With the closing of Sixty-First Avenue UMC in west Nashville June 24, memories are crowding thoughts these days. Being in community and having made so many friends over these last 20 years provides a jumble of faces and names and events and feelings. Putting order and perspective to those thoughts immediately brings Raymond Hampton to the forefront, though he was not a child we tutored. Rather, he tutored us!
Raymond was not only a member of the congregation of Sixty-First, he was instrumental in the formation of the structure it offered around serving the homeless population. He was on again, off again homeless himself, though he would not have characterized it that way…because from 1998 forward, his home was this church and its people. Pastor Paul, and Nita and Brenda were his family.
If I remember the story accurately, it was Raymond who suggested to Pastor Paul they have a Saturday evening meal and provide a way for the homeless to be present, both for the meal and worship following the meal.
I have not known anyone just exactly like Raymond! He had the quickest smile I have experienced….in spite of his struggles, he engaged with those around him. I learned over the years he wanted to be part of whatever was going on but often wanted to be asked! Somehow that piece was very important to him! I can remember driving around Brentwood to pick up some furniture and household goods for someone in the Sixty-First congregation who was getting an apartment. I arrived there to drop off part of the load…and Raymond was there. He watched me start to unload and stood smiling. I called out to him to come help me and he laughed and shook his head. I learned this was not his way of saying no, it was his way of inviting more conversation and affirmation. So I said, “come on, Raymond, I know you want to help me—-you are my brother in Christ” and he was at my side in a few seconds! Something similar happened one Saturday morning when I was participating with members of Franklin First UMC in their Great Day of Service. Several of us were cleaning flower beds in front of the church, pruning and mulching. Raymond was nearby and I asked him to help me carry a big bag of mulch. He, again, shook his head but stepped right up when I kidded with him! Like families do. Wow, I recall so clearly both of us down in the dirt working together!
Interestingly, in all the years I knew Raymond, he never asked for anything for himself. Being his friend was what he valued.
I can’t possibly share every story here but there were many. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him for a stretch. Once he was in jail for an alcohol related, non violent issue—and I wrote him a letter and sent him chocolates. Well, guess what? I did not realize then you aren’t allowed to send chocolates so they were sent back. They did allow him the letter which mentioned the chocolates so he knew I had tried. Later, he laughed and laughed because I didn’t know “the rules” but underneath it was a lovely moment.
Raymond died suddenly a few years ago. I had seen him two weeks prior at a Saturday night service. He was selling papers for the Contributor at that time and was so proud. We all bought papers from him and engaged in conversation. My last memory was his smile and laughter that night. Those were never absent with Raymond around.
He was buried in a paupers’ cemetery. The graveside service was conducted by Pastor Paul Slentz. Rules are pretty strict around services in these set apart portions of cemeteries so the service consisted of a gathering of people who had scant time to celebrate a life. The grave diggers were across a ditch from us. His pine box coffin was placed beside them. I remember calling out to one of them, saying “thank you for digging our friend’s grave” and he responded “he sure was a young man.” Indeed he was in his 40’s as I recall. The gravedigger also told us we could take our time! That was a gift we had not expected! I wish I had Pastor Paul’s words to share from that day. As always, they were loving and comforting and evidence of Raymond’s victory over death. He loved Raymond as Raymond loved him. I have attended several funerals over the years of members of Sixty-First but I believe this was the hardest. Raymond was part of the landscape of the community and congregation. He is still missed, as are many others.
Pastor Paul Slentz taught me a lot through Raymond as well as others. The most important thing he taught me was to love people where they are. Not where we want them to be, perhaps not even where they want to be. But God meets us there.
I have been to three funerals now at paupers’ cemeteries. It has always bothered me. When my own mother died in 2015, I remember sitting in the sanctuary prior to the service. No one else was actually in the space yet as a luncheon was being served for our family. Her coffin was before me. I was struggling mightily and, oddly, thought back to Raymond’s funeral as I sat. And it struck me that it mattered not their funerals were so different, one seemingly more “proper” than the other. I realized, almost as an epiphany, the same God welcomed them both home and nothing else was of consequence.
Raymond left home at the age of nine. I really like to think of him as being home again.