When my friend Kathleen Donnell was nearing the end of her life and struggling with the cancer treatments, she asked me to come help her plan these services. Kathleen was a woman who knew what to engage with and what to let go of. She had already given her life over to God; what she wanted at that moment was to entrust her public image to someone, and she chose me to be, as she put it, her "PR person."
I asked her what was most important to her to pass on to her friends and family, to the people who came to celebrate her life and mourn her passing. "Talk about my faith," she said.
I can think of nothing more important to Kathleen than her faith in God. When some people use the word faith, they mean "belief." Believing that Jesus did the miraculous things he did and said the radical and life-changing things he said. But for Kathleen, faith went deeper than merely believing that something happened. For her, the definition of faith went all the way back to the Latin fides, which is where we get the word "fidelity," or "faithfulness." For Kathleen, faith was a matter of trusting in God, of committing her life to God, and of allowing God to guide her path and show her the way to treat others and the world.
Kathleen read a lot of about the literary-historical elements of Christianity, and she could—and did—debate theology with the best of them. But those of us who knew Kathleen knew that her religion was not about being right but about living right. Her Christian faith was what led her to social work, a lifelong passion that resulted in two master's degrees and an unending supply of inexhaustive support, patience, and empathy.
Kathleen spent her entire career fighting vicious policies that targeted the poor and oppressed, campaigning for better treatment for racial minorities, low-income children, domestic abuse survivors, and the LGBTQ community. Her belief that Jesus' love was meant to be spread to all manifested itself in real, tangible ways that not many can claim. Her answer to every sticky moral question was "Love thy neighbors. Love them all."
Kathleen's favorite passage was Matthew 25:35-36: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." Never in my life have I seen someone who lived their life in such close harmony to this message, who loved Christ and her neighbor the way she loved herself.
Kathleen wanted me to talk about her faith, and I have been talking about her faith as practice. But she also used that faith as a support in the dark times in her life. When her parents were killed in a car accident in 1995, she was bolstered by meditating on 2 Corinthians 5:1: "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
I reflect on these words now that we are faced with a world without Kathleen, without her warmth and her fierce intelligence and her persistence in finding the truth alongside hope. Her house is now made from the love she forged with her maker, eternal, built of her shining and unshakable faith.
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