Remembering Lauretta White – 1929-2017
December 17, 2017

Remembering Lauretta White – 1929-2017

Remembering Lauretta White

I must admit – for years now I’ve known that, if Lauretta were to die while I was still rector at St. John’s, the New Testament reading at her funeral should surely be this story about Tabitha in the book of Acts. Doesn’t it just sound like Lauretta?

She’s a woman who’s known for doing good and helping the poor. And when she dies all the widows pull out the robes and clothing that Tabitha had made for them to demonstrate – not merely her talent – but her love and generosity. Kind of like this church today.

Lauretta made this altar cloth.

She made the chasuble I’m wearing.

She made all these banners for the church displayed in front of you now.

The pews are draped in quilts she’s made and given away to many of you.

And I assure you, last week if I’d had the power or the faith of St. Peter, I would surely have prayed for Lauretta to be raised from the dead. I’d certainly rather be celebrating a miracle than her funeral.

But here we are instead, surrounded by the memories of this woman we loved and these artifacts stitched by her love.

It’s a funny story she told about this altar cloth. I think it was Fr. John who asked her to make it. Given the color palette, I have no problem believing that this happened sometime in the mid-60’s! And, apparently, before the church was remodeled, they used to leave it unlocked all the time. And Lauretta was here alone late one night, under the altar (!) hemming the new altar cloth, when she heard somebody walk into the church. It kind of scared her. So she didn’t say anything – she just stayed there under the altar waiting for whomever it was to leave. “Well what’d you do while you were waiting?” I asked her. “Kept hemming,” she said.

I don’t know how long it’s been since it was used in a worship service. Gold isn’t one of the liturgical colors, so I’m not really sure what Fr. John had in mind when he commissioned it, but I’m awfully proud to be able to use it today. This chasuble was actually on display at the Harbor History Museum just a few years ago in a show they’d created about the history of faith and worship in Gig Harbor. St. John’s is one of the older churches in our community, and it was so fitting to have Lauretta’s work displayed and honored.

Because, not only does she represent years of worship at St. John’s, Lauretta’s family is one of the old Gig Harbor families. Her grandfather Murphy first came to Gig Harbor in 1883. He split and sold cedar shakes around the Puget Sound area. That same grandfather built the schoolhouse that’s since been moved to the museum. In fact, that’s the school that Lauretta started out in.

She was the youngest five children. Two are still alive: Alice, who moved to Northport a few years back to live with her daughter; and Chink who’s here today. They were raised with their folks on a farm not too far away. Lauretta would always say that she didn’t know they were poor, because her family was so full of love. And it was that love that made her feel so rich.

She was a spirited child (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, since – it’s safe to say – she was a fairly spirited old lady)! She loved to run, and she was fast. Really fast. Beat all the boys fast. And even in her last years, that was a point of pride for her. And she had a strong throwing arm. In addition to beating all the boys in foot races, she liked to play “Burn Out” with them. If I’ve got the gist of the game right – that’s where you take turns throwing the ball back and forth, harder and harder, until someone eventually burns out. Well, apparently she was always the victor. Her dad asked her once, “Well, what are you going to do? Marry the first guy you can’t burn out?”

Well. Turns out, the answer was “Yes.” Enter Russell White: tall, lean, handsome baseball player, Russell White. He wooed her for a while (apparently not the only one attempting the prize) and they were married on August 14, 1948 when Lauretta was 19 years old. Had she lived another eight months, they would have celebrated their 70th Anniversary. He might have been able to burn her out with a baseball, but their love and pride in each other was a thing that could never be burnt out. They were one of those extraordinary couples who were always together because there was no other placed either desired to be. When they learned that Lauretta’s cancer was terminal, Russell was determined to get as much out of every day with her that he could. And surely they lived out their vows to each other, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.”

In these past few months she and I spoke often about death. She was looking forward to the reunion with her folks and all those she loved. And she was kind of curious about the whole thing: “I’ve always loved an adventure,” she said. But she was anxious about the lonesomeness of dying, that – at the end – it was a journey of separation from all those surrounding her. “I don’t like to be alone,” she said. “That’s what I didn’t like about parasailing. You had to go up alone.” Bless her. There’s Lauretta in a nutshell.

But apart from her zest for life and her adventurous spirit, Lauretta’s legacy was one of compassion and love. Just like Tabitha in the Bible reading, she had a great heart for the wounded, the outcast, the strays. All the people society rejected, Lauretta reached out to, even when it was to her own detriment. One of her chief sorrows in life was that she never was able to become a foster parent to a “Welfare Child,” even though she tried. She and Russell were part of St. John’s prison ministry for a while, until she got in trouble for breaking the rules by hugging one of the inmates. “I’m sorry,” she wrote, “but when she reached out for me, she was reaching out for Jesus and I was there. I could feel a charge of electricity moving back and forth between us.”[1]

And I don’t doubt it. Lauretta’s spirit was well-tuned to the spiritual world. She felt and saw and heard things that others couldn’t perceive. As a child, one night, she was filled with dread – worried that her brother would be killed in the war. But while praying she heard God tell her that the war would be over before Chink had even left the country. She knew what she’d heard was true and her fear left her immediately. The next day she told her mother rather matter-of-factly just what God had told her. And sure enough, that’s exactly how it happened. When she was in her mid-twenties, at a Maundy Thursday service at the old Log Cabin Church, she had a vision of Jesus, walking her down to the altar. It was so clear that it wasn’t until much later that she realized she was the only one who experienced it. Years later, while praying the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France, she had a mystical vision of Mother Mary that was instrumental in her long journey of learning to forgive. And there were many times, when here in this church alone or with her family, she’d see that door open and close on its own – and she would hear angelic choirs. Actually – she wasn’t alone in that – Russell and Dennis have both told me that they heard it to.

But it wasn’t all mysticism and visions. That was just one aspect of a robust and living spirituality. Lauretta sought to pattern her life in the way of God. She would often show up in my office to discuss her spiritual life. She and Russell took part in spiritual retreats and workshops because they wanted to keep growing in their faith. Soon after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer she called me to her bedside. She shooed Russell and everyone else out of the room. I thought she wanted to talk about dying. But no, turned out she wanted to talk about living – about concerns she had in her spiritual life and how to go about various aspects of her faith.

And it was this woman – this faith filled, loving, eye-rolling, quilt making, “don’t-make-a-fuss-over-me” woman, who drew us all into her orbit. She never claimed to be more than she was – and why would she? – for who she was, was more than enough to fill us with admiration and love.

All of us here will miss her. But our hearts go out especially to her family: to Alice and Chink; to Russell; to her children – Wendy, Denise, Dennis, Shauna; to her grandchildren – Chris, Marci, Jason, Chad, and Tim; to Danika, her great-granddaughter. You are blessed to have been kin to this woman. Had I the power to raise her from the dead, I would. But as a minister of the church I declare the great miracle of faith, that she is risen with Christ to the heavenly places – but not before showing us first a vision of that Christ through her and her extraordinary love.

[1] Quoted from a letter she wrote to Fr. Eric, describing the experience. (March 2013)