Celebrating Elizabeth Kemp
Our friend Elizabeth Kemp ~ a bride married to Amazement. She made home for
Today we celebrate the life of a woman whom we have cherished in our beloved community
of Emmaus. Here Elizabeth found a home - a sisterhood and a brotherhood of people
walking together seeking a new experience of god. A more humane spirituality based on
our desire to transform ourselves – to break open our hearts which would lead us to act for
justice. It was about the complete circle of life – the woman’s experience of god.
I think Elizabeth would have said with Joan Chittister “It is precisely women’s experience of
God that this world lacks. A world that does not nurture its weakest, does not know God the
birthing mother. A world that does not preserve the planet, does not know God the creator.
A world that does not honor the spirit of compassion, does not know God the spirit.
God the lawgiver, God the judge, God the omnipotent being, have consumed Western
spirituality and, in the end, shriveled its heart.”
Elizabeth made a conscious decision that her heart would only expand – and she did that
by creating home wherever she was and by serving – answering the call of Martin Luther
King Jr who said: “You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make
your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated
by love.” And doesn’t that describe our Elizabeth so beautifully?
But Elizabeth’s home at Emmaus was by no means her only home. With her husband Jim,
she created an original home and nurtured her 5 children. She was a busy mom who opened
her home to many, many children and families as she carted for them in childcare. She made
a home for them and so many, many people recognized her on the streets of Sonoma. It was embarrassing: As we’d drank coffee on the square I accused her of intentionally calling people to parade by so she could show off how many people she knew.
She made a home at St. Leo’s for her children and grandchildren. She was a Vatican Council kind of woman who sensed that cracks in the old order were letting in the light – and she hoped as we all did that the doors would open ever wider -- that the Spring could no longer be held back.
But as the doors closed, Elizabeth opened windows.
“I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” - Dorothy Day
What mattered to her was not the talking but the doing. Paraphrasing MLK “She had the audacity to believe “that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies,
education and culture of their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. She showed us how to act for others – the stranger, the strange, the frightened child, the outcast, the misunderstood, the smelly, the homeless living under bridges, the unlucky single mother who had lost her job and was living in her car, farmworkers who toiled in the vineyards to make others rich while they lived, 10 or 15 to a home or tiny apartment.
Her instinct to serve was nourished by her spiritual journey – the ups and the downs. Elizabeth was one of those passionate, vibrant young women in love with god and humanity. She wanted to serve and left her home in England to become a nun in an Irish convent. There she suffered the pain of a female clerical order. She was once told by the Abbess that “nothing good could ever come out of England.” It didn’t take long for Elizabeth to get the message. She left but had learned a valuable, if heartbreaking lesson – that people in power will never freely give it up and they will freely dispense their high-minded thoughts because they think they have somehow earned their position. Her convent, it turned out, was just a microcosm of the rest of the world.
Our dear Elizabeth. We met her on the road, many years later at St. Leo’s. Here she grew in her wisdom and raised her children.
She was a natural who believed we should be good to each other, that every son and every daughter deserved respect. Every daughter and every son deserved to be cherished and loved.
She put her love into action at St. Leo’s. She established an inter-faith farmworker camp, stocked the shelves with food, met the poor by the stream, supported the homeless and with the help of her sister brown baggers joyfully made thousands of burritos. She drove her battered car full of day old bread. She often dragged others along -- like me - to dispense food or clothes or clean up the encampments. She was fearless.
She had a wicked wit and used it most effectively on the clerics with whom she crossed paths. She refused to call them father -- even Jack O’Hare. She argued she had a father who lived in England. We shared amazing eye rolls across the pews and finally had to call it quits.
She helped found Emmaus and shape its mission. It wasn’t easy for her to join us. She chose us because we are irreverent, loving, thoughtful and willing to work. Shared humanity was much more important than belief
Her trademark saying – “you make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give,” was coined by Winston Churchill but pure Elizabeth.
She didn't believe in "God" with a capitol G. I think she saw that concept as one that had been co-opted by the clergy for purposes of control. She wanted to liberate the entire idea. She wouldn’t tolerate the medieval word “Lord” when speaking of her brother Jesus. He was a worker too who understood the dire need of his people. But above all her experience was that of a bright, evolving female theologian who was charting her course with her sisters at Emmaus.
Elizabeth didn't necessarily believe in an afterlife, or even care in believing. To her it was pretty much an irrelevant concept. She was, however, ready for the next adventure – for whatever came next. At the end, she got very tired and her family surrounded her with love. She told me she felt like a pond whose ripples were calming down. She had created many ripples and now it was time to be peaceful.
Elizabeth’s heart is our heart. We miss her dearly but we have so many wonderful stories from her life. I think of her saying these words from Mary Oliver” When it's over, I want to say all my lifeI was a bride married to amazement.”
We are truly blessed. The women of Emmaus continue to teach us about their experience of god. It is with this spirit that we go forward now with our beloved friend – right here (heart).
This celebration of Elizabeth is also a celebration of the women, living and dead who have inspired us. Dorothy Day who fought for justice and peace in tough times, Mother Theresa who thought she had lost her faith, Elizabeth’s daughters and granddaughters, Melva, Jennie, Victoria, Nancy, Rosemary, Cathy, Linda, Cindy, Beth, Jacqueline, Kay, Patti, Marion and so many more.
So let us begin by holding Elizabeth and this tender concept of a female divine making homes, loving, birthing, living, singing, praying, serving, stilling the waters and dying. All in our hearts.