Tuesday, October 15, 2019

In Memoriam: Susan Vanderburgh 1944-2019

Susan Vanderburgh 1944-2019

Susan Vanderburgh, a long-time member of EEWC-CFT, died in her sleep on September 14, 2019, a week after the memorial service for her partner of 30 years, Rita Kresha.  

Five of us who had been active in EEWC in the San Francisco Bay area attended the service for Rita and hugged Susan, not realizing she too would be gone a week later.  The cause was related to low blood sugar; Susan was either diabetic or pre-diabetic, her daughter Kathleen said.  

Susan’s beautiful memorial took place Oct. 12 in the chapel of the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley.  

Susan earned an MA in clinical counseling and worked for 30 years as a pastoral counselor in secular settings, providing warm and compassionate care and mentoring dozens of therapists into the profession.  

"She was the most gentle person I've ever met," said one friend.  "She taught me to be gentle to myself."

She also earned an M.Div. in 1987 from American Baptist Seminary of the West and sought ordination but was refused.  

“[M]y views on Hell and Eternal Damnation,” she wrote, “were not sufficiently narrow for a few members of the [Ordination] Commission.”  Then she and Rita became a couple, further reducing her chances of being ordained.  Like Susan, Rita trained for and sought ordination in the Episcopal Church but ran into similar barriers.

When I first met Susan in 1996, she was a clown named Daisy at EEWC’s 1996 conference in Norfolk, Virginia.  The theme was "Walking on Water and Making Waves."

"Susan took up clowning to further her own growth,” said one of the pastors at her memorial.  “She was a recovering perfectionist, and she became a clown as part of her recovery.  Clowns are supposed to make mistakes.” 

“Sometimes Daisy showed up unexpectedly at various church events,” said Dale Edmondsen, an elderly man who had been her pastor at First Baptist Church of Berkeley during her seminary training.

I remember Daisy’s springy, multicolored clown hair and the big red smile drawn on her white-painted face, a red circle on each cheek and on the tip of her nose. 

When I visited Susan and Rita at their home in Oakland in 2016, they insisted on fixing a whole meal of leftovers for me.  We talked about the need to see God in larger terms than just "Father" and "King."  They shared with me their favorite version of the prayer Jesus taught, which comes from The New Zealand Prayer Book:

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.

Bobby McFerrin's recording of The 23rd Psalm was one of the many moving elements of the service.  He sang:

“The Lord is my Shepherd. I have all I need. 
She makes me lie down in green meadows; 
beside the still waters She will lead… 
I will live in her house forever, forever and ever."

Susan expected to live many years without Rita, but instead she went into the arms of Mama God about a month later. “She was spared the pain and indignity of a slow decline,” wrote her twin brother, Reid Vanderburgh. 

Her sudden exit plunged me into sadness, but I can also see it as the last surprise of a clown, a turn of events that caught her as well as us off-guard.