[A sermon offered for the Memorial Service of Bill Fite, October 8, 2022, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida]
“To comfort all who mourn….” May I speak in the name of the G-d who [+] creates, redeems and sustains us? AMEN.
As I understand it, memorial services have three purposes. The first is to celebrate the life of the loved one we have come together to remember. The second is to recognize the deep sense of loss we experience in their passing. And the third is to voice our hope that death is but the end of this phase of life, the point of the return of the soul to the G-d from which all souls come.
A Very Unusual Human Being
It was my pleasure to
know Bill Fite for 34 years. We met at the Institute for Christian Studies. The
institute met at the Episcopal Cathedral downtown for day long sessions on a
given Saturday each month to train those who would become vocational deacons,
some of whom would later become diocesan priests. And while the classes were
always interesting, it was the lunch hour when all the students and teachers sat
down together to talk with one another that was the most exciting part of the
It was after such an energized lunch session that Bill asked me to step outside with him for a talk. We sat up on one of the stairwells leading down to the undercroft in the Cathedral’s Great Hall and began to get to know each other. It was an intense discussion with much personal self-disclosure. But what became clear to me that first day was that I had met a very unusual human being whom I knew would become a good friend. And within no time, that was indeed the case.
Bill was an exceedingly intelligent man, highly gifted in analytical and verbal skills. He had a wicked sense of humor and could tell some of the most highly embellished stories – and some of the grossest - I have ever heard. We shared an impatience for shallow thinking and callous indifference to human suffering. Over the years I came to know a bit of his soul including the demons that he constantly worked to keep buried in the Shadow. It was a long, sometimes tortuous process of coming to know who he was and what this fascinating man was about.
The lesson from Isaiah today was one Bill not only quoted with regularity, his life was a lesson in what it looked like. “The Lord has anointed me … to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn…” This was a man who spent his life in service of others through higher education, nursing, mental health counseling and administering programs in all of these areas of expertise.
Bill’s focus as a professor was often on students who came from working poor backgrounds, many of them the first in their families to attend college. His work in mental health was focused on the veterans he met at the VA where he worked the last couple of decades of his work life.
I got to see Bill in action there when he invited me to serve on the Institutional Review Board that is required to screen and approve any kind of research that involved American veterans. Bill had formed the board and was highly knowledgeable about the requirements that researchers and corporations had to meet before any research with human subjects could begin. I served as the outside member of that committee, there to insure that ethical considerations were met. Bill often stood beside me as I questioned some of the procedures that researchers proposed, demanding that the language of the consent forms be intelligible, that the potential benefits and side effects on the veterans themselves as well as their families were clearly communicated.
This concern for others was part and parcel of who I knew Bill Fite to be. He was a wounded healer who sought to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to those held captive by demons of mental illness and addiction which made their lives difficult on a good day, a man who comforted those who mourn, whose life of service to those our society has too often turned its backs on was indeed, good news.
The Spiritual Path of a Celtic Knot
Bill was a cradle Episcopalian and loved high church Anglican worship and music. The music at our offertory today is a tribute to that connection to sacred music in the composition for piano and flute he had commissioned for this very day. We are grateful that Peter Mathews, its composer, accompanied by Debbie Clifton on flute, are here today to perform that commissioned piece.
In the second half of his life, Bill became involved with the independent Catholic movement in both the Thomasine Community rooted in the life of the Apostle Thomas and the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America which sprang from the Roman Catholic Church during the authoritarian rule of the military in Brazil in the 1960s. As first a priest and later a bishop, Bill would become the shepherd for independent catholic communities in Massachusetts and later here in Florida. And he would ordain several people to the diaconate and priesthood to serve those communities, three of whom are serving in this liturgy today. He would also participate in the consecration of the presiding bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church in North America.
To the person, those who have been the beneficiaries of Bill Fite’s clerical leadership have described him as the good shepherd that John proclaims in today’s Gospel. He cared about his flock and his ministry came at no small cost to him personally. The community in Spring Hill on the Gulf Coast where he served as rector for several years required a two hour drive across the state to get there every Sunday. And Bill spent hours of his time training his clergy for ordination and serving as their pastor once ordained. As John’s Gospel describes it, the good shepherd lays down his life for his flock. That was Bill Fite.
And so we celebrate that life of service and companionship this day. He was a larger than life character, boisterous, thoughtful, bawdy, highly creative. But he was more than that to many of us. He was also husband, father, brother and dear friend. The bargain we make in allowing larger than life characters into our lives is that when they depart they leave larger than life holes. As the late Queen Ellizabeth II was prone to say, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
The Psalm chosen for today’s liturgy is one Bill loved. He and I cherished the time we shared in the Cathedral choir. Settings of this psalm, one of which we heard in our prelude as well as in our Gospel hymn, were among his favorite pieces. As is often the case, the psalmist has given us lyrical words to express our grief this day: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul… My soul is cast down within me…” This day, we acknowledge the enormous loss we feel as we remember a brilliant life we cherished which ended unexpectedly and all too soon. Our souls are cast down within us, indeed.
Those Waiting on Him Were a Surprise
This proved to be the toughest part of writing this sermon. Bill and I spent many long nights nursing bottles of red wine, talking politics and religion. On occasion he would say to me that he wasn’t at all sure there was anything after death, that the lights simply went out at one’s last breath. This was a man who had spent a good part of his life teaching statistics and research methods. If there was no empirical evidence for something, he was disinclined to believe it.
I always found that hard to understand. While I have long had trouble with any theological claims that would conditionalize the afterlife upon buying into the right set of theological constructions, I’ve never doubted that our souls move on from this material plane at death, returning to the spiritual realm from which they arose. As I see it, the destiny of our souls has always been the same heart of G-d from which they arose. The writer of John’s First Epistle says it well: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
I also never have doubted that the souls of those who have been sojourners on our life voyages would be present at the time of death to greet us. Of course, I had no empirical proof for that, either. But it was something I sensed from childhood and something my experience of death and dying has evidenced for me ever since.
That would be the case for Bill Fite. It is a common experience among those who are dying to see beloved figures from their life histories awaiting them. For my Mother, it was my Grandfather who awaited her. And toward the end of my Dad’s life he repeatedly said to us, “I have to go, your Mother is waiting for me.” For Bill, the figures awaiting him would not have been those most of us would imagine, but then, that was who Bill Fite was.
Some of you knew he was a fellow Franciscan in the Anglican Third Order. And when he became an independent catholic cleric, he helped form a Franciscan third order fellowship there. So, when he said to his husband, “I have to go, St. Francis is waiting on me,” I was not surprised.
Bill was also a dog lover. His big red vizsla dogs always played a large role in the life of Bill and his husband, Fu, dominating their home and their hearts. The last of their dogs, Baiv, had just died a couple of months before Bill entered the hospital never to emerge again. And as the finality of his death became apparent, Bill would occasionally exclaim, “I have to go, Baiv is waiting on me.”
Of course, those are only the souls that we know about. I can only imagine what a wonderful reception committee met the soul of Bill Fite.
Bill often mentioned a scene from the television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War that had deeply moved him. In it, a young soldier is spending his last moments with his girlfriend and family before shipping out to the front in WWII. In the background the war-time hit by English singer Vera Lynn is playing: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, we’ll meet again some sunny day.” That song has been stuck in my head this past week as I worked on this final sermon for my dear friend. Somehow, I think Bill is trying to let us all know, this is so long for now but not goodbye.
A Soft Bed With a Puppy By His Side….
The last time I saw Bill was in his hospital room in Rochester, long since bored and tired of being bedridden. As I told him goodbye, I blessed him and kissed his forehead. He whispered to me, “Honey, I just want to go home and be in a soft bed with a puppy lying next to me.” Well, his soul is home. And the puppies he loved are no doubt snuggling up to him as we speak.
So this day let us give thanks for the life of Bill Fite, for all the lives he touched, and for all the rich memories with which he has left us. As we mourn his passing, may the guardian angels of compassion press close to us and keep us company. And may we all live in hope for that day when our souls will join his and all the departed once again in the very heart of G-d. AMEN.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
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
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2022