engage a course of study for four years that they may or may not be terribly interested in studying is tantamount to sentencing them to four years of minimal labor (because studies show that people simply do not engage studies that they really don’t want to undertake in the first place with any depth). Worse yet, with the entirety of one’s work life looming at the end of higher education, that’s an awful long time to do something one may or may not be interested in doing. There isn’t much joy in living into someone else’s dreams while foregoing your own.      

I have often told my students that “Smart people can do a lot of things. That doesn’t mean they should. What they should do is what they are called to do.” The only way to discover one’s calling is to listen carefully to what their life (gut, spirit, soul, religious deity) is telling them. That requires trusting themselves and their own experience, something many of them may not be accustomed to doing especially if they grew up in authoritarian households. It also requires committing to the time alone required to reflect and listen.

A good mentor will always ask a student whose dreams they are pursuing. They will try to get them to identify the values they hold. The fact a kid is good in science and math does not mean they necessarily should be an engineer or a doctor. The fact a kid was always argumentative with their parents as a child doesn’t make them future lawyers.

If a mere income sufficient to live in a style the student presumes to be normative, desirable or demanded of them is all they want, the quickest route to the best paying career may be all they are willing to seek. Bear in mind that we all have the right to live as minimal a life as we choose. The question we should always ask ourselves is why we’d choose that. A good mentor will always pose that question but remember that it is the student who must answer it.

Good mentoring will always require discussion of quality of life as well as quantity of income. And it is important for the mentor to know up front that s/he is often swimming upstream in such discussions in a consumerist culture that is marked largely by its pervasive superficiality.

·         Going home – Perhaps the toughest thing I ever did as a mentor was to pose the question to a student as to whether they are ready to be in college at this point in their life. Fair disclosure requires that I reveal that I left my own undergraduate education between my junior and senior year at the University of Florida to deal with some personal issues that had come to dominate my life and made full attentiveness to my studies impossible. A six month furlough working at Disney World was sufficient for me to get my head cleared and to come to the conclusion that my future did not lie in being a ride operator in a theme park. If I wanted to do what I felt called to do (teach), I would have to return to college and complete my 

     But there is an important post-scriptum to this story. After I decided I was going     to leave the university, I for some reason mentioned to a teaching assistant in    one of my classes that I was leaving. She didn’t ask a lot of questions. And she made no judgments. She did reassure me that I had to find my own way and that she understood. But then she added these words that changed my life: “It’s apparent to me that you are really very bright. And while I understand that you     can’t be here right now, you really are going to want to finish your education at    some point. You don’t have to promise me anything. But promise yourself that you will do that. And let me know when you get back.”

I did look her up when I returned to the University of Florida that next fall. I thanked her for sage advice to me and told her I was back. She just smiled. What I didn’t realize is that I would give that same advice to a handful of students in my own career as teacher and mentor. For the gift of that wisdom, I am in her debt.

It’s important to measure your words when you have this talk with a student. I am            always very intentional about the words “right now.” I reassure the student that it   is not their intellectual abilities that are in question. They are plenty capable of succeeding in higher education. But whether it is life circumstances or emotional state, it seems clear that it can’t happen right now.

I always phrase the next point as a question: Are you sure you really need to be   here right now? Their responses may well be no. I always offer the obvious   observation in such cases: The university is not going anywhere. It will be here when you are ready to come back.

But remember the drivenness factor. Some are working under timelines from parental budgets with all the conditions often attached to such “gifts.” Some fear they may not come back to school if they leave. And in some cases that is true though in many of those cases that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Despite the truisms articulated by everyone from the president of the country to the president of IBM, college simply is not the right path for everyone.

Working with a student who has come to this conclusion requires putting our own sense of importance and value of a college education aside to be fully attentive to the needs of the mentee in front of us. It’s their life we’re talking about, not our own. Our life is normative for no one but ourselves. One size does not fit all, even in universities that more resemble mass production factories than the sacred groves of Plato’s Academy.

Be aware – Students are often looking for mentors even when they are not able to verbalize that. Moreover, you may well be functioning as a mentor without realizing you are doing so. Mentors don’t necessarily do anything differently than a good instructor would do. Taking interest in your students, trying to connect your subject material to their life experiences and their future interests, making time for them (and being on time for your appointments with them) all convey to the student that you are trustworthy and that they are important to you. That signals to them that they can take a chance on the vulnerability with the mentor required for a good mentor relationship to work.
  • Be genuine in your dealings with them. Know you will upon occasion screw up.
  • Be OK with that. It’s human and that’s part of the behavior you are modeling for   them. Admit when you’re wrong. It gives them permission to make mistakes without fearing being shamed
  • Offer examples from your own life experiences. It makes you more human and thus approachable. It also offers living proof that it is possible to survive even the darkest nights of one’s college years. But don’t forget that your experience is normative for exactly one person – you.
  • Don’t try to be BFF with your mentees. You can’t do that and they have all the BFFs they need and a horde of “friends” a mere flick of a touchpad away. Just be yourself. That is what the student is seeking. And bear in mind that the student you mentor today could well be your colleague in the future or at the very least    your life-long friend.

One of the great joys of being a mentor is watching your students take the world by storm upon graduation and become the great successes you always knew they would be. And in a profession often marked by substandard professional pay, unreasonable work conditions and increasing levels of public deprecation, helping students find their way to successful lives is one of the few remaining moral rewards left to college instructors. You should take this very seriously. The students whose lives you touch certainly do.

© Harry S. Coverston, Ph.D., J.D., M.Div., eds. Sierra Skye Gysler, Christopher Clukay (August 2015).

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Second Leg of the Pilgrimage – Into the Darkness

I leave in the morning for second leg of my change of life pilgrimage. The first leg took me to the Inner Hebrides of the Scottish coast to the thin places of Iona. It was there that I became convicted that if my life was going to change, I would have to agree to let go of my current engagements to free my hands to embrace the new work which I felt surely was coming. It was a gut wrenching decision but once I finally determined to retire from the university, there was no turning back.

In the month since filing for retirement, I have been surprised that I have had no second thoughts about that decision. What I have felt has been relief and a sense of lightness that makes me wonder how much I had been carrying before and just not aware of it. The other surprise is that almost to the former coworker who has talked with me, the nearly universal response to my retirement has been “I envy you.”


I have told myself and others that I am giving myself a year off to figure out what’s next. I am calling it the sabbatical I never had. And I am trying to protect my time from the many people rubbing their hands with glee to fill in my calendar with projects and events.

At 2:30 AM Monday I will be on the road for the 12 hour drive with a priest friend to the hills of Kentucky to the Gethsemani Abbey of Thomas Merton fame. It is a Trappist monastery observing a rule of strict silence.

I am taking plenty of books to read, a pad to jot down my thoughts and my iPad with all the kindle books loaded on it that I’ve promised myself I’d read. I’m not sure there will be any wifi there and I’m really OK with that.

Into the Silence

I look forward to observing the liturgy of the hours with the brothers and spending time in their venerable abbey. Gethsemani is the oldest monastic house in America and I am one of thousands who have come to be in silence with the monks, the woods and with G-d.

I look forward to walking the wooded hills dotted with sculpture that once inspired Thomas Merton. I look forward to hearing the bells ringing out the routine of the monastic day, a life about as far removed from the frenzied workplaces I have only recently left behind as one can get. I look forward to silence, a true luxury in a consumerist culture in which daily is an ongoing pounding by one purveyor of goods and services after another.

If Iona was the place to discern it was time to leave behind my life as a full-time academic, Gethsemani is the place I begin wrestling with the obvious questions in its wake: What now? What might G-d be calling me to do, to become? Where might I be called to go and among whom shall I find my new calling? What challenges will I encounter?

I look out my office window this night to the darkness of my jungled yard. The new moon sheds no light to illuminate the palms and shrubs I have spent the day trimming and tying up into some semblance of order. It is truly black outside just beyond the feeble light my office lights provide.

Like my own life, what lies beyond is a mystery. And yet I trust that, like the sun of the new day which will certainly begin making itself known in a mere matter of hours, the mystery of what comes next for my life will soon begin revealing itself as well.

Thomas Merton has a famous prayer that is truly meaningful to me as I head toward his beloved monastery this day. I am in his debt for the words that express my thoughts, fears, desires and hopes this day.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”  


Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Farewell to Little Brother - Part III, And Then He Just Slipped Away

Life Lessons from Little Brother

Charles proved to be one of my life’s great teacher. His life was an ongoing life lesson for me about two basic truths. The first is that underneath the distressing disguises of poverty, disability and dementia, the image of G_d is always present, lurking, and waiting to be recognized and embraced with the dignity and respect it is due.

Charles always was able to see the divine image even in people I struggled to love. His willingness to simply shrug off the ushers who detained him in the narthex that night in the Cathedral is a good example. He was about as open and loving a human being as I have ever met and his ability to refrain from judging others – even as they often quickly judged him - always made me realize how far I often fall from that goal.

The second lesson Charles embodied is the reality that joy and contentment in life are not dependent upon material wealth, status or power. When I would see Charles walking on the sidewalks of Orlando, headed off to catch the bus across town to help an elderly woman from our choir by sweeping off her roof (I tried not to think too long about a legally blind man on a roof with a broom) or off to a weekend as Brother Theophilos in the cook tent with his SCA buddies, he was almost always joyous. I almost always knew it was Charles I was seeing ahead of me because I could hear him singing.

Unlike many aging people with disabilities, Charles rarely complained about physical ills though. Rarely touching alcohol except on special occasions, he’d often ask for cranberry juice when offered a drink. “It’s good for your kidneys, little brother,” he always told me.  
But Charles also was a life lesson in how poverty and disabilities can rob people of their dignity. His apartment in the Section 8 housing near my house was an ongoing disaster. The complex itself was noisy and sometimes the locus for drug dealing. He lived there in part because he could keep the dog someone had given him. But the dog’s bowl was constantly a black swarm of roaches eating the dog food before the poor animal could finish it.

One night I came into his apartment only to encounter a terrifying scene. Roaches were everywhere, hanging from the ceiling and covering the walls, crawling over pots and pans, beds and clothing alike. It looked like a scene out of the 1982 Stephen King film Creepshow segment entitled “They’re Creeping Up On You.”

I told Charles to get some overnight clothes and we set off to the all night Albertson’s to buy four roach bombs to set off in the apartment. The next day, I hoodwinked my husband and two other friends into helping clean up the debris. It took us four hours to vacuum up three full bags of dead and dying cockroaches only to discover that the overhead fluorescent light cover had protected several hundred from the poison. As long as I live I will never forget the shower of skittering roaches that came crashing down upon my head as we lifted the cover that day.

It still makes my flesh crawl to think about it.

But Charles lived on the edge of that degradation constantly. Despite many failed attempts to get him some assistance with housekeeping from the state and county welfare agencies, he eventually was evicted from his apartment because of the roach infestation. When he moved out into the suburbs with his friend from the SCA, he almost immediately was nearly killed while crossing the six lane intersection a block from his house. My guess is the kid who ran over Charles never even saw him in the turn lane before he hit him. The last thing Charles remembered was the mechanical voice telling him he could now walk across the street.

Though he recovered enough to return home, Charles was never the same. He had had a serious heart attack during the surgery to repair his shattered pelvis. And he began evidencing signs of dementia. He began to lose track of things that he’d always kept near at hand – wallet, keys. In the end, he could not even remember what had happened to his poor dog. As it turned out, Jordan had died from lack of medical care and the roommate had simply thrown her body into the condo dumpster.

The end of Charles’ autonomy came when the roommate left for work one day. Charles panicked and began to wander the condo complex shouting the roommate’s name. Shortly thereafter the police arrived and took a hysterical Charles into custody and transported him to the local Baker Act receiving facility. Charles was adjudicated legally incompetent and placed in the first of two adult congregate living facilities where he would live out the remainder of his life.

And Then He Just Slipped Away

The first ACLF was a decent converted home in a working class neighborhood in Pine Hills whose nickname among locals (Crime Hills) indicates the decline of the neighborhood over the past couple of decades. Run by a young Indian couple, the facility was clean, orderly and I was initially able to take Charles out to church and lunch on Sundays.

Our last outing, Charles wanted to go after church  to the local Chinese buffet. Wedged between Vietnamese nail salons and the Home Depot, it was a true Chinese eat ‘em up place – lots of mediocre at best food for cheap with the obligatory electronic artwork on the wall depicting a flowing waterfall. Charles could see very little at this point and after barely avoiding the many children around the crowded buffet table the first round, was content to let me go back and get more of whatever he wanted. He ate eight rounds of food that day and wore some of it home on his shirt and pants. But he was happy.

“Will you come see me again, little brother?” he said between tears as I left him in the lobby.
But my days of hauling Charles all over the Orlando metroplex were over. His new case worker told the facility not to let him leave the premises with anyone they had not approved. When I sought approval, I was told that it would be up to his legal guardian who had not yet been appointed. Six months later, when Charles was hospitalized with an intestinal obstruction that would eventually require a colostomy, he still had no guardian. It required a nurse at the hospital willing to bend the rules to even tell me, a non-relative or legal representative, where he had been released so I could visit him in his new ACLF.

After that, Charles spent the last year of his life in a fairly nice nursing home just north of Orlando. He was hospitalized a couple more times, each time without any notice to me or any of his other friends. Though his case worker with the state and at the facility had taken our names and telephone numbers to contact should he be moved, none of us ever were. And so I was not surprised when the receptionist at the nursing home told he had been discharged June 22 but was unable to provide any further information about him.
Charles had just slipped away gently into that good night.

Saying Farewell

My heart aches as I write these words about my friend whom I shall never see again. I have resisted the inclination to beat myself up about not being present when he died. No one should have to die alone and poor Charles truly deserved his little brother to be there. But I know there was nothing I could have done that would have made anything any different and now my task is simply to let go as best I can.

My last visit with him, I took him in his wheelchair out onto the porch of the facility. We talked about people he knew. As always, he asked about my father whom Charles loved. “I can feel his presence, little brother” he would say. And he may well have. Daddy always asked about Charles every time I’d visit my father.

We talked a bit about what happens after death. I gave him my poetic vision – the giant, gentle hands of our Creator G-d are there to catch your soul. He liked that. But more importantly, he seemed at peace with the idea that he would die, finally rid of the fear that eternal torment would not be awaiting him on the other side of the grave. For that, I will always be grateful.

The funeral home which handled Charles’ cremation informed me that Charles had asked to have his cremains scattered at sea. The closest large body of water to the funeral home is Lake Monroe, a large freshwater lake in nearby Sanford. Actually just a wide place in the Saint John’s River, which flows north to the Atlantic at Jacksonville, the chances are that some of Charle’s ashes actually will reach Mother Ocean as he wished. Given my own request to have some of my ashes placed in that same ocean, I will one day rejoin my dear friend there.

Charles was a long-time member of the Francis-Clare Community, a Eucharistic community of which I was one of the leaders that met at members’ houses over a 13 year period. He is the second member of our community to die since its disbanding several years ago and three others are now scattered across the country. But a handful of us will meet this evening at a local pizza place and Brother Charles will no doubt be the focus of much discussion punctuated by toasting to his memory. I have absolutely no doubts that Charles will be present with us and smiling.

I will truly miss this little man who made such an impression on my life. Jesus and Francis of Assisi both spoke of the little ones to whom wisdom had been given that had eluded those that conventional society called wise. It is Charles’ face that I will see when I speak about the sin of systemic poverty. It is his voice I will hear when I advocate for the rights and needs of the disabled. And it is his slipping away into the night all alone that I will remember as I write and discuss how we treat our elderly in this death-denying, youth worshiping culture.

Farewell, my friend, my teacher, my conscience, my spiritual advisor. Your little brother and your community will miss you. Thank you for the invaluable role you have played in our lives and the lives of all who knew you. Though you rarely knew it, you were always one of G_d’s best creations.  
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Farewell to Little Brother - Part II, A Canary in the Mine Shaft

[continued from Part I]

Charles's 69th birthday, Francis-Clare Community, Lac Viet Restaurant,Orlando

A Canary in the Mine Shaft

Given my own interest in all things spiritual, I would often take Charles with me to religious events and services across the metro area. That was particularly important when visiting Episcopal Churches. Charles was my canary in the mine shaft. I watched very carefully how people responded to him. If they were welcoming, respecting his dignity, we went back. If not, I shook the dust off my own sandals as I left.

There were two visits in which that proved deeply troubling. The first was to an Episcopal Church in one of the suburbs north of Orlando known for its charismatic worship. I went with Charles and Pam, my law partner. I wanted to see for myself this form of worship in this parish that other Episcopalians spoke of only in whispers.

I was on edge from the moment we walked in the door, quickly slipping into the next to the last pew in the back. The service began with a loud “Let’s do it” rather than the familiar words of the prayer book and the praise band took up the first half hour of the service with repetitive, mindless and narcissistic lyrics projected on a screen overhead (“Our god reigns….ha ha hains….Our god reigns….repeat 50X).

When the time came for the Prayers of the People, I quickly realized the formula prescribed by the Prayerbook had been abandoned for a free form set of prayers offered by anyone who wanted to speak. The very first prayer was that “right thinking people will be elected to the school board next week…” I could see Charles’ back stiffen as my law partner began to dig her nails into my bare arm. The next prayer was for “God to strike down all the lesbians.” By this time I was beginning to feel nauseous. Charles was visibly agitated and my arm had begun to bleed from my law partner’s nails which she had unconsciously dug through the skin into the flesh.

The next thing I knew, Charles was up off his kneeler and standing. He began to pray: “Let us pray that the Carthusians and the Carpathagians will end their ancient feuds and come together in Christian love and reconciliation…” This continued for two or three minutes with a wide range of obscure religious orders and various prayers for their historical plights. When he finished his prayers, he returned to the kneeler beside the two of us. There was dead silence. I looked up and every head in the church had turned around to see who had said these things.

Recovering his wits, the priest quickly signaled the end of the Prayers leading the congregation in the communal Confession. This would prove to be one of the few times I have not stayed for an entire service in an Episcopal Church.  I placed my hands on Charles’ shoulders as we got up from the communion rail and whispered in his ears, “Just keep going, Charles. We’re leaving now.” And out the back door we slipped.

The second event occurred at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke where I had met Charles and where we had both sung in the choir together. I had left Orlando to attend seminary without diocesan support and the Cathedral had undergone a massive change of staff under the direction of its new fundamentalist bishop. The occasion for our attendance was the memorial service for a former dean whom Charles had loved.

The Cathedral is a beautiful neo-Gothic structure in the heart of downtown Orlando. It has long had a storied music program. At one time it had also been actively involved in downtown ministries among the homeless and interfaith services with nearby Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran parishes. All that had changed during my seven year absence from the Cathedral. But I had no idea how much it had changed.

At one point, Charles said he needed to go to the restroom. His medication included a diuretic so I was accustomed to this. Given all the years he had spent there, I had no qualms about him going out to the restroom in the nearby parish hall.

After about 20 minutes, a friend who had come to the service with us asked, “Where is Charles?” I said he had gone to the restroom but should be back by now. I began to look around for him thinking perhaps he’d come back in and sat in another row. But no Charles. After 30 minutes I began to panic. Had he gotten lost? Had he turned the wrong way and stepped into the street in front of a car?

Then I saw him. The narthex of the Cathedral has been glassed in to allow for mothers with crying babies to leave the main sanctuary when necessary and still be able to be present for the service visible through the glass and audible via the sound system. Behind that glass wall stood Charles, face up to the glass with his hands to either side of it, trying his best to see what was going on, looking like the doggie in the window at a pet store.

I went out to get him thinking perhaps he’d gotten lost or confused. As we walked down the side aisle to our seats, I softly fussed at him, telling him I’d been worried and asked him why he’d stood out there all that time. He simply said, “I’m sorry, little brother. That man wouldn’t let me come back in.” In a Cathedral which used to feed homeless people and provide them places to sleep on cold nights, the new reality was a corps of ushers who also served as bouncers to keep homeless people away from the well-heeled elect inside the glass doors.

I suddenly found myself white hot with rage, so angry I could hardly speak. This was a former parishioner who had come to honor a beloved dean (whom Charles had regularly engaged for counseling). He had been treated like garbage strictly based upon appearance. As I walked out the doors of the Cathedral that night, a place that had been my spiritual home for eight years, I swore I would never return. Now 18 years later, I never have and have no plans to.

Thanksgiving 2007, first meal in New Coverleigh,
rebuilt after Hurricane Charley. With Andy and Luci Blake

Sometimes the Canary Sings

But sometimes the canary not only survives, it sings.

Those who know me well know that, despite having been ordained priest in 1995, my inclination to attend any Episcopal Church since returning to Central Florida has been limited to say the least. Having fled this diocese after it began down its homophobic and fundamentalist path with the election of a new bishop in 1990, I entered into four of the most incredible years of my life as a seminarian in the Bay area of California, connecting with a diocese in California and ordained in a parish in San Jose. During my two years of doctoral work in Tallahassee I worked under a very fine chaplain there as his assistant and got some experience in preaching, celebrating and pastoring.

Then, for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the church, I needed to return to Orlando. My bishop in California had told me ahead of time that he would not release me to the Diocese of Central Florida. And I had no intention of asking him.

The rumors of the pathology in the diocese had actually been understated. I saw aging clergy, venerable servants of the church for decades, who were treated with contempt, shunned by new clergy who had flooded into the diocese after passing the ideological litmus test imposed by the bishop. And I had witnessed my dear friend Charles prevented from entering a Cathedral church to which he had been deeply loyal for many, many years, all based upon snap judgments made about his appearance.

At one point, I realized that if this had been the Episcopal Church I had encountered as the young Methodist college student who followed the Wesley brothers home to Anglicanism, I would never have become an Episcopalian in the first place. Indeed, the incarnation of the church in Central Florida was almost unrecognizable as Episcopalian. It was more like angry, judgmental Baptists who liked to wear dresses. Who needed it?

The only dim light in this sea of darkness was a small suburban parish north of Winter Park. Named for St. Richard of Chichester (whose most famous prayer became the basis of the song “Day by Day” in Godspell), it was the parish in the diocese which was rumored to be “tolerant” of gay people. Many refugees from the Cathedral diaspora had ended up at St. Richards. And so, for the first few years after my return to Central Florida, when on the rare occasion I actually did attend services, I attended St. Richards.

When Charles was finally evicted from his apartment at Reeves Terrace due to his inability to keep it free of roaches (which were in turn infesting neighboring apartments), he moved in with a friend from the SCA who was more than happy to have assistance with the rent on a condo in the suburbs not far from St. Richards. Charles was now cut off from all of his familiar surroundings and neighbors. He was lonely. And so I decided one Sunday that I would take Charles to St. Richards to get him out of the house. Of course, he was delighted to go.

When it came time to go to communion, Charles needed to hold onto my shoulder and be led to the rail. The interior of the parish is a bit dark and he simply couldn’t see where he was going. I watched the people of the parish as we went forward and returned. And what I saw there amazed me. Most of them smiled. And when we went out to the coffee hour out on the breezeway, they could not have been any more welcoming to Charles.

I began attending church regularly with Charles after that Sunday. This continued over a two year period until the time Charles was finally too frail to survive at his friend’s condo. Once he had been placed in an ACLF, I was only allowed to take him out one final time before his case worker restricted his outside visits to family members and legal guardians.

The rector there had offered a free burial space for his cremains in the columbarium though that will not happen now that Charles lies amidst the waters of the St. Johns River headed for the Atlantic. But his memory still burns in the hearts of the people of St. Richards. I know that because I attend there regularly now and they often ask about him.

 I tell people that Charles saved me for the Episcopal Church.


Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)