By Kelli Taylor
In late September 2019, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Those who have been there know that, even when the diagnosis is early and the prognosis good, the “C” word changes one’s life forever. On one of my tougher days, the doorbell rang, and a delivery person handed me a parcel. The package was large but plain and a bit battered. I opened it, and my eyes met beauty, and the tears flowed. Emotion has a way of sneaking up on you when you are battling cancer. But these tears were about more than the package. The package instantly took me back in time, reconnecting me with one of the most special people in my life.
Rewind 30-plus years. I was a first-year student at Duke Divinity School, assigned to Dr. Gayle Felton for academic advising. I remember distinctly the first time I climbed the stairs to her office. Perspiration dotted my brow, born of a combination of nerves and the physical demand of the staircase. Arriving on the top floor, I paused in the narrow, tiled hallway outside her office door, took a deep breath and summoned the courage to knock.
Dr. Felton was a world-renowned theologian largely responsible for the definitive doctrinal statement on baptism in The United Methodist Church. I was a 20-year-old novice in the Christian faith. As I stood at her office door, a strong voice responded, “Come in.” Walking into Dr. Felton’s office was like stepping into Church History. Knowledge, passion and expertise dripped from the walls.
Seminary had not been a first choice for me. I had studied accounting and had come to study theology late in my college career. So, the thought of my studying among such spiritual giants as Dr. Felton was daunting. Amid the plethora of volumes on worn bookcases, the musty smell of that historic building, and the unembellished sight of this theological icon who peered at me through her reading glasses, my energy was drawn to a handmade quilt draped over a chair. The quilt stood out to me as a sign of compassion, love and humanity against the rigor and aloofness of the academy.
At the conclusion of our meeting, I remarked on the quilt’s beauty. Dr. Felton reminisced about its genesis, a story all its own that spoke to my heart – a story of compassion and strength, of courage in the face of illness, and how the quilt had been gifted to her. The humanity of that conversation, in ways I would come to understand later, shaped my seminary experience. Over the next three years, Dr. Felton guided me through a great transformation academically, theologically and personally.
Five years later, I was a graduate of Duke serving as pastor of a small church in rural South Carolina. My undergraduate institution, Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, had invited me to serve as interim chaplain for a few months during their nationwide search. My first duty was to plan a Baccalaureate Service for the school’s commencement weekend. Such gatherings are quite a big deal for the likes of this women’s college steeped in 100-plus years of tradition.
I was a young clergy, merely two years out of divinity school, and not very connected in the academic and theological world. I climbed the stairs through the library stacks to my third-floor office and considered options for a baccalaureate speaker: “Who is the smartest, most profound theologian I know?” I phoned Dr. Felton, who at this time was immersed in a global enterprise of crafting the language and legislation that would go on to define the work of the sacraments for an entire denomination. Surely, she would be too busy and would decline, but perhaps she could recommend someone else. She knew I was at a critical turn in my journey, and she didn’t hesitate. “Of course, I will come,” she said.
Another 10 years passed, and I was in the first month of a newly appointed position at The General Board of Church and Society in Washington D.C. Moving from the relaxed South to the fast-paced District was itself an act of faith! On one of the tougher, rainy days of that journey, I had spent a long day on Capitol Hill in several arduous and unproductive conversations about faith and public policy with senators and staff. I had missed the afternoon train and neglected to bring an umbrella.
Soaked, I climbed three flights of stairs to the platform and plopped down on the floor in Union Station with a Diet Coke and a slice of pizza. Feeling defeated, I heavily exhaled and wondered if this justice work was worth the fight. I looked up and squinted in disbelief to see the Rev. Dr. Gayle C. Felton, in town for a lecture, buying a ticket on the Virginia Railway Express.
I called out, “Dr. Felton!” She responded with that compassionate smile I remembered. We rode together to her stopping place as she reminded me that the fight for justice, the work for the least of these, is always worth the work in the Kingdom of God.
Dr. Felton died in 2014, after a two-year battle with cancer. With her passing, the Church lost a remarkable historian, theologian and champion of justice. The thought of being disconnected from her saddened me. I counted her presence and support gone forever.
In 2015, together with my husband and sons, I accepted a position as chaplain at Methodist University, moving to Fayetteville. In the fall of 2016, the university’s campus ministry work-team traveled to Methodist Bahamas Habitat. At the first gathering for devotions, an incoming freshman named John ruminated on a verse from Matthew 25 and in his reflection, he mentioned his “Grandma Gayle.”
“Wait!” I said. “Your grandmother’s name is Gayle?
Yes,” he answered. “Gayle Felton.”
“THE Gayle Felton?” I asked. “Duke professor, theologian extraordinaire?”
“Well, yes,” he said. “But she’s just Grandma Gayle to me.”
Suddenly, I felt a responsibility that reached beyond the ordinary. This was Dr. Felton’s grandson now in my care. From John, I would learn about Dr. Felton’s family – about her hometown of Pine Tops, North Carolina, and the poignant and special influence she had on her children and grandchildren.
Two years later, Virginia Felton, Gayle’s granddaughter, arrived at Methodist University. She traveled with us on a Campus Ministry work team to Haiti. Arriving home to a very empty Raleigh-Durham International airport at 1 a.m. after over 12 hours of travel and delays, team members were exhausted and still faced an hour drive back to campus. As we exited the concourse, we looked up. Climbing the stairs from baggage claim were Alan and Joan Felton, son and daughter-in-law of Gayle, and parents to John and Virginia. They were holding signs reading “Welcome Home” and snacks for the drive back to the Methodist campus. On a wearied and critical leg of our journey, the compassion and love of Dr. Felton showed up again in her children.
Back to the sound of the doorbell at the beginning of this story. I opened the package to find a bright, beautiful, joyful handmade quilt. The card read, “Love, The Feltons.”
In that moment, the memories of God’s love came flooding back: the office at Duke, the sermon at Baccalaureate, the train station in Washington, Eleuthera beach, the airport, and now this quilt, wrapped around me in compassion and healing.
In a recent call to thank Alan and Joan Felton, I asked what prompted them to choose that quilt as their gift to me. Joan replied, “I just knew you needed it.” Joan was right. I needed this quilt from this family on this day to remind me that baptized into this community of the Church, I am never alone and that I am wrapped in the everlasting love of God.
Love is not about gifts and flowery words. Love is sharing in one another’s stories. The more we know about each other, the more we show up at critical points of the journey, the more ways in which we are connected, the deeper love grows. The best gifts are not always the most expensive. The best gifts are those that carry the story.
Cancer patients need surgery, treatment, medications, scans, food deliveries, sick leave, and more. But what cancer patients need most is love, to know that someone cares. Isn’t that true of all of humanity? In the words of neurologist, philosopher and philanthropist, Dr. Debasish Mridha, “Love is the thread with which we connect to the world.”
Jesus loved people at myriad stations in life. As the Eucharist liturgy says, “He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.” He listened to personal stories of the outcast, as he did with the woman at the well. He guided skeptics through questions of eternal value, as in his dialogue with the rich young ruler. He showed grace and offered a standing invitation to every person to participate in the Kingdom of God. Jesus wrapped the suffering, the stranger and the infirmed in a blanket of peace, welcome and hope.
Dr. Felton’s legacy of love for God and for all God’s people lives on through her children and grandchildren and countless others to whom she was pastor and friend – a kind of love that causes a bit of perspiration on our brow because love is not easy. Rather, in the words of 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient and kind. It does not envy or boast or keep record of wrong. Love is not proud. It believes, hope and trusts all things. Prophecies (and prophets, like Dr. Felton) will pass away, knowledge (and great theologians) will pass away, but three things will always remain: faith hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.”
Looking for the perfect gift this Valentine’s day? Show up in someone’s life with the story of God’s love, and wrap them in a blanket of peace, welcome and hope.
Rev. Kelli Taylor is Vice President for Religious Life & Community Engagement and Chaplain at Methodist University.