I’m having a hard time imagining a world without Lauren Gough in it.
Lauren was one of the first people I met online when I first entered the Episcopal blogging craze in 2006, through her blog, Stone of Witness. Now, in all fairness, I knew her then as Muthah+, and she knew me as Kirkepiscatoid. It was a time that people were still very angry about Gene Robinson’s consecration in 2003, and a time people who were out there championing full LGBT inclusion in the church were not always well liked, and several of us worked under the cloak of semi-anonymity. Lauren was one of the brave souls who remained less anonymous. In 2008 was what I like to refer to as “the great de-cloaking”–a lot of us Episco-bloggers made the jump to Facebook, and began to make ourselves more known to each other and the world, and she was one of the people who encouraged me to be more visible. I thought it was a bad idea at the time, but I did it anyway, and it turns out Lauren was right. It was where I needed to be.
We talked often–on social media, via email, and on the phone. She was one of the first people I divulged the possibility that I was feeling a call to ordination. So, when we actually physically met for the first time in 2012, it was like hanging out with someone I had known for years, and the friendship took off exponentially. By the time I entered into postulancy for Holy Orders in June 2014, it was a safe bet one or the other of us were calling each other on the phone no less than every two weeks. Granted, most of the time when she called me the conversation started about medical topics related to her health issues or those of her spouse Judy, but about halfway in, she’d turn around and ask me some difficult or probing question about my process. She became a very behind the scenes but significant part of my formation process.
Lauren was the kind of person who wouldn’t leave anything be. She had been ordained at a time there was danger in being a person who stands out front for inclusivity, first as a woman, and then as a lesbian. She was the poster child for “Take up your cross and follow me,”–not through public venues so much, but by simply standing tall and refusing to be anyone except herself, forcing other people to deal with it. She’d been treated shabbily more than once in her career as a priest, both above and below her on the food chain. At one time she was working as a barista at a coffee house because she could not find a church. Yet, things that would have broken the spirit of most of us, she took with grace and said, “There’s always something to be learned from it.”
Did she have times when she was angry? Hurt? You bet. But when she would tell me those stories, those stories of pain and suffering, I could see and hear that she was speaking from a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. I suspect by the time she died, she had forgiven every single person who ever harmed her. The very last time I saw her, she knew of a situation I was in where I had caved in to my own anxieties and had handled poorly. She told me to go home and seek reconciliation, take my lumps, and to not give up on anyone in the situation, even though it would probably go badly. (It did.) She reminded me, “There’s always something for the other person to learn too, and if you don’t take the risk, how will they learn it, and how will you learn everything you need to learn?”
In 2014 she had a bit of a run-in with some health care entities when it came to her being able to see Judy and be a part of her health care decision making process. I asked her, “So…you and Judy have been together for 40 years…ever think about running off to a state where you can get married and shove a marriage license under people’s noses?” Her response was first, a few choice expletives, followed by, “I’m not the marrying kind.” But by early 2015 she was calling me and asking, “Hey, do you want to be in my wedding?” Without hesitation, I agreed to it.
That wedding was the most magical thing I’d ever seen. Although the guest list was small, it was attended by people from all over the country, including several folks who had been in some of her past parishes. As the relative latecomer in her life story, I mostly sat and soaked in all the stories others told–literally an oral history of inclusivity in the Episcopal church from 1980 on. I began to realize I was sitting and learning at the foot of a giant–yet she took such care with my own process, and I began to see I was one of many women whom she was actively shepherding into ordained roles in the church. She was out there fighting for women in the diocese of Ft. Worth who had been placed on eternal hold as the diocese began to reconfigure. She was standing alongside many women who had circuitous paths to ordination, and I was grateful she could stand alongside my own rather circuitous path.
It was amazing how marriage changed Lauren still further. She would talk about things she now recognized in her relationship with Judy she hadn’t seen before. I would chuckle and tell her, “Well, DUH, that’s called sacramental grace–I imagine you’ve heard of that before, right?” but I still marveled at how that worked.
Something, though, was looming on the horizon. She told me at the wedding she hadn’t felt good. Strange symptoms. Problems speaking. Over the summer and fall of 2015, a lot of doctors tossed some diagnoses at her that didn’t totally explain everything. In early December, 2015, she was admitted to the hospital for a brain bleed, and it was at that time she discovered she had a malignant brain tumor. I was one of the people who got multiple texts a day while she was in the hospital, but it wasn’t the stuff you’d expect from someone in her situation. She was telling me about all these God-experiences she was having. I would tease her that it was the drugs…but then I’d admit, no…I don’t think it’s the drugs. “Things that happen in our brain abnormally…well…sometimes I believe they give us a window to what’s out there that our frontal lobes normally cover up with the thoughts of day-to-day living. Savor them,” I’d tell her, and she did. In retrospect, I believe those experiences gave her the grace and courage she displayed in the last couple of months of her life.
At the start of 2016, she started telling me she wanted me to visit one more time. I knew her friend Elizabeth also wanted to see her, so we teamed up and made a visit in mid-February, and I am so very grateful I did, even though my life is so complicated these days with CPE and seminary coursework, and working part time. Although I still had to spend some time working on my online classes, I still laugh uproariously at how we had 160 combined years in the Episcopal Church in the room, and I still had to look up some vocabulary words for my Introduction to Worship class! Lauren was having a great time telling me how worthless my class assignments were, and I still treasure that she flipped me off once in one of those conversations!
Yet, what I most treasured in that visit was listening to her and Judy and Elizabeth recount names and faces and places in their long shared history in the church. Although I was the relative newcomer, and didn’t have much to say, I listened a lot, and took some things to heart. Mostly what I took to heart was how with Lauren, there was no anger, no bitterness left, and how she was still always looking to the future in the eyes of the women in Ft. Worth she’d shepherded, and hearing “how things are beginning to happen in that diocese,” and how she could still be excited about the future even though her own future was looking and feeling pretty rocky. Oh, she still didn’t mind a good fight–but she was fighting now for the people behind her.
I am still reeling a bit at how quickly she declined after that visit, but it’s pure Lauren. She left this world without much fanfare or fuss, at home with people who loved her. No one could ask for more. The thing that keeps me grounded in all this is the sheer number of people I’ve seen post on social media about what she meant to them. There was enough of her to go around for all of us. This great bear of a woman took care of a lot of cubs with all the ferociousness of a mother bear, and I think all us cubs will make it somehow.
Rest in peace, friend.