Voices that Echo: A Memory of Buckner Fanning

Monday was a normal February day here in Chapel Hill. That is to say my children were home because of ice on the ground and my husband and I were alternately trying to keep things moving with our work and do things with them. As I was cooking chili, a message came through Facebook that the pastor of my childhood, Buckner Fanning, had died at 89. Tears sprang quickly and in keeping with Fredrick Buechner’s advice that tears are a means by which God gets our attention, I began remembering Buckner and his influence on my life.

He has not been well in recent years and his son has been posting video snippets from earlier days, some TV spots through which many San Antonians came to know him and bits of sermons preached at Trinity Baptist. When one comes up on my Facebook feed, I’ve been taking a minute to close my door and watch them. I’ve been struck by how comforting it is to hear his strong voice that acknowledges the very real difficulties of living and yet gives courage and hope to continue the journey. A few years ago the local paper in San Antonio did a profile on him, perhaps recognizing that this important figure’s time was near (http://www.expressnews.com/150years/leaders/article/Buckner-Fanning-remains-a-San-Antonio-legend-6415977.php). In that piece they chronicled Buckner’s long ministry and spoke of the ways in which he defied the orthodoxy of his time. There were things I didn’t know because I was a child growing up in his congregation. I did not know that he took a strong stand when he was called to Trinity saying that he would not pastor a segregated church. I remember some rumblings about his engagement with Catholic and Jewish leaders but did not realize how novel it was for him to do this or the courage it took to be ecumenical in a denomination that was drawing tighter lines by the day around what constituted faith and what did not.

For me, learning this background has helped me understand a bit more about my own choices. My choice of profession was directly tied to my faith. In fact the decision to apply to an MSW program literally dropped into my head during church my junior year in college. But the choice to engage in social justice issues, to work with vulnerable populations, to see commonalities versus divisions between religions, to reject absolutes, has been perplexing to some with whom I’ve grown up. It has strained friendships and sometimes made me feel distant and out of step with what was expected of me. But, in thinking and learning about Buckner and his legacy, I realize none of it was a radical departure; I was learning these values all along even when they were not overtly spoken.

Indeed, at least in my memory, Buckner rarely spoke about politics or politicized issues. There was only one time that I can recall and here is what he said. He stated that every four years, instead of looking for a president, America was actually looking for a savior and that we would never find that in any mortal. I don’t remember the rest of his sermon. Only that take-away and the implication that perhaps we should focus on candidates’ abilities to do the job before them versus whether they met every litmus test on every issue.

Buckner was also a neighbor. I grew up around the corner from where he and Martha raised their three children. We carpooled on occasion, brought meals to one another in case of illness, and waived in the street. The last time I saw him it was in this context and I had not seen him for many years. I was a stressed out new mother and assistant professor home with my 18 month old son for a visit. As for many kids that age, travel meant my little boy’s sleep cycle was thrown off. My son and I were up at an ungodly hour and I loaded him into his stroller for a sunrise walk around the neighborhood. Buckner was out for his morning run but happily stopped to chat. He said, “Mimi, you beautiful girl. How marvelous to see you.” (Marvelous is a word I associate with him.) Now truly, no sleep-deprived mother of an 18 month old is a “beautiful girl” at 6 a.m. But to him, I was as he saw me many years ago: when I interviewed him for my high school paper and he spent two plus hours with me so that I could finish the assignment, or when he wrote me letters of recommendation for college, or visited when my mother was sick, or talked to me when I was spiritually confused. So many kindnesses …

We continued our greetings and he met my oldest son. In his booming voice said, “What wonderful young man. He’s going to grow up and play football for Baylor!” Now the chances of my oldest son playing football for anyone are slim to none. But in Texas, this is high praise and a vote of confidence that somehow we would manage to raise that youngster to productive adulthood. Although the jury is still out on that, those brief words gave me hope that I could make motherhood and professorship work. They also communicated that I was known, loved, and gave me reassurance that should I ever want or need to come home there would be a place for me.
Finally, I thought of Buckner this fall as we celebrated my own father’s 95th birthday. We had a celebration for my dad and I had the happy job of opening the evening with a toast. Buckner’s words came pouring out. One father’s day probably in the late 1970s, he preached a sermon in which he said that fathers, knowingly or not, gave their children a vision of God. If the father was capricious and temperamental that child would have difficulty believing in God at all; the world would seem too unpredictable to allow for this possibility. If the father was harsh, the child’s vision of God would be one of judgement. Absent = distant and so on. But, if the father was like mine, full of patience and good humor, quick to forgive transgressions, willing to teach and guide, the child would see God as merciful and loving. I could not think of a better tribute to my father than to quote that sermon.

Saying good-bye to someone who has given so much to so many is never easy. A pastor that combines true intellect, deep integrity, genuine respect for people from all walks of life, with service and commitment is rare. It was my great good fortune to learn from him. Godspeed, Pastor Fanning and thank you.

Photo-credit Information: {{Information |Description=dirk-annie_283.JPG |Source=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/docsearls/126277395/ dirk-annie_283.JPG] * Uploaded by xnatedawgx |Date=2006-04-08 19:49 |Author=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/52614599@N00 Doc Searls]

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