Thursday, April 18, 2013

Remembering My Uncle Lee Compere (1920-2013)

I received word this morning that my uncle in Houston died during the night. During the night last night, I dreamed that I was at my uncle's funeral (though his death was not expected, but he was advanced in age and declining). In the dream, I was asked to deliver a eulogy, and this is what I said in that dream-eulogy which remained vivid in my mind as I awoke this morning:

When I was growing up, my mother frequently said, "When God made Lee Compere, God broke the mold and then threw it away." And she was right. (She did not ever know this, but in my adult life, as I've studied family history, I've discovered that my mother and my uncle were actually distant cousins.)

I will forever be grateful for the kindness my uncle showed to my aunt, my father's sister, over the course of their marriage. At her graveside on the day of her burial in 2006, I expressed my gratitude to him, and told him what my mother had always said about him. My uncle was tender, supportive, constantly attentive to my aunt's needs throughout their 62 years of marriage. When my aunt died, though she had been declining for some years with severe diabetes and growing dementia, my uncle felt he had failed her, and he spoke to me in his final years of the torment it caused him to think he ought somehow to have saved her from death.

He told me at some point when I was a young man that his father gave him the following advice on the day before he and my aunt married: "People may say to you that marriage is a 50-50 proposition. But if that's the attitude with which you enter your marriage, you'll be sadly disappointed, and you may impair the marriage.

Marriage will sometimes require you to give 80% or 90%, while your spouse is unable to give in return. And the situation may sometimes be reversed. If you demand 50% of your spouse's attention and effort at all times, you will be expecting what she may not always be situated to give, and you will place strain on your marriage.

Prepare to give as much as is required of you at any given moment, and then you will have a successful marriage." When my uncle told me of his father's advice, he also told me that he had always sought to live according to these recommendations, and this had produced a marriage that worked.

One of the things that I particularly appreciated about my uncle was his genuine commitment to his Christian faith, which was a lived faith and not a verbalized one. This was never showy or effusive, and my uncle spoke almost never about a faith that I saw on full display in his unfailing kindness and generosity. My uncle was the great-grandson of a couple, Lee and Susannah Voysey Compere, who came to the United States from England early in the 19th century as Baptist missionaries to the Creek people of Georgia. They had previously been missionaries to slaves in Jamaica, where Susannah, a relative of John Wesley, used her inheritance to buy a number of enslaved Africans and set them free.

Because he refused to leave the Creeks when the native peoples were expelled from the Southeast, Lee Compere followed his missionary flock west and died in Texas, Susannah having died in 1834 in Mississippi. My Uncle Lee's grandfather Ebenezer Lee Compere, son of Lee the missionary, was as well a missionary to the native people of Indian Territory and a founder of the first Baptist college in Arkansas.

With this heritage, with a father who once headed the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention, with uncles, great-uncles, and many cousins who were pastors, my uncle Lee might well have rested on his family laurels and have lived a merely conventional religious life, one in which he pointed to his deep Baptist roots and cited scripture constantly to provide the impression that he was a religious man.

This is not, however, how he chose to live. I seldom heard my uncle say anything at all about his religious convictions. I did, however, see him live those convictions--in the tender, constant care he gave to his wife and son, in his involvement in a ministry of hospitality and assistance to people living with HIV and AIDS in Houston and to their families, in the way in which he never criticized or condemned anyone, in his unfailing generosity to members both of his own and his wife's family.

My uncle chose to leave the Southern Baptist Convention, in which his family had such deep roots, late in his life because, to his way of thinking, the Southern Baptist Convention had abandoned traditional Baptist principles of the separation of church and state that were of tremendous importance to him. He did not welcome the increasing emphasis by the church in which he was raised on dictating policies to the state, and so he joined a church affiliated with the new Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that broke from the SBC over this matter of the Baptist principle of upholding the separation of church and state, and over the fundamentalism that swept through the SBC in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Being with my uncle often brought to  my mind a song drummed into my ears as a boy in Sunday School. It was one of several songs with which we ended our Sunday School session each week as we prepared to walk from the church's education building to the church proper for Sunday services.

The song was simply a verse from the letter of James set to music: "Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only"--a refrain we sang over and over before we walked across the street to hear the gospel reading and sermon of that particular Sunday.

This was how my uncle lived. He was a doer of the Word, not merely a hearer of it. In fact, he chose to speak hardly at all of his religious convictions, and he certainly did not ever seek to impose those convictions on anyone else. He walked instead of talking.

And for this I honor him greatly.

(The photo: my aunt and uncle on their wedding day, 8 January 1944. My uncle Lee Hawkins Compere was the son of Gen. Ebenezer Lattimore Compere and Emma Lucille Hawkins; he married my father's sister Helen Blanche Lindsey.)

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