Philip Gulley: Sick To Death

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Twenty-some years ago, on a late spring evening, the phone on our kitchen wall rang. It was Dick Givan, the former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, calling to ask if I would be interested in pastoring the Quaker meeting he attended, Fairfield Friends Meeting in Camby. I had left pastoral work the year before, wanting to spend time with my two small children. But anyone who has spent time with children knows the fresh hell of watching the same Disney movie 20 times a week, so I was ready for gainful employment and agreed to meet with them.

We gathered on a Wednesday evening, seated at folding tables in a Sunday school room—the pastoral search committee and me, 38 years old, fresh out of retirement, and desperate to escape Mulan and The Lion King. Dick Givan was there, along with various church members, young and old, including Dawn Sheets, a cheerful woman in her early 70s, who had brought cookies to the interview, winning my immediate affection. Someone prayed, I reached for a second cookie, then Dawn, apparently heading the enterprise, asked me what I believed. I told her I didn’t believe the Bible was inerrant, neither did I believe homosexuality was a sin, nor did I have any objections to conducting a same-gender wedding. There was a pause, then Dick rocked back in his chair, smiled, and said, “I like a man who speaks his mind.”

Dawn held out the plate of cookies to me. “Have another,” she said, smiling.

Having dispensed with the pressing theological issues of the day, we discussed other matters, ate more cookies, then I excused myself and went home. Quakerism being desperately short of pastors, and there being no other applicant within a hundred miles, Fairfield Meeting hired me the next week and I’ve been there ever since. I never imagined I would last this long in the same congregation, and every July, at my annual review, I expect the hundred Quakers at Fairfield to cut me loose and send me down to the minor leagues.

Quakerism might be the only denomination where a church of 100 people is considered a megachurch. Our modest numbers suit me fine, since I’m distrustful of large religious movements, which almost always involve the waving of a flag, the creation of an enemy, and the revocation of someone’s rights. Only a handful of the folks who welcomed me years ago remain at the meeting. Many of them have died, a few have moved, several have been disappointed in my theology and leadership and sought greener pastures elsewhere. You can’t work someplace for more than 20 years without making some mistakes, and I’ve made some doozies. But Dawn and her husband Ken stuck, even when I preached a message urging my flock not to participate in war. There sat Ken, a World War II veteran, who told me later I was full of beans, but that he loved me anyway. It now seems ironic that I was advising a roomful of Quakers whose average age was 55 not to go to war. It’s not as if any of them were on the verge of taking up arms, but religious fervor has a way of clouding all reason, and I’m no exception.

Ken and Dawn had four daughters, one of whom was taken by cancer and is buried across the road from our meetinghouse, where we’ve been burying our fellow Quakers since 1826. Dick and his wife Pauline now rest there too, several tidy rows from Ken and Dawn’s daughter. Dick was also in World War II, came home to marry Pauline, returned to the war, then to college, got his law degree, and eventually ran for public office back when it was considered a sacred obligation and not a way to further your brand and retire rich.

Ken, our Quaker meeting’s last living participant in World War II, passed away in 2019, just before Christmas. With Ken gone and Dawn experiencing dementia, the decision was made to move her from their assisted-living apartment in Avon to a memory-care unit in Brownsburg, where she died on April 16, 2020, of  COVID-19, one of the 15,495 verified coronavirus deaths that week in America. Like most of them, Dawn died alone, separated from her family and friends. The fortunate, if we can call them that, had a nurse or aide sitting by their bedside, witnessing their last breaths. The not-so-fortunate died with no one present to hold them, to kiss them good-bye, to wipe their brow with a washcloth and tell them it was OK to go.

The day Dawn Sheets died, President Trump held a news conference and said, “The United States has achieved a significant lower mortality rate than almost all other countries.” Like most of Trump’s public utterances, it was a lie of audacious proportions. But there he stood, believing if he said it enough, it would become true. What I found just as disconcerting were those Americans who watched him say it, nodded their heads in agreement, and thanked God for Trump’s leadership. As one whose profession is theology, I can tell you that God had nothing to do with it.

Like me in my youth, the Sheets and the Givans were old-school Republicans, embracing the trinity of freedom, American exceptionalism, and Abraham Lincoln. They were not blind to America’s shortcomings, particularly its treatment of women and people of color, but nevertheless believed themselves fortunate to be part of what Alexander Hamilton called this “grand experiment.”

I no longer recognize the political party that formed my civic conscience. It has become a cult of adoration, its object of worship a man who has not once acted wisely and selflessly, who has cared only for his wealth and the power he inexpertly wields. From the start, his disciples denied the lethality of this virus, and condemned the counsel of medical experts, presuming to know more than those who have devoted their lives to science.

I realize the coronavirus was not brought to our shores by President Trump. I also know his inaction, his flippant refusal to take this virus seriously, his desire to squeeze in more golf and less work, cost Dawn Sheets her life—and not just hers, but tens of thousands of Americans. He might as well have stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot them.

It turns out our most dangerous enemy isn’t Russia or China, but stupidity. A government rooted in knowledge and truth is our effort to combat that foe, our visible expression of mutual care, doing for one another that which cannot be accomplished alone. When we shrink our government, when we starve it to skin and bones, we harm ourselves and the most vulnerable among us. Dawn deserved the right to die peacefully surrounded by those she loved. What she got instead was the trinity of Donald Trump—incompetence, ignorance, and isolation, which led, as it always does, to a slow and lonely death.