She was, in a word, memorable. If you ever knew her, or met her for more than a moment, you could never forget her, even if only for that Phyllis Diller-like cackle.
Shirley Dorland was 92 years old when she was called home to the Lord on July 2. The last time I saw her was precisely three years earlier, when I retired and moved from Port Hope, Michigan. I had been her pastor for thirteen years.
And did we ever grow close.
Shirley was one of those folks who, when the call goes out for the need for helping hands, her hands were always helping. At church, she was one of only a couple of women who were part of both the Ladies Aide and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. When there was a church dinner, she was working it. Whatever it was at church, if it were something she could do, she was doing it.
As for her faith life, she made the most of it, always in the late service and always in Bible class—both Sunday and Wednesday—and always in the same spot. Until she could no longer navigate the stairs to the church’s balcony, she sang in the choir.
If she only were a church lady, I could not have crowned her Port Hope’s matriarch. Her attitude toward her community equaled that toward her church. Shirley’s obituary captured that aspect well:
She was a member of the Port Hope Women’s Club, was secretary of the Port Hope Chamber of Commerce for many years, member of the Home Makers Club, secretary of the sewing circle, and was president of the pinochle club.
More than a doer, Shirley was both spoken and outspoken. Never afraid to offer her thoughts on a topic, she also was not shy to say what everyone else was afraid to admit. As for Bible class, she never lacked for asking the pertinent question, often leading into deep discussion of a topic that was a curiosity for the entire group.
Often, she began, “Maybe, I’m wrong, but . . .” It wasn’t long before our combined gregarious personalities had found us fond of each other, and I so loved to pick on her. So, if the mood were right—and it usually was—I would be ready for her opening, “Maybe, I’m wrong . . .” and I would quickly slip in, “Yes, Shirley, you’re wrong.” Shirley would bellow, “WHATTT?” and everyone would laugh, and we would once again shake our heads and murmur, “That Shirley.”
I could count on her to be quick to speak. Once, during a sermon, I was to pose a question in a way that I was sure would get the wrong answer from the congregation. Even more, I was confident that I could do it in a way to get Shirley to answer out loud.
I got to that point in the sermon. I crafted my words and tone of voice just so. And, sure enough, from out of the pews came one lone, loud, “Yes!” I said, “Thank you, Shirley. I was counting on you to answer for the crowd . . . and to be wrong.” “WHATTT?” she bellowed, and the congregation was roaring.
When she was in her mid-eighties, Shirley took quite ill. Her husband, Don, had died in 2002. They had no children. Shirley lived alone in the house they had bought, which looked east toward and provided a view of Lake Huron before the trees grew tall to obscure the scene.
Shirley became homebound for some time. She was in great pain and convinced the end was near. I thought she might be right. I visited regularly. She desperately missed worship and being in her church. I communed her, of course, but paid my visits as both pastor and friend. Most stops at her house lasted way longer than the usual pastoral calls. It didn’t hurt that she always had coffee and cookies for me. Thankfully, she rebounded and was back to her old self.
Perhaps what follows is why she and I liked each other so much, because folks say the same about me. Shirley was loud. She spoke freely. She laughed easily. Getting her goat was no chore. She didn’t take it personally. She was, as they say, a real people person.
Now, for the hard part. When it became obvious that the news of my being transgender had become common knowledge in Port Hope, Shirley was the person who epitomized all of the church members for whom I was concerned how they were taking the news.
I so feared hurting these good people. I could only imagine older folks being jolted to learn about their pastor. I wanted them neither to be harmed in their faith nor angry with me. I longed for them to know that I still believed everything I taught and proclaimed when I was their pastor. I made a video for the congregation, asking some folks with the Internet to be sure that Shirley, and those like her, got to see it.
This past February through Facebook, Judy Schuett let me know that Shirley was failing. Shirley asked Judy to inform me. That act alone elated me so. Then, it got even better.
I wrote to Judy:
Thanks to you and Gene and Wally Schave for doing the work of being her power of attorney. Shirley sure relied on her friends, and she did so much for the community and the church to have earned the lovely return of her affection. Tell her that her old pastor said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” and that I so wished I could preach her funeral sermon.
To say that I loved Shirley doesn’t come close to saying enough. She meant the world to me all my wonderful years in Port Hope. She was one of the many whom I so feared that I freaked out with my situation these past couple of years. I pray that I didn’t harm her. In fact, I hope you can tell her that Julie and I love her, and then this most important thing: My faith in the Lord is exactly what it was when I was her pastor. My present struggles have only driven me closer to the Lord, relying on His strength and love more than ever in my life.
Whenever we would talk in Bible class about heaven, she would say, “I just want to get in. I only need a crack in the door.” And then she would cackle as only she could do. Well, tell her that I plan on entering that same door as she, and we will rejoice together forever with the Lord Jesus.
The next day, Judy replied:
We took your letter to Shirley today and she was so pleased. She wants us to give her sister Helen a copy too. You made her day, thank you!
Shirley didn’t hate me! I could not have been more happy! I broke down in tears of joy, which were mixed with tears of sadness because I could not be there with her. I am shedding the same tears as I type right now, so longing to be the pastor in the pulpit for her funeral.
At her funeral, I think sister Helen will be the only family who will be able to be there. The only blood family, that is. I hope, and surely suspect, that the church will be filled for the matriarch of Port Hope with her children, the congregation and community which Shirley made into her family.
A family which she served with the heart of a loving mother, and which gladly gave its heart right back to her.
I love you, Shirley. I look forward to sitting with you at the throne of our Lord Jesus, praising Him forever for loving us.