Friday, November 18, 2011

Remembering Ellen

I don't remember the first time that I met Ellen Kepley. Surely, it was within my first few weeks of becoming the secretary at Orange United Methodist Church, but it isn't stuck in my memory. At that time, Ellen was still working at UNC, so she wasn't able to devote as much time as she wanted to the church. She would say all the time, "I can't wait until I can retire and spend my time here!"

That was 1989. The only full-time staff member was Rene Bideaux, the pastor. I had graduated from seminary, but needed a job for a year. The church hired me as secretary, but allowed me to do all that i wanted-- including lead in worship on Sundays and teach 2 year old Sunday school!
My strongest memory of that year of Ellen was actually when I left! She took me to lunch at the Carolina Inn and gave me a beautiful poreclain tape dispenser. What I remember about this is that Ellen was so gracious to me. It also formed my image of her as a "Southern Lady."
But, it was when I returned to Orange UMC two years later as Minister of Visitation, that I came to know Ellen as friend and second mother. From Ellen, I learned the art of hospitality. She taught me a lot about cooking and gardens. I learned about the history of Homestead Road and Orange Church.
Ellen told the story of how her father hauled the logs that built "The Hut." She also said that when she was growing up and Homestead Road was a dirst road, her father could tell you'd been down the road by the tracks in it! What change she saw on that road, in her beloved Chapel Hill, and in her church!
In many ways, Ellen embodied the spirit of Orange Church. I have no doubt that almost any member who joined that church after 1990 will say that she was at the door, greeting them-- standing next to the pastor. During the years when Rene was pastor, visitors often mistook her for his wife! But, often on Sunday afternoons or evenings, Ellen would go home and call everyone who had visited the church. When she would "report" to the staff about these calls, we were always amazed by what she had learned about the visitors!
Ellen had a true gift for making people feel comfortable and welcome. She understood what it meant to people to find a place to "belong" and she wanted Orange Church to be a place where everyone could find a welcoming community and a spiritual home.
When we adopted Jessie, Ellen hosted the church's "baby" shower for us. What was so wonderful about that event is that she hosted it with Velna, her brother's wife, and two "newer" members, Julie Pickett and Debbie Bettis. Ellen was a life-long member of Orange Church, but she always knew that meant that she had responsibility for making "new" members feel welcome.
I was blessed to have Ellen as a second "mother" when my own mother died of cancer. Ellen knew that I needed someone and she reached out to me. For a time, I met her every morning at 6 a.m. to walk. She could have done that anytime with several of her friends, but I appreciated the special care that she so willingly gave me by giving me that time with her.
I had just learned of Ellen's illness a few weeks ago. I had wanted to call and talk with her, but all I could think of to say was "I love you." It seemed like too little to express all that she had given me at a time in my life when I needed so much. I am so grateful that God let me be a part of Ellen's life for a time. I am grateful that Ellen embodied God's love so beautifully in so many ways. Ellen blessed me, but what is more true than anything is that Ellen blessed so very many lives with her smile, her welcoming hand, a plate of food, and most of all her loving heart!

No comments: