This week, I had an experience that sent me on a side jaunt in my search for community. Rather than looking to others to provide me with one, I started to wonder, what role can I play in creating it for myself and for others? These gentle inner whisperings were prompted by the passing of a long-time member of my faith community, Larry Kramer.
When I hear the name Larry Kramer, one word comes to mind, as if it is the definitive one: humility. I once discovered through happenstance that Larry had known some of the most well-known Baha'is of the last century, like Dorothy Baker who traveled throughout the world to bring people of various backgrounds together in community. Not only had he known people, like Dorothy Baker, who have books written about them; he'd worked side by side with them in consultative settings. But, when I asked Larry about this he simply grinned, lowered his head towards his chest and laughed a little before confirming it. When his gaze returned to mine, I saw small tears had formed. He often wept when he told stories.
"I became a Baha'i at 18," he said, "and at age 22, I was appointed to this committee. I walked into the hotel room where the first meeting was to take place and there was Dorothy Baker, Sarah Pereira and Amelia Collins." All of these women were at least twice his age, if not older.
"I thought I was in the wrong room," he continued. "So, I said, 'excuse me' and started to back out through the door. Before I could leave, they called me back in and said 'No, this is where you belong.'"
He reported never once feeling as though these women, who each could have easily been his mother, thought he was just 21 or that he was just a new Baha'i. They interacted with him on equal footing, as peers. They didn't lower themselves to become 18. They simply spoke with him as adults.
Perhaps those women provided an example Larry carried with him for the rest of his life. Or perhaps his humility developed innately. In any case, e didn't advertise this experience or hold it up as evidence of any superior wisdom. He wore no insignia on the front of his shirt claiming success in this or that. Rather, if asked, he spoke about this experience and other achievements as though he felt grateful. And he spoke with me, who could have been his granddaughter, as though he could learn from me.
He also possessed a unique ability to interact as a peer with people of all ages without becoming younger himself. I remember the year I met Larry, I stood on the steps of the Baha'i Temple one evening after a community event, engrossed in a detailed conversation with another 20-something. Larry sauntered up to us. I said, "Hello Mr. Kramer." And he said, as though laying down a rule, "Larry." And from that point on, I bit my tongue every time I got the urge to use an honorific in reference to him.
As long as Larry could stand on his own two feet, I would ask him to greet guests as they came in to community events. One time, his fellow usher was an eleven year old girl. I handed them both half of the stack of programs for the evening and as I walked away, I heard Larry ask the girl "So, how would you like to divide up our task for this evening?"
After his passing, a friend of mine told me that she once got stuck in a traffic jam with Larry and he and the other women in the vehicle became engrossed in a discussion of the merits of Buffy and the Vampire Slayer. She says he knew the show well enough to talk about its finer points.
With humility as his calling card, Larry quietly offered friendship to many people. Many stories have surfaced since his passing, usually starting with the line "I used to drive Larry to events." He went to everything he could and according to one of his family members, he looked forward to chatting in the car as much as he looked forward to seeing "all the friends" at the event itself.
The telephone, it seems, provided Larry another venue to extend a friendly embrace. One woman twenty years his junior says they spoke by phone three to four times a week, sometimes in relation to a project they were working on and sometimes just to chat.
As well, a woman in her twenties, who is caring for three young children at home, says he called her before each Holy Day to ensure she knew about the occasion and where it would be celebrated. He'd then read prayers with her over the phone. "I'm going to miss those calls," she said on my Facebook page.
And I'm going to miss Larry. I wept a little at the graveside, a Larry kind of weeping, if I can be bold and say that. A mixture of gratitude and sadness welled up. Sadness that something has ended - that I won't get to see him anymore. But, gratitude that our lives overlapped long enough that I got to see examples of what it means to be a builder of community.