With little editing (meaning: there’s lots of typos) here is my eulogy for beloved Northavener, Carole Carsey. This should publish around the time the service starts today. She was always one of my “Balcony People” but is for sure now…EF
I am confident that everyone in this room will agree with me when I say that Carole Carsey was one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever known.
She was an incredibly gifted social worker, leader, community activist and organizer….she was a passionate 40-year member of Northaven Church.
She was a wife, family member, friend. And I know I speak for everyone in this room, when I say: Our lives are different…our lives are imeasureably better for having known Carole Carsey.
It was great honor to be her pastor. It was a humbling honor to be mentored by her. Carole was a wise and deep river. When she was the Chair of our Staff Parish Committee, I truly savored the times we would meet by ourselves to “check-in” once-a-month, and to see how things were with the church…what she was hearing…what I was hearing…etc…Many of those meetings, for convenience sake, would be at their home in Oak Cliff.
I would breeze in….usually, late….busy with a million things….thinking about what was I needed to do next…thinking about what my next “AGENDA” was…
And there would be Carole…..sitting in her chair, smiling a wise smile….forcing me, with her very physical presence to SLOW DOWN….to pause….to BREATHE…to BREATHE deeply.
What I realized, as I was writing this remembrance for today, was that Carole has been one who has taught, and reminded me, to BREATHE.
She knew a little about the subject.
I know this will sound terribly corny to people not of my generation…but I don’t care. This is who I have said Carole was to me….she was my Yoda in a wheelchair.
That’s how it felt to me! This incredibly, wise, deep, thoughtful person, dripping empathy and compassion from every pour of her body….one of the very best listeners I have ever known in my life….able to get at feeling that other folks didn’t even know were there…able to passionately, forcefully state a case and say a hard thing to someone, if she needed to. But doing it all with incredible care and love.
For example, when John Thornburg had been pastor here at Northaven for just a short while, he accidentally overheard Carole say to somebody, “When is going to stop smiling all the time…”
Which put him off at first. Until he realized that the real, honest message from Carole was: John, be real and honest. Be yourself.
To sit with Carole was to get comfortable with silence. If you weren’t comfortable with it before you met her, you would be by the time you left. Some of it was the demands of her own breathing…that breathing cadence left room for silences. But other times? The silence was because a wise pause of silence what was needed in the moment.
Carole was born in June of 1940. And grew up in Greenville, Texas…with two incredible parents: Eben and Martha Carsey. They named her after the glamorous movie star, Carole Lombard, and decided that the name “Carole Carsey” was so perfect on its own, that it needed no middle name.
A few years later, there were two other siblings, Eben Jr, or “Buddy,” and Martha Jane, and they were a loving family of five.
Carole knew early on that she wanted to be a social worker. She graduated with a BA from SMU and an Master in Social Work from UT-Austin. Carole worked as a medical social worker for the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation & Research in Houston. She served as therapist for Family & Individual Services in Arlington and as an adjunct faculty at UTA.
In 1974 she became a supervisor for Child Protective Services in Dallas. Carole began private practice in 1980 and continued serving clients until 2012 when her health began to fail. She led groups for mothers of sexually abused children and served as Program Director for Incest Recovery Association in Dallas. She served as a counselor with the Texas Rehabilitation Commission from 1995-2000.
Carole was passionate about serving Northaven Church. I would list for you all the various committees that Carole served on her. But it’s quicker say it this way: she served on ALL of them. And she not only served on all of them…she pretty much chaired all of them too. I think everyone would agree that she’s been one of our key lay leaders for the past forty years.
Carole would get emotional in worship. She would often be in tears after a service, talking about how beautiful some part of it had been to her…how a message had spoken to her. I can remember her “Prayers of People” and how her voice would often tremble with emotion as she prayed for people…often people in far away lands…suffering from war, injustice, or oppression.
But she not only served Northaven…she served the greater United Methodist Church. Carole helped the Annual Conference develop our original “Safe Sanctuary policies.”
She was Coordinator for the Crisis Rapid Response Team. (The CART Team for short) For those who don’t know, this is a team of trained church folks from the Annual Conference who are dispatched to work with area churches that were going through a time of crisis…often, sadly, an allegation of sexual abuse or impropriety. This group comes in, and offers time to just listen to church members, helping them work through the various conflicting emotions that well up after such an event.
I cannot tell you how many United Methodist pastors have talked to me over these eight months of Carole’s illness..and told me what a difference she made to them…and what a difference she made to their local churches.
In a real sense, Carole Carsey has helped bring healing and wholeness to many many United Methodists and churches in North Texas.
And, if that wasn’t enough, she also worked in prisons, leading a therapy group in recent years, for women inmates in the Dallas County Jail, through the great organization called Resolana.
Carole described herself as “with no apologies, a Yellow Dog Democrat” who lived through what she called “the dark ages of Dallas County,” and lived to see Democrats elected once again. I’m not editorializing, of course…I’m telling you how she talked about it to me.
Every election cycle, if you went over the Carole’s house, you’d see “voter registration cards” out, ready to sign up folks to vote. She go down the grocery store, and sit out front, trying to register people to vote. She was passionate about politics.
Carole wrote and published three books. One, “England on a Roll,” was about and incredible trip she and Willie made to England in 1999. Speaking of Willie….
Carole met Willie Henning when she was working at UTA and he was a student. Willie recalls that they first met at something like a “social worker awareness week” or something like that…at UTA.
Willie had a question about something that nobody knew that answer to. But a woman said, “Well Carole Carsey will know…”
So Willie went and asked Carole and, sure enough, she did.
The didn’t really develop a friendship until, ironically, Willie started dating Carole’s caretaker at the time, a woman named Beth.
Beth would invite Willie to come over.
But soon, Willie wasn’t coming to visit Beth anymore. Willie was coming to visit Carole. In those days, Willie was working at local Montgomery Wards, and Carole would invite him over after work to eat leftovers.
The way Willie tells it, he once went to her because he had been deeply troubled by a book he’d been reading. He went to her for comfort and advice, as the friend she had become. But in the course of that evening, they shared their first hug…and the rest, as they say, is history.
Before long, they were a couple, and soon, inseparable.
But! Soon after, Willie had a slight crises of purpose in life. He was having trouble finishing a degree, and had a yearning to see the world. So, he decided…like so many of his generation…to head out and see America. He bought a sleeping bag from the Whole Earth Catalogue, and head to California…..Ohio…Michigan….
But all along the way, he would write home to Carole, and she would write him. Carole later said she wasn’t sure whether or Willie would come back to her. But when she finally got a looong eighteen-page letter from Willie, she knew that Willie would be coming home.
Sure enough, he did.
And, gasp! They moved in together! Not statistically shocking for a couple today…but a little surprising in the early 1970s.
Carole’s parents wondered whether this “hippie would take advantage of their daughter.”
Willie’s parents were horrified of their “living in sin.”
Eventually, they decided on their own to get married, and did so on Valentines Day of 1974. They moved into their home in 1976. Joined Northaven around that same time. And have remained soulmates ever since.
Carole and Willie were a team. Together with longterm caregivers, like our dear friend, Alicia, they formed a family. Carole was the brains. She kept everything going. She had a way that she liked everything to be done. Even if she couldn’t do it…she had very specific ideas for how Willie and Alicia should do things. Carole was the brains. They were the body.
Speaking of this, I have now talked to you for almost seven pages about Carole Carsey, and I have yet to really delve into the one thing that everybody also knew about Carole: Carole Carsey had polio. But to know Carole was to know someone who never allowed polio to define who she was.
Carole got polio at age 12, while at a summer camp in Kerrville. She spent almost a year away from her family, in Kerrville, and later in Houston, recuperating from the disease. She spent months of that first year in an “iron lung.” Eventually, she learned to breathe with the assistance of a ventilator.
At Carole and Willie’s home in Oak Cliff, just inside the front door, and hanging over the mantle there is a painting of a young girl. She’s ten-years-old, and the painting was done in 1950. She’s in a summer dress and her hair is beautifully curly. And when you see it, it only takes a moment to realize it’s Carole.
It’s Carole before polio. Carole Carsey as the little girl she once was…the girl who loved to ride horses…and swim and play baseball….and go to summer camp…and do all the other things that other little girls –growing up in Greenville, Texas– do.
When I first saw that painting of Carole –a decade ago, and before I really knew Carole well– I thought to myself, “what a different person she must be now.”
However, as time passed, I realized that wasn’t true at all. Carol Carsey…at age 10, before polio….at age 30, with it…..and at age 72, in her final year….Carole Carsey was the same person in her core.
And, just as you can’t see any polio in that portrait of her at age ten, Carole Carsey had a remarkable ability to make you forget she had polio as an adult too. You could be sitting with her in a meeting, a group of people in rapt conversation, and you could literally forget that the woman before you was a quadraplegic in a wheelchair.
For me, there were only fleeting times when it would become apparent…she’d ask to you turn a page for her….or plug in her chair.
But, often, the “disability” would completely vanish. And that was because she chose to not be limited by it.
Here are some of her own words about her Christian faith, and her life in the wheelchair:
“When I was twelve years old, I contracted polio. This was before the vaccine, and polio was a feared disease at the time. Some would say that my life was ‘changed forever’ by polio. On one level, it was, but in some ways nothing changed. I have always felt that I have been the same person since the polio as before. As a teenager I cried into the pillow at night a few times because I had a crush on a boy who didn’t ask me out, but years later I realized that also happens to teenagers who don’t have polio. I had uncertainties about what would happen when I grew up, but I thought and planned and hoped. My faith was part of this journey with polio. Polio was not a crisis for my faith.”
Carole was in an iron lung for months after contracting polio. Carole breathed with the assistance of a ventilator for just about 60-years….very likely one of the longest surviving human beings on the planet to ever do so for so long.
But, that’s the thing: as we’ve just been saying…she didn’t just “survive,” she thrived…she excelled at being a social worker….at serving her church…at serving her community…she mentored hundreds of people…and wrote those books we mentioned…all while in that chair.
A few years back, the National Association of Social Workers gave Carole a “lifetime achievement award.” And at that event, her brother Eben noted that she didn’t just deserve that award, he said “Carole deserves a lifetime achievement award in LIFE.”
Carole navigated her life with charm and, what seemed to outsiders, like effortless grace. It wasn’t. But that’s how she made it seem. And she worked very hard at that.
A few years ago, another church member experienced a serious illness that might have left him incapacitated…possibly in a wheelchair. (It didn’t…)
But, he knew that Carole might know something of how to deal with that. And so, he went to ask her, “Tell me how you do what you do, because I may have to learn how.”
She said that very early on in her life, she realized that it was going to be up to her to make people feel comfortable with her. She took it on, as her responsibility. She made it her goal to disarm people…to take away their fear of the polio…their fear of the chair…so that they could see the soul sitting in it.
As I think about this, it seems to me, then that the wheelchair did change Carole. In this way: It made her more empathetic….more compassionate toward others….more willing to listen first, before speaking….more inclined to pull a person in, so that they would feel comfortable in her presence…because she made it her servant-calling was to make other comfortable with her.
Speaking of her “servant-calling,” she took that very seriously. Here’s something of what she said about it once. She said:
“There are many ways that social work fits me well, one being the way it intersects with my faith. One of my favorite Bible passages is from Matthew 25: whatever you did for these, the least of my brothers, you did for me. There is a way in which social work is a ministry for me. I feel that when I’m working with an individual or a group the Holy Spirit is on my shoulder, is in the room making things happen.
The New Testament has two divergent messages for us — the way to personal salvation and the imperative to work for social justice. I don’t seem to worry about my personal salvation. But I well with passion about the imperative to work for social justice.”
And that she did. Just like her “prayers of the people,” Carole herself “welled with passion” for social justice. It led her to become at advocate for LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church. She would attend annual conference worship, wearing her “Reconciling stole.” And in some General Conference years, she would pay visits to some of our North Texas delegates, encouraging them to vote for church law that allowed for the full inclusion of LGBT people.
Carole once said that her compassion for LGBT persons initially came from her own experience with polio. She talked of how it was two or three years after polio, before she was ready to physically and emotionally try to go to church. And when she did, she found there was no easy way to do it. She said:
“I could not slip quietly into the back of the church, but had to be carried in my wheelchair by 4 men up a flight of about 15 stairs. And I was carried up the steps week after week. For me, that was real hospitality, and as an adult I have experienced real inclusiveness as my gifts and talents have been utilized as a member of the priesthood of believers in the several Methodist churches I have joined since moving away from Greenville. This hospitality and inclusiveness have shaped my life and wonderful ways.
I am probably especially sensitive to the importance of inclusiveness because of my experience as a disabled person. The very nature of my disability has excluded me from some situations.
…my Christian journey brought me to be a member of Northaven UMC where I have remained because I have been encouraged and inspired in my faith. Inclusiveness is important at Northaven because our faith journey has brought us a rich experience with diversity. At this point about a third of our membership is gay or lesbian. Our gay and lesbian members are as vital part of our leadership…”
You see, Carole’s own memories of not just exclusion, but also of radical hospitality made her a powerful advocate for LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church.
But for Carole’s life to work, she also needed a Village.
Her first village was that loving family…her parents, Eben and Martha….her siblings Eben Jr and Martha Jane. Eben and Martha Jane, it was an honor to meet both of you in the past months, in the ICU at St. Paul. And, Eben: especially during those scary weeks in October, you were a real rock to your sister and to Willie.
I can’t imagine all the ways Carole’s polio changed your lives too…separations from your parents you were all kids….but you were caring and loving siblings to her.
Carole was cared for by caregivers along the way…
Friends who carried her up and down the stairs of her dorm at SMU….
Those who carried her in and out of Kavanaugh UMC in Greenville….
Northaven friends who sat with her, waiting…always waiting, and waiting..on HandiRides.
And, of course, Willie and Alicia.
Willie, you were such a profoundly good caregiver to Carole in these last months. And I watched with awe as you literally grew taller and more confident in your own decision-making.
Alicia…we love you….you’re one of us….you’re a Northavener…can I get an “Amen” for that…. Just know that you have church family here too.
In August of last year, Carole was Chair of our Staff Parish committee. She summoned me to her home, for what I thought was one of our regular meetings. It turned out not to be.
After praying, and checking in with each other, she dropped a bomb shell. She told me that she didn’t know what was wrong with her, but that something was different. Something had changed in her…in her body.
And she told me she was fairly certain that she would die soon.
Therefore, she was telling me that she was going to give up all of her leadership positions. She was going to quite working. She was going to stop everything related to volunteerism.
I have to tell you, I didn’t believe her at the time. I thought: “she’s overreacting….she looks like she’s always looked.”
But later, as she began that series of hospitalizations, I learned that she was seventy-two-years-old. I had no idea…I assumed she was a decade younger than this.
To live on a ventilator for sixty-years…
To have to live, everyday, with a key awareness in her own mind what was going on with her body…
It surely was mentally taxing, as well as physically beyond what any of the rest of us know.
You see, I believe that not only did Carole have hyper-empathy for others, I also believe she developed senses beyond what you and I have for understanding what was going on with her…her mind…her spirit….her body….
Looking back, she understood back in August that her time was perhaps short.
We are still in the Easter season.
Carole, by her own admission, was more passionate about social justice than personal salvation. But by the measure of her favorite scripture: Matthew 25, she lived a kind of servanthood that saw the Christ in all those she encountered.
Beyond that, she became Christ to many…as she said…as she allowed the Holy Spirit to sit on her shoulder.
And so, while we are in grief this day, while our lives still feel like an empty tomb, we also rejoice in the word of our faith: that our journey of life is a journey of life into life. Death is not the final word. Resurrection is sure for Carole, and for us.
Resurrection is not only written into the Gospels, but lived out in the fabric of the universe itself. From every corner of the world –from the processes of evolution, to the grasses outside these windows– comes the message that life comes from life. And in this we give thanks to God.
And we give thanks to God for Carole.
And I invite you to hear again parts of the passage that Bill McElvaney read earlier.
I invite you to hear it, not as if Paul is speaking to us, but as if Carole is.
Imagine Carole Carsey saying this to us today:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you…we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence….So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…”