Today is All Saints’ Day, one of the major feast days of the Church, and one of my favorite Sundays of the year. This first day in November is the time that we remember the saints of the church – all of them, those who are important and have their own day on the church calendar, and the ones who may only be remembered by God.
It’s the day we remember our own saints, those who we have loved who are now part of what St. Paul calls “that great cloud of witnesses.”
That great cloud has grown significantly this year. Our reading from Ecclesiasticus today calls us to sing the praises of famous men and women who have died, and there is certainly no shortage of them this year.
There were great actors like Sean Connery and Chadwick Boseman, great athletes like Kobe Bryant and Whitey Ford, great entertainers like Helen Reddy, Little Richard, John Prine, and Kenny Rogers.
There was the great NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, whose life inspired the movie Hidden Figures.
There was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a lifelong champion of the rights of women and any who are marginalized by the law.
There were Civil Rights greats Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and John Lewis.
There were those whose deaths reminded us of the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equality — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
There were beloved members of this parish — Nancy Young, Mary Kathryn Wolfson, and Bob Trukenbrod — who we will remember at the altar later in this service.
But as historians look back on the year 2020, the deaths that will stand out are not any of these. This year will forever be known in history as the year of the pandemic.
So far this year the coronavirus has claimed the death of almost 1.2 million people, including more than 230,000 in this country. Health experts predict that with the recent surge in cases we may soon be seeing two to three thousand deaths a day here.
These numbers are so large that it is hard to comprehend them. We can become numb to the relentless illness and death that surround us.
Today we remember that each one of those 1.1 million deaths throughout the world, each one of those 230,000 Americans was a beloved child of God.
These are not just numbers and statistics. These are individual lives each of whom made a mark on the world, each of whom was beloved by family and friends.
So on this All Saints’ Day I’d like to remember three of the 230,000 American lives lost. These are not the lives of the rich and famous, but ordinary people whose ordinary lives are worth remembering.
* * *
Ralph Parker, a Marietta resident, died of coronavirus earlier this month.
His career was in the insurance industry, but his passion was helping refugees.
It all began with a Thanksgiving project through work.
“He decided that it would be great to bring in food for those less fortunate,” his wife Rona remembers. “He got names and addresses from the World Relief group. We went around to different families, and from that we made some wonderful friendships,” she said.
From that experience Parker began working with Bosnian refugees fleeing the 1990s war, then began helping those who left Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and other trouble spots.
Parker coordinated food and blanket drives, helped adults get jobs, and tutored children in math and English. He went to bat for families trapped in shabby apartments and rent disputes.
He helped refugees decipher the complexities of America, and took them on outings around the city.
He developed a special affinity for Bhutanese Nepali refugees because they, like him, held family in high regard. He co-founded the National Bhutanese Refugee Empowerment Project.
Many of those he helped became extended family. Rona Parker says when they visited a family “the minute the kids saw us they’d run up and say, ‘Hey, Uncle Ralph, Aunt Rona.’ They loved every minute we were there. Ralph would be really goofy and pretend he was a zombie and chase them all over the house, and they loved it.”
Parker was 73 when he died from Covid-19 on October 13.
* * *
Kenneth Saunders III joined his first local board at 18 and never stopped trying to improve his suburban Atlanta community.
He made a name for himself as an optimistic peacemaker in the sometimes heated world of neighborhood politics, especially in the community he lived in near Stone Mountain.
“I don’t think he had biased eyes in any direction,” his father, Kenneth Saunders Jr. said. “You have issues that come between the white and Black politicians, but he had friends on both sides. Even if he was opposed to them, he would work with them.”
From an early age, Saunders had a special aptitude for data, computers, and music. He played the trumpet, and was a member of the band that performed during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
He studied civil engineering at Southern Polytechnic College, then began his own technology and travel business.
Politics captured his interest early. At age 18 he joined the board of the Hidden Hill Civic Association, which represents about 1,650 homeowners in the community near Stone Mountain., He would become its vice president, as well as the president of the South DeKalb Improvement Association, and a member of the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals.
He had his eye on higher office, but mostly he just wanted to make the world better for the people around him, said his friend of 20 years Kathryn Rice.
“He was a peacemaker who always seemed to work toward what was best for everybody.”
Kenneth Saunders III died of the coronavirus on April 18. He was 43.
* * *
Deb Stevers was a nurse in the Coronary Care Unit in a Gainesville, Georgia hospital for 15 years, where colleagues called her “Mama Deb.”
“She took many new nurses under her wing and nurtured them through the early years of their careers,” hospital president Carol Burrell said.
“Debbie was my friend and colleague,” Sharma Carter wrote in tribute, “This news has literally broken my heart. Mama Deb was not only one of the most amazing nurses I have ever been privileged to work with, she was an amazing human.
“You meet good people in your life, but Deb was a level up. She used her God-given ability to see other people and meet them where they were.
“Her smile, laughter, and good nature just permeated others. She really was larger than life. Contagious kindness and happiness were her marks.
“The grief is deep for all who knew and touched her. This really hurts.”
Deb Stevers died from the coronavirus on May 12, after weeks in the hospital. She was 61.
* * *
Ralph Parker, Kenneth Saunders III, Deb Stevers — more than just statistics. Children of God, known and beloved by God, now part of that great cloud of witnesses.
Today as we celebrate the Eucharist, we will remember the names of those saints who we still love, but see no longer. All Saints’ Day is one of those times when the veil between this life and the next seems to be momentarily lifted, when we sense the presence of that great cloud of witnesses surrounding us at God’s table.
Scripture tells us something about their number. They come from every nation and tribe and people and language. They neither hunger nor thirst, nor suffer, nor cry because God has wiped away every tear. They feast at a banquet of rich foods and well-aged wines.
Today as we gather here and online we stand with those whom we love and miss, and remember and name today.
We do so knowing that this Eucharist joins us with all the saints. Those who are famous and those who are unknown. Those whom we remember with love, and those of whom there is no memory.
All present with God, and with us in this holy communion.