Rest in Peace, Brother Williams

I got the news sometime last week in an email from my dad. I haven’t talked to anybody about it, mostly because death is dark and heavy and everyone, myself included, has things that are more immediately pressing on their minds. Death has not been a big part of my life so far, which I’m very grateful for, but this semester with the passing of Professor McKim-Smith and now with the news of Brother Williams passing away I’m learning what death looks like for the living, what it feels like to forget for a few hours and then remember out of nowhere the absence where there was once presence and feel like the wind was knocked out of me a little. It’s hard to talk about things that hurt but I would love to tell you about Brother Williams, a very important person who was uplifting to our community and who taught me things I’d like to share.

His first name was Gary, though I never would have called him that. To me he was Brother Williams, and he was a vital part of the religious community I grew up with. There was a lot about him that I don’t know: how many kids he had, what his career and schooling were like, what he did in his spare time. We never talked much but he taught me, and I think everyone else he was around, what we actually needed to be learning at church. I’ll be attending the congregation (we Mormons call them “wards”) where he served and attended again soon and I can’t imagine what church will be like without him. At least, I don’t like to imagine it.

Our ward is a big one with plenty of growing families so on Sundays we open the back of the chapel up to create overflow seating in the church gym. Every Sunday, Brother Williams would greet people entering church through the gym doors, handing them a program, helping them find a stretch of chairs long enough for all of their children, and wishing them a happy Sunday. I’m sure other Mormons will know what I’m talking about, but sitting in the overflow seating can carry some social stigma: usually it means that you’re late or that your kids are unruly, maybe both. Having come from a wonderful family full of energetic little ones who have been quite difficult to get in their Sunday best and out the door on time, I knew the overflow seating well. Now those kids are a little older and my parents are more often successful at getting them to church in time to find a pew where we can all fit, but often when I’m visiting home I’ll wake up after everyone else, take a spare minivan to church 20 minutes after services have begun, and sneak in during a hymn or a break between speakers.

Every time I arrived late to church, from the time my family moved into the neighborhood associated with this ward, I have psyched myself out and expected to be greeted by punishing stares, scrounging for a program, and a judgmental congregation and greeter probably wondering why I can’t get it together to be somewhere five minutes away from my house on time. Each time I arrive late to my home ward, I am reminded that this vision was somewhat delusional and definitely borne out of the judgment I felt towards myself, because every Sunday, regardless of when I arrive, I have been greeted by Brother Williams, who probably only knows me by general clan based on the kinds of screaming kids I carry out of the chapel, smiling at me like I’m exactly the person he was excited to see when he put on his tie. Brother Williams seemed to have some magical quality that conveyed to everyone around him, myself included, that we were okay, that we were just where we needed to be, that God loved us for our snooze-button mornings and fidgety kids and so did he. He seemed to focus his efforts not on those who more normatively fit the “model community member” mold, arriving fifteen minutes early with coloring books and quiet youngsters, but to those of us who needed him to remind us not to worry about other peoples’ judgment. Maybe his magical quality was just a deep, accepting, and uncomplicated love for everyone who walked through those doors, and perhaps the knowledge that giving and receiving the kind of love he had to offer us is probably the reason why going to church matters.

I also remember Brother Williams interacting with children. Bringing your kids to church can be exhausting, and the back of the gym, which is clear of chairs, is often where parents go to dance their babies around and play on the ground with wiggly toddlers. I have watched Brother Williams take countless babies from the arms of tired parents, inviting them to take a seat by themselves for a little while, while he entertained their adorable but tiresome child. He always seemed to have a sandwich bag full of raisins at the ready. I remember distinctly watching my then three-year old sister grow fussy in church until Brother Williams arrived on the scene with his trusty bag of raisins, smiling and feeding them to her until she settled down. Not only was he gentle and patient with every single child, he also seemed genuinely happy, even honored, to be part of helping parents and children get through church. Brother Williams exemplified a sacred power that is so vital to the Mormon community, which is the sanctity of the quotidian. Mormons know that a casserole on someone’s doorstep can be the holiest sacrament, that shoveling the driveway of a neighbor with a bad back can be up there with walking on water, and that driving the carpool to youth activities can be an incredible pilgrimage if these things are done with the kind of love Brother Williams exemplified in his divine program-distributing, his sacred smiling, and his holy raisin-feeding.