I didn’t think I would have much in common with the Colonel except Unitarian Universalism. I am about as socially, politically, religiously and otherwise liberal a person as you will find. What common ground would I find with a retired Army Colonel beyond Sunday’s sermon? Surely he’ll disagree with me on war, politics, and gays in the military among other things? The Colonel reinforced for me once again great lessons about labels – they are not for people.
He spoke to me about his time attending services at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, D.C. while A. Powell Davies was the minister. I also learned of his time at West Point, and his time serving with Omar Bradley in World War II. He was twice a prisoner of war. I learned we shared a lot in common beyond Unitarian Universalism, including a deep sense of justice, a love of books, and a desire to see a Unitarian Universalist presence in more places such as the military and nursing homes.
I was a student minister, an intern at First Parish Church, when I visited Colonel John Ray in an assisted living facility in Weston, MA. I visited the Colonel every week for two years. Together, we started a worship service for Protestants at the place where he lived, although at age 88 he was the chief organizer. I ate lunch with him and his companions there on many occasions. I met his daughter, his wife, and some other members of his family. He had lost some of his hearing and most of his vision. So, I would read to him – sometimes articles from UU World or something from a book he was working his way through with other helpers. Sometimes, I would bring Singing the Living Tradition and read the prayers and poems. While reading, we’d share our thoughts on them. Even after his stroke, sitting in his wheelchair, you could see the crisp young officer in him. Until his last days, he had a commanding presence. He always told me to call him John, that’s the way he was, personable and at ease, and I’m not a military type at heart myself, but to me he will always be Colonel Ray.
I went to visit Colonel Ray just before I left Massachusetts to move to Texas last August. In December, I received a sober phone call from Rev. Tom Wintle in Weston informing me that Colonel John Ray had died. It was the Colonel’s wish that I perform the memorial service along with Rev. Wintle. Colonel Ray requested three other things about his memorial service: that it be held under the flag pole at the family property in Gloucester, MA, that it be on July 4, and that it include the West Point Cadet Prayer.
Whatever you’re doing this Fourth of July, pray for me or think of me, and the Colonel. You know where we’ll be.