Blessed is She who Believes


Our back deck is now bedecked with a tomato plant that’s over 12 feet high. As a very novice gardener, I’d prepared for the three small plants I’d purchased with a reasonable support system. Two of them behaved nicely, reaching a modest height, producing medium sized fruit. One reached the end of its lattice and threw a green tendril skyward, latching onto a passing bee or sparrow, then letting go to land deckside up.


I pinched back the pert yellow blossoms, as advised, but they seem to have resurrected themselves by morning. Perhaps that explains the name, “Nightshade”. I now count 7 new little tomatoes arranging themselves in the leaves and I worry about the odds of frost.


Jack’s Magic Beans come to mind. Perhaps I should collect the seeds and store them in a safe place. Such extravagance, the green generative force of a single Solanum lycopersicum.


But generative power is not limited to the ability to reproduce. There’s another kind of creativity I had the privilege to witness; a procreativity I was invited to participate in.


It started with a tomato plant, a very tall plant on a porch. We’d just moved in next door, starting married life and two graduate degree program at Duke. We’d not met our neighbor, but I noticed that the plant was too tall for its pot. It kept falling over. I didn’t know it was a tomato plant; there weren’t any tomatoes, but I keep picking it up when it takes a header. It’s the only plant on the porch, and so it must matter to our unknown neighbor.


On the fourth rescue, the neighbor arrives, a tall woman, with an extraordinarily warm voice and wide smile. She introduces herself and the plant. Her name is Helen and the plant is Sarah. I knew we were in the Bible belt when she explains that Sarah is apparently barren, but there’s always hope.


I’m cheered up by the prospect of a down to earth neighbor with a sense of humor. I rattle on about the drama/trauma of being an Appalachian exile, literally just off the Navajo reservation, starting studies at Duke, the Harvard of the South. I don’t mention how newly married or how financially limited we are. I think Helen could see that for herself.


I tell Bill we have a wonderful neighbor; she’s kind, funny, and she asks me to keep my eye on Sarah while I study.


Imagine my surprise when I fill out my work/study forms and I’m called to meet the Dean of the Duke Chapel. When I enter his office, plush with plum colored carpet, and lined with books in high walnut shelves, Helen is sitting to the right of the Dean and smiling. Did I want to work as the Religious and Arts intern for the Chapel?


Helen. Helen Crotwell. Associate Minister to Duke University. She of the tomato plant named Sarah. Generative within and beyond the structures of higher education and ministry. Her creativity and courage took her into civil rights work and peace work achievement, employee labor unions, and better wages, a center for Women’s Studies, an ecumenical network of chaplains, and of course, religion and the arts.


My most singular memory of her “conceivability” was her work on the “Red Mass”, a yearly worship service designed for and inclusive of every judge in the state of North Carolina. It was her liturgical vision of peace and justice embracing in every small town and steepled courts in Carolina’s cities.


This green life extravagance, this ability to originate can threaten those who rely on externalized authority.  Three months after I’ve left Duke Chapel for a WV parish I learn that the Dean of the Chapel has decreed that Helen is to be replaced by someone of junior rank and experience.


Helen not only survives the forcible uprooting; she thrives as a pastor, is appointed Superintendent and then, shortly before her death, is nominated as a candidate for the UMC episcopacy.


The antonym for generative is not “barren”; it’s consumptive. The opposite of a generative life is a consuming lifestyle or a wasteful heart.  “Don’t be afraid”, I tell my brave tomatoes, “Bloom and grow. You will not be forgotten.”