She spoke to the soul

It is seems strange to me, but I am grieving the death of a friend whom I have never seen in real life, at the same time we have “spoken” to as many as a dozen times a day as we worked together on the Episcopal Café over the past decade.

Over the years since the Café began, Ann Fontaine, who died this morning at her home, became a friend, trusted advisor, encourager, and muse. And did I mention, she also was a gadfly with a passion for justice and a church that would reflect the love and welcome of Jesus?

I think we first actually met long before the Café on a list-serve for General Convention deputies on the old Ecunet, and then when the interwebs came of age, a bunch of us started blogging. Many of us developed friendships over the airwaves.

When the Café newsteam was started over a decade ago, most of us were strangers. It was an exercise in energy, enthusiasm, and trust. We were doing something new and we were learning how to do it as we went along. Almost all of our work was on-line. It was a new way of relating and collaborating. Very quickly, we found that we needed someone with an eye towards “what was up” in the church, and that frequently was Ann.

She had this way of saying “I will ask so-and-so what they think about…” this or that issue. I thought Ann knew everyone in the entire Episcopal Church, because she’d send these e-mails and get answers! Well, she did know a lot of people… and the rest she just reached out and asked!

Jim Naughton, our first editor of the Café, wrote this to Ann after we learned of her admission to hospice.

Thank you for all of the hours—unto years now, no doubt—that you have poured into Episcopal Café. Thank you for your wider ministry in the church. Thank you for your unwavering belief in transparency and accountability. Thank you for pushing to flatten the hierarchies that keep our church and our society from becoming the communities that God intends. You made me work harder and examine my own biases and motives more closely than anyone else I encountered during the years I have worked in the church, and, while I wasn’t always grateful for it at the time, I am grateful for it now. Please know that much of what you have begun, others will carry on, and much of what you have carried, others will carry further. Your legacy already lives, and those whom you have touched, piqued, cajoled, provoked, irritated, inspired and otherwise awoken will make sure that it flourishes.

I once wrote an authors’ line for a piece you’d written with someone else, and after mentioning the credentials of the first writer, I said something like, “Everybody knows who Ann Fontaine is,” or words to that effect. In the online Episcopal Church, it was darn near true. You made a mark, and you made a difference.

Another member of the original Café team, John Chilton, wrote

There was barely a day in all those years that there wasn’t an email to the newsteam for The Lead from Ann sharing news to use in posts on the Café or debating how to approach a story. Typically her emails were terse to the point of being on the edge of annoyingly cryptic. But that was who she was. She had this amazing communications network and she didn’t have time in her busy day but stating the bottomline. We had to figure out how she got there. At least that’s how I experienced working with Ann all these years.

Café contributing editor Cara Modisett writes:

It’s one of the first summery nights in western North Carolina, and the cicadas are out at Kanuga where many have gathered for the Episcopal Communicators conference.

It was two years ago at this very conference that I met Ann face to face, in Portland, Oregon, when we were both at Trinity to hear Bishop Michael Curry preach, and after a short string of texts (“In sanctuary” – “I have my collar on!! Halfway back center aisle”) we found each other and embraced in the middle of that cathedral nave, as if we’d met many times before.

We’d gotten to know each other through our work on Episcopal Cafe, where Ann’s voice was a constant, strong, opinionated and savvy presence. She was a constant in our e mail threads, sending story ideas, seeking out information and stepping in to post when someone was sick or out of town.

These past few weeks I felt undeservedly blessed to spend some time in long-distance conversations with her, and so wish I’d had more time with her, across the country. She talked, as always, about life and living, about the church, about ordination and professors and lay ministry and seminary and protest marches and traveling and how place becomes, or remains, home – whether the oceans of the west coast or the mountains of the east.

I know she’s home, and I can hear her straightforward Ann voice, her mind at work. I will miss her energy, her straightforward kindness, her strong presence, her constant inspiration.

My own memory of Ann goes beyond the Café. I experienced her pastoral heart, even electronically. She offered encouragement to me in my ministry, often starting with a simple note asking something like “How are you?” or “I see that such and so is going on in your diocese. Are you okay?”

Maybe the reign of God is like this. We have dear friends knit together by bonds that defy space and time but are intimately connected by the love of God in relationship to Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

Ann nearly single-handedly carried Speaking to the Soul – gathering authors, editing, managing. All one needs to do is read the comments to those essays and see that an appreciative audience has continued to build. Seeing that, it does not seem so odd that such a friendship could develop on-line.

She communicated Jesus in strikingly powerful and ordinary ways. When she told us that she had been admitted to hospice, she wrote in a way that was real, reassuring (to us), and reflective. She told us she was okay. And she was.

John said it well: “Ann put her heart and soul and mind into the Café, and from what I can tell she brought that intensity to the rest of her life as well.”

I will miss all those daily e-mails. Most of all, I will miss this dear person of God who spoke to our souls.

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