My mother-in-law, Elizabeth (“Liz”) Haupert, was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Aside a brief detour to Wellesley College (education) and Illinois (to start a family), she has lived her whole life there. Furthermore, she’s been a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith since she was born – she was baptized there. Most of her friends attend that church, her husband Selby’s ashes are stored in a columbarium in the wall of its sanctuary. And had you asked her a year ago, she’d have told you that she expected to leave First Presbyterian Church and this life at the same time.
And therein lies a story.
Liz carries with her a vigorous Christian faith. Not verbatim interpretation of the Bible by any stretch – one way of saying it is that she considers evolution to be one of God’s miracles. Somewhat later in her years, she decided that that faith demanded action and she started volunteering at senior centers to help old folks do their taxes (being a retired math teacher didn’t hurt that any). Then some folks at her church, First Presbyterian, told her about a new outreach program they had called “CARY”. It was providing a place for at-risk kids in their community to go after school. The CARY program provided homework tutors, recreation coordinators, and just plain old TLC.
That’s Liz at her husband’s funeral, two years ago. A bunch of the CARY kids came and sat in the front rows, right near her. Those are two of the kids hugging her at the reception afterward.
Liz may be a grandmother and math teacher, but she’s also a mover and shaker in the community. When the CARY program needed a van to schlep the kids around in, she went to a lifelong friend, who just happened to own one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S. I doubt she used the world “schlep” (despite her maiden name of Wolferman), but she got the van.
In short, she and the CARY program were meant for each other.
Then a weird thing happened. People in the church started to complain about the CARY program. It’s not my place to go into detail, but I think I can say that some folks in the church didn’t feel comfortable with the CARY kids. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the membership of the church is white and middle-to-upper class. The CARY kids are not.
Liz went to meetings and sessions and conferences with the church’s interim minister. The minister basically got in front of the congregation and said, “Right – you have to decide if the CARY program is for you or not.” I think he was hoping they’d come to their senses; they didn’t.
The governing board of the church fired the guy who was running the CARY program and didn’t replace him.
Almost immediately, my mother-in-law, Liz Haupert, who was born, baptized, and raised in the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas, quit the church choir and her participation in all church committees. She and her sensible shoes went over to Central Presbyterian, which welcomed her with open arms. Turns out many worshipers there are old friends and former teaching colleagues.
Of course, there were tears aplenty and much soul searching. You don’t lightly leave a church and community after 70-whatever years. But Liz’s vigorous Christian faith and clear moral compass left her no alternative.
I don’t know if they’ll start a CARY program at Central Presbyterian. What they did do, the day all the kids got left out in the cold by First Presbyterian, was round them up in private cars (First Pres still has the van) and take them over to a nearby park to hang out and explain (as best they could) what was going on. Conveniently, a reporter from the local newspaper was in the park at the time taking pictures of the park in wintertime. He stumbled onto the gathering and suddenly had a scoop. John Lennon would have smiled and called it instant karma.
I’ve always been very proud of my mother-in-law, Liz Haupert. But never quite so proud as I have been these last few weeks.
Addendum: I just got an email from Liz after pointing her to this article:
[A] man with money and an empty building saw [the newspaper article] and called [the CARY program founder], bought a van, and is temporarily continuing the program for those kids until other funding can be arranged.
She calls it God at work; I call it karma. Whatever.