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Faith in Vermont: A Life Lived Deeply

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Posted on June 19, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Until our family moved to Vermont, I had very little exposure to people aged 65 or older – the demographic often referred to as “senior citizens,” but which I prefer to think of as “elders.”

I wasn’t alone; our ultra-mobile society, with its emphasis on education and achievement, encourages young people to follow educational and employment opportunities. As my husband and I moved from college to early jobs to graduate school in major metropolitan areas, we were primarily surrounded by members of our own generation – give or take a decade at most.

Vermont, as many Vermonters know, is aging faster than the rest of the United States: The 2015 census put Vermont’s median age at 42.8, which ties Vermont with New Hampshire for second oldest state in the nation (after Maine.) Caring for the aged is a growth industry here. 

That Vermont is an elderly state may have something to do with why I came into closer contact with my elders after we moved here. But the main reason is our church.

The church that my family attends, Memorial Baptist, has an age distribution of roughly 12 months to 91 years in the pews each Sunday. Because the congregation is small -- about 60-70 people in church on a given week -- there’s little opportunity for people to form cliques based on age; you rub shoulders with babies and nonagenarians alike. 

This June 7, our church and our community lost one of our best elders: my 91-year-old friend Persis Rowe.

Persis’s husband, the late Reverend Gerald Rowe, was our church’s beloved pastor for 27 years. When my family first began attending Memorial Baptist in 2011, his health had taken a sharp decline. Still, he showed up in church most Sundays, Persis always at his side. He passed away in 2014, at the age of 93; he and Persis were married for 67 years. 

I got to know Persis in 2015. In March of that year, I was asked to drive her to a women’s retreat in New Hampshire. I agreed, but felt intimidated at the thought of 90 minutes alone in my car with our church’s grande dame. What could we possibly have to talk about?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried: Persis talked the entire time. She talked about growing up as an only child (a fate we shared) in Rutland. She pointed out Bethel Bible Camp, where she played piano (she was an accomplished musician and taught piano for many years), and where the recreational field was called “Rowe Field” because Gerald was a fixture in the annual softball game. She talked about meeting Gerald at age 16 and marrying him at age 18, after she’d refused his proposal multiple times because she didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife. She talked about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, all of whom she loved dearly.  

These were many of the same stories that she related in our church service a month ago (her daughter read her testimony, since Persis had laryngitis.) But our family’s favorite Persis story – one we laughed over at dinner even after hearing that she’d left us – was about the time she and Gerald, as newlyweds, had just moved to Schenectady, New York, to pastor the Advent Christian Church. Persis was stopped at a light, with Vermont plates still on her car. A couple of New York men, figuring her for a country bumpkin, pulled up behind and gave her rear bumper a tap. Persis, proving she was no hayseed, threw her car into reverse and tapped them right back.

She was tough, all right. After retiring, she and Gerald lived in a house they’d built up the mountain in Ripton. One recent winter Sunday, after a particularly nasty snow-and-ice storm, someone went to pick up Persis for church and found that a big tree had come down across her driveway. Persis, undeterred, walked down the driveway, climbed over the tree, and got into the car. Whenever we felt like making excuses for staying home from church, my husband would say, “You know that Persis is going to get there, though.” 

The last real conversation I had with Persis was this March during Holy Week – the week before Easter. Our church held brief morning devotional services every day that week, and after one of them I sat and chatted with Persis. She talked to me about her great-grandchildren, and asked me about homeschooling my daughters. When we stood up to leave, she hugged me and said, “You’re such an encouragement to me.”

That benediction echoed in my head all day, and it echoes still – not because I thought it was true, but because I thought it wasn’t. I felt in no position to be an encouragement to anybody, least of all to Persis Rowe, who’d spent decades being an encouragement to everybody. That very morning, in order to make it to a 7 AM devotional service, I’d awoken at the crack of dawn and raced through poultry-keeping, breakfast-making, and daughter-readying chores, all the while feeling bitterness and frustration towards my nearest and dearest for needing me so much. That was my state when I entered church. 

Persis, having been the mother of little people herself, could probably guess all this; still, she called me an encouragement. And although I didn’t think it was true, I wanted it to be true. I wanted to be the kind of person who might encourage Persis Rowe.

Persis, through her grace and kindness, called you to be a better version of yourself. 

Persis’s memorial service will be the third I’ve attended at our church; the previous two were for Marvin and Marguerite Holden, a couple of similarly inspiring elders. My guess is that our pastor might say the same thing for Persis that she said for Marvin and Marguerite: That Persis didn’t live a broad life – a life of far-flung travel, professional accomplishments, or fame. Most people in the world weren’t fortunate to know Persis. But she lived a deep life – a life of great love, of caring for her community, of living out her faith. So, in the end, Persis’s life has become broad, because of her impact on the hundreds of people she encountered, on young people who have moved all over the world, on me and my children. 

She wasn’t consciously striving to make her mark, but one could argue that her life left a deeper imprint than the lives of many who strive. 

Having known Persis, the Holdens, and other elders, I am now convinced of the surpassing value of a small life lived deeply. The words we say, the mundane things we do every day, the quiet kindnesses we think nobody notices – these are the very things that reverberate through generations. 

 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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