Last year I was asked by a friend to write a short monologue for Jessie Fremont Traver Moore, a woman who’d spent most of her adult life as a missionary in Assam, India. It was for an original theater experience in the Sand Lake (NY) Town Cemetery called Amazing Graves. It featured monologues from a number of the cemetery’s dead residents to benefit the Sand Lake Town Library, where I used to be a trustee.
Since I had inveigled this friend into taking my spot on said board of trustees when I left town, I owed her. And of course I was happy to support the library.
Except…was she kidding? She wanted ME to write from the point of view of a Baptist missionary?
My Episcopal church family knows I’m a faithful parishioner but not a very pious one. I would rate myself a 1 out of 10 on ability to earnestly participate in spontaneous prayer. I’m mostly silent in group discussion of scripture. My evangelism consists of suggesting we have free bread and coffee and conversation on Saturday mornings and advocating in a more general way for justice and mercy.
If there are moments in my novels that suggest Christian belief might not be pointless or ridiculous — THE AWFUL MESS comes to mind — I try very hard not to bash anyone over the head with it.
Maybe this arises from an agnostic childhood. To this day my birth family finds my beliefs peculiar. And, even as a believer, I’m on the skeptical end of the spectrum. A lot of Christian rituals strike me as deeply cultural (and patriarchal and superstitious) ways of sharing the fundamental message of God’s love. I suspect I feel at home in the Episcopal tradition mostly because it’s so Anglican (yep, I’m an English major) and because the national church is decidedly liberal.
Even so, I don’t believe Episcopal practice is inherently superior to any other faith tradition that preaches love and forgiveness instead of hate and exclusion. Including non-Christian traditions.
I have attended Baptist services and Methodist services and Congregationalist services. I have also attended Christian and Missionary Alliance services, where missionary work truly is the focus of that congregation’s outreach. But whenever people talk about missionaries, I automatically wonder what the native people think of these white people coming in and trying to win their souls for Christ. Especially given some pretty brutal, imperialistic history connected to those efforts.
So I was leery of Jessie Fremont Traver Moore. But she surprised me.
She was named Fremont after an abolitionist candidate for President who lost. So in her family there wasn’t any of that blindness to the evils of slavery and of racism that we tend to associate with American Evangelicals today — not that this is necessarily fair.
And what a woman Traver Moore was! She left published journals behind, some of which her descendant in town loaned me, and another of which I found on Google, so I got to hear her official version of her life. I had to read between the lines for the unofficial version, of course, but there were hints of it there. (I never got the feeling Mrs. Moore suffered fools gladly.)
Here’s a woman who trained in seminary and crossed the globe multiple times by sea (the last time right as WWI broke out), going into regions where poverty and disease were rampant. In Nowgong, the village where she and her husband based their work, the Moores learned the native language, translated books to it, published them, and taught in it. The school they started there is still educating students today.
You can read the entire short monologue (which got a few edits from the descendant, Dee Erickson), but this is my favorite part:
In Assam we not only brought many Assamese to Christ, we started a school that eventually was educating over 100 girls, Hindus and Muslims as well as Christians. We participated in the civic life of Nowgong, and I counted many lovely Hindu and Muslim ladies among my acquaintance, even those who did not feel compelled to accept Jesus despite my best efforts to share the Good News with them over tea in their homes. In my diaries – which, by the way, I published — I remarked how I nonetheless hoped I would see them in heaven.
Now, I would forgive you for thinking at this point that since I have clearly passed already I could tell you whether I have met with those lovely ladies in heaven, but I’m afraid I have not been authorized to reveal any information about what comes next. We who are dead leave all that gazing into mirrors darkly to you.
You might be interested to read the other monologues, too. I’d start with the introduction and then follow the gravestone links for each. It was fascinating to see how the Rent Wars in particular foreshadowed some debates we’re still having today. (If you don’t think who you vote for ever matters, read this.)
A BARDWELL’S FOLLY update
The Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of BARDWELL’S FOLLY is up on NetGalley for most of November, and reviewers are welcome to request a copy. I’m not actually the person who decides who gets these, but if you are a blogger or reviewer who might potentially give the book some play, you should be approved (if not, let me know!).
My pub date of November 29 sure is coming up fast. Too fast, really, since the end of the semester and Christmas are also racing into view. If you want me to reserve a signed author copy for you, please do let me know so I can get it to you before Christmas. And if you’d like to attend a reading or a launch party, let me know that, too, through any channel.