I waited too long to thank Dr. Sara Little for her many contributions to my journey of faith and path to ministry. First, I moved from Richmond, and then in retirement, she had moved away too, and our paths never crossed again, except in writing.

Sara was the Christian Education leader, author, professor, and theologian in the Presbyterian Church when I was in seminary, and on through my years of ministry. Others followed her, but none eclipsed her light. I first met her in her role as professor, team-teaching CE with Dr. Neeley Dixon McCarter at Union Seminary in Richmond. When I had begun my first radio program as a student preparing for ministry, a rock show for teens under the auspices of a large Richmond church, Sara went to bat for me when a storm of controversy hit.

Well, at least a couple of church elders stormed into Session meeting one night to complain about a particular song I had played on the program. It wasn’t some secular rock hit that they were angry about. It was a song written by the British hymn writer Sydney Carter, and performed by the nephew of the chief complainant! My classmate Bill Williamson had sung “Friday Morning” for me, and I recorded it for the broadcast. Now, to be sure, there was a line in the song that was meant to be ironic, though not inflammatory. But the protest was such that I was summoned before the Session to defend the song, and by extension, the whole concept of playing secular rock music on the church’s air.

Sara happened to be an active Elder at that church and was there the night I was invited to appear. I never doubted her support, but when my part of the agenda was finished, she left the meeting with me, and told me how embarrassed she was that I “had to go through that trial.” She and some others, including the pastor Bill Summers, spoke in my defense, and not only was I allowed and encouraged to continue the radio show, but I was given what amounted to editorial freedom to program the show toward the audience for whom it was intended: teenagers “out there” who may never have peeked in a church window, much less gone in through the front doors. After that bumpy start, and some other rough edges as well, the program ran for 22 more years!

I always thought Sara and I had a special relationship after that night. Eventually, when I moved from radio into a little video work, Sara and I worked on a major project together. She and some other nationally prominent church educators wanted to produce a video program entitled “The Pastor as Educator.” I was invited, and then entrusted, to work with Sara and a few others in writing, producing, and editing the final half-hour product. Somewhere in the midst of that list was another assignment: to travel to Louisville, Austin, Decatur, New York City, and Chicago to videotape conversations with CE specialists about how the pastor of a church functions as an educator in the local congregation. This project was not easy for me to pull off, and Sara was sharp in some of her criticism of my early efforts (ahem… or lack of effort). But when the program was finally completed, I received a wonderful note from her about what we accomplished together.

[I just remembered another video program we worked closely on: “Youth Ministry in the ’80s,” a program we put together in the late 1970s to help church leaders look ahead to new trends and challenges. Now I recall that it was that earlier effort that led Sara to recommend me for the subsequent “Pastor as Educator” program.  I fear that both videos are lost now, but what archival value they would have today. I hope.]

I so admired her commitment to her work and her national, even, global leadership in her field. From her office at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, her influence went far and wide, as far as Taiwan, and as wide as the reach of the PC(USA). And what made this especially meaningful to me was the impression that Sara was fond of me. Now, she had great affection for a lot of folks, but I always felt so special when we enjoyed some conversation or worked on projects. Sara reminded me that even my radio show was Christian Education, and so was my video work, and the youth work I was involved with on so many levels. I still have a note she wrote expressing praise for something I had done. I don’t recall now what that “something” was — only that Sara told me I did a good job. (I’m pretty sure it was a note of praise, but Sara’s handwriting was notoriously hard to read, worse than any doctor’s!)

When I made the transition into pastoral ministry, I asked Sara to deliver the charge to me at my installation service. Joan recalls that not only did Sara charge me, but also Joan!

Thanks to Sara Little, I developed a great respect for the power of teaching in the church, and for the critical mass that is education in proclaiming the good news. I did learn from her formally in the seminary classroom, and “by osmosis” as we worked as colleagues at PSCE. But that learning really came into focus as I experienced first hand the value of church education for all ages in the life of lively and lovingly nurtured congregations.

In retirement now, I do preach on occasion, and I think I am adequate in that area. But I have to admit that my joy these days is in teaching an adult Sunday School class using the curriculum called “The Thoughtful Christian.” And I know that Sara would appreciate that when I go into the wider community to promote the local and global ministry of Habitat For Humanity, both in   speaking and showing the video I’ve produced, I am fulfilling my call as a church educator. Thanks to Sara for that understanding.

I wish I could have told her that face-to-face one more time.

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