Encountering Verna

Verna Dozier, writer and educator, died one year ago this weekend. The Café offers this remembrance.

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Late last summer, I was at the beach with my family, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Checking my email one day in the last week of August, I saw a note from Virginia Seminary asking our prayers for Verna Dozier, former faculty member there and beloved local prophet in Washington DC. She was the author of The Dream of God and The Calling of the Laity, and known as a prophetic voice in the church, calling “the church, the people of God” to claim as our own the work of reconciliation in the world, the work to which our Christian faith calls us.

That last week in August, 2006, Verna was coming to the end of a long illness and nearing her death, and the email asked for our prayers for her peaceful passing. As I absorbed this news, a surprising prayer welled up in me: recalling the story of the prophet Elisha, inheriting the mantle of Elijah. I prayed, “Please, let a portion of Verna’s spirit rest on me, and let the message she carried be continued in me, and in Your church.”

The next day, I was walking on the beach, my favorite prayer-place on these summer vacations. A passing hurricane had whipped up a strong sea-surge, covering the beach and creating dramatic waves, and an offshore wind now stirred the sea oats and dune grasses so that they bent deeply toward the churning ocean. The power of the wind that day reminded me of the power and prophetic energy I had experienced, reading Verna’s works, and being in her presence, and I prayed for her as I walked. Later I learned that she had passed from this life on that day, September 1, 2006. That spontaneous, prayerful connection with her, in those last days of her life, has led me to reflect more deeply on how Verna Dozier’s prophetic spirit and message have shaped my own understanding and experience of the call to Christian discipleship in this hurting and broken world.

I first encountered Verna Dozier’s writing in the mid 1990’s, in an adult forum at the Church of Our Saviour, Hillandale in Silver Spring, Md. Bernice Harris Shook, an active participant in that forum, remembered having Verna Dozier as a teacher when she was a student in the DC public schools. This work in the church, including teaching at VTS as adjunct faculty, came only after Verna retired from her career as a school teacher. She would bristle when people referred to her post-retirement work of teaching in the church and ask “when did you begin your ministry?” Her work as an educator, she insisted, was just as much her ministry. That attracted me because at the time I was struggling to connect my growing inner life of prayer with my work and identity as a parent and a teacher, both in and beyond the church. I was convinced that my Christian faith was supposed to make a difference in the way I lived my life, and Verna’s work gave me language and a theological grounding for this conviction.

She herself grew up reading the Bible — the Bible and Shakespeare were the only books in her household. A lover of literature, she understood the stories of Scripture as containing truths that are greater than factual truth, as telling the continuing story of humanity’s relationship with God. That too spoke to my heart, as a poet and lover of literature. When she taught workshops, Verna would insist that every Christian should be able to re-tell the story of the Bible in 10 minutes, as a way of “making it our own.” She read Scripture as the story of the “dream of God” — God’s desire to be in relationship with us, and to see us in loving relationship with one another. From Adam and Eve, through the people of Israel, and the early disciples around Jesus, the story of Scripture records a God who is continually calling us to return.The church of our own time, she argued, still beset by the heritage of Constantine, has lost its understanding of “ministry” to a broken world as the work of all God’s people, focusing too much on the ministry of the clergy, the servants of the institution. The church, the people of God, she argued, is again being called to return to its original purpose – to love and serve the world that God loves. The prophetic energy of Verna’s message about the calling of the laity comes through clearly in her writing. I encountered that energy in person on the first of two occasions when I met her.

It was early Lent of 1996, and both of us had been invited to a party given by Martha Horne, then dean of Virginia seminary. I was wandering around when I spotted Verna Dozier sitting in a wing chair at the edge of the room, a frail figure, watching the proceedings quietly. I went to her and introduced myself, “gushing” like the fan I was about how much her writing had helped me to understand and claim my ministry as a lay person and a teacher in the church. She talked with me a bit about my story and my work, and then fixed me with her compelling, prophetic gaze, pointed her finger at me and wagged it sternly as she said to me, “Now: don’t you go and get ordained: Jesus was not ordained. Jesus was a teacher.”

I had sat down on the floor in order to hear Verna over the ambient noise, and so I was literally sitting at her feet as she said these words, and I have always remembered them as the message I received, sitting at the feet of the Teacher. They helped me tremendously in my efforts during those early years to name and claim a vocation as writer and teacher for which we didn’t have clear categories.

Verna’s was a well known voice in the Diocese of Washington. Her message is inspiring to lay people who hear and read it, but it is still not widely known, and my experience is that few people outside the Diocese of Washington have been aware of Verna’s prophetic message. Part of this is may be because her anti-institutional message is ultimately threatening to the structures of the church that could help to spread the message about the authority of the laity and our call to a mission of reconciliation within the “kingdoms of this world.” The closing paragraphs of The Dream of God still resonate today, for those of us who care about the mission of the church, the people of God, in this aching and broken world. Here’s what she writes:

The people of God are called to a possibility other than the kingdoms of the world. They must be ambassadors—again, St. Paul’s word—to every part of life. They witness to another way that governments can relate to one another, that money can be earned and spent, that doctors and care-givers and engineers and lawyers and teachers can serve their constituencies, that wordsmiths and musicians and artists and philosophers can give us new visions of the human condition. That is the ministry of the laity.

All of them need the support system of the institutional church. There must be those resting places where the story is treasured and passed on in liturgy and education. There must be those islands of refuge where the wounded find healing; the confused, light; the fearful, courage, the lonely, community; the alienated, acceptance; the strong, gratitude. Maintaining such institutions is the ministry of the clergy.

We have all failed the dream of God. The terribly patient God still waits.

Dr Kathleen Henderson Staudt works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture. Her blog is at poetproph.blogspot.com.

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