In praise of Memphis elders

November 5, 2013 in Faith Matters, Featured Rotator by David Waters

crawThe last weekend of October was a particularly wise and worshipful one in Memphis.

On Friday evening, a rabbi stood in an East Memphis synagogue and spoke to God in Hebrew. Then he reminded the congregation of the obligation to serve God.

“You change lives one person, one family, one household at a time,” the rabbi said.

On Saturday morning, a priest prayed to God in Greek from an Orthodox altar in Highland Heights. Then he reminded the congregation of the need to thank God.

“We are grateful to God,” the priest said. “If we don’t express that gratitude every day, we are not living as we should.”

On Sunday morning, a pastor stood at a North Memphis pulpit and spoke to God in English. Then he reminded the congregation of the responsibility to honor God.

“Everyone is a steward of God’s creation. God owns everything. We’re not owners; we’re just managers,” the pastor said.

It wasn’t just the clarifying content of the messages that made these three stand out. It was the messengers.

The rabbi will be 75 this month.

The priest is 88.

The pastor is 82.

“I guess I’m going to let the Lord retire me,” said Rev. Coleman Crawford, who became a minister of the gospel in 1958 and who has graced the pulpit of Grace Missionary Baptist Church since 1962.

Crawford has served a number of leadership roles over the decades, in addition to senior pastor. President of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association. President of the North Mississippi Baptist Education Convention. Member of the National Baptist Convention’s board of directors.

All were important, but none was any more important than the role he and many of his over-age-75 colleagues are now serving.

Community elder.

Various Judeo-Christian traditions have made various uses of the term “elder.” For some, it’s an ecclesiastical title held by ordained leaders. For others, it’s a title for lay leaders who hold some sort of governing authority in a church.

Still others see it as a title of respect and distinction, another word for sage or deacon or rabbi.

In most cases, an elder is a person known — and valued — for his or her age, experience and wisdom. With the possible exception of Washington, D.C., is there a community in America more in need of some finely aged wisdom?

Not every elder is elderly, or course, and not every elderly person is learned or wise. But centuries of evidence, not to mention recent studies, seem to indicate the wisdom of our elders is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

A recent University of Michigan study on aging and social reasoning tested people in three age groups. The oldest group — those 60 and older — earned the highest wisdom score in each category.

A recent University of California, San Diego, study found that elder wisdom is linked to a change in brain chemistry. Older brains produce less dopamine and so are less impulsive and emotional, and more likely to think things through.

The Memphis religious community is blessed with a lot of low-dopamine, high-octane elders.

Last Saturday, Rev. Nicholas Vieron, age 88, celebrated his 65th year as an Eastern Orthodox priest by celebrating the Divine Liturgy at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.

“The two men who escorted me down the middle aisle for the Communion prayers were my first altar boys — now in their 70s,” Vieron noted.

Vieron, ordained in 1948, was Annunciation’s senior pastor from 1955 until he “retired” in 1991.

“Retirement to me means no meetings, “ said Vieron, who grew up in New Orleans, went to seminary at 16, and became a priest at 22.

He’s not as active as he was five years ago. He still teaches his Adult Greek Class for 15 weeks every winter. He still holds court on a regular basis at his favorite restaurant, Jim’s Place. He continues to preach and celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

“I forgot a few lines,” he told the congregation last Saturday, “but I am so blessed, so grateful to be here.”

The evening before, Rabbi Harry Danziger led Shabbat service at Temple Israel. Danziger, who came to Memphis in 1964, officially retired as senior pastor of Temple Israel in 2000.

A wise clergyman once told me, you can retire from an occupation but not an ordination. In January, Danziger will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination.

He still teaches Judaism at Rhodes College, still teaches torah at Temple Israel, still inspires the community to do God’s Unfinished Business — a volunteer ministry he inspired in a sermon he delivered 30 years ago.

“Harry has demonstrated by his own example that what grows never grows old,” said his successor, Rabbi Micah Greenstein.

Wisdom never grows old.

Community Elders

Here are 10 other local religious elders still actively engaged in ministry after age 75.

Monsignor Peter Buchignani, 73, vicar general for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, ordained in 1965.

Rev. Maxie Dunnam, 80 next year, preaching and teaching for Christ United Methodist Church.

Rabbi Martin Hinchin, nearing 95, making hospital visits every Tuesday for Temple Israel.

Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, 79, senior pastor of Monumental Baptist Church since 1959.

Rev. David Knight, 82, who was ordained in 1961, saying mass, leading workshops and writing.

Dr. Jack P. Lewis, 94, writing and teaching at Harding School of Theology.

Brother Terence McLaughlin, 92, a Christian Brother since 1940.

Rev. Don Mowery, 82, on staff at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Dr. James L. Netters, 86, senior pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood since 1956.

Rev. Sonia Louden Walker, 75, associate pastor at First Congregational Church.