Presbyterian circles can be tight, and Presbyterian circles of clergy are often even tighter. So the sudden death of Aimee Wallis Buchanan has rocked us all, clergy and lay person, to the core. My own state of shock continues. I had just spoken with her on the phone the week before she got sick. The day of the inauguration we switched the TV over to CSPAN once the parade began to try and get a glimpse of Ellie and the rest of the Asheville High Marching Band without being interrupted by talking heads. Having the band represent us in the parade was an honor for our whole community. I knew all the Buchanans were there. I checked Facebook all day to get updates and see pictures. Aimee was my age, exactly. How is it that she is now gone?
I count Aimee as a friend as well as a colleague. There are those who were much closer to her who will miss her vibrant presence more acutely than I will. It’s probably safe to say that I admired Aimee more than I knew her. I have great respect for two kinds of people: those who write books, and those who respond to the call to youth ministry past the point of “paying their dues.” Both vocations require leaps of creativity and patience I myself wish I could take. I did youth ministry for a while, both while a student in seminary and after. To a certain extent I find myself now in that position, which is fine by me. I’m a better person when I get to hang out with teenagers. But Aimee (along side her husband, Bill) had a passion for working with youth that is a rare and beautiful thing. She was called to and devoted to helping young people (really all people) experience the grace of God, and she understood that transformation is grounded both in understanding God’s grace and our own fraility. Heartache and pain often follow when we answer honest questions about ourselves. But beyond the struggle is the joy in discovering that we are loved for who we are. Aimee radiated with this joy of beloved acceptance.
The tributes have been flowing in, as they should be. My prayer is that the family’s sense of loss is somehow soothed by hearing and reading them, and by being reminded of Aimee’s wondrous spirit and how truly beloved she was by so many. I would like to add my own little piece to the bigger story that is being told about her. Two years ago I took some of the youth from the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church to see a performance of “Many Voices.” I knew that this drama was created by teens and performed by teens, but beyond that I wasn’t sure what to expect. The group was using a small theater space over in the River Arts District. There was a light board and a soundboard. This was no church fellowship hall; these were not going to be silly skits. All I can say is that when the performance began, and was blown away over and over again. These teenagers came out onto the stage speaking and singing (and rapping) about themselves and their lives, their struggles and who they wanted to be. Their voices were strong. They made me laugh and brought me to tears. Two of them were sisters from First Presbyterian Asheville where I served for ten years, little girls when I knew them. Another was a beloved baby-sitter for my own girls. I knew them, but not in this way. They spoke with empowered voices about themselves, their pain and their hopes, in deep and honest ways. All through a drama written by them and performed by them. I just kept thinking over and over, “This is what I want for my own daughters. I want them to have this kind of chance. I want to them to do this someday.” I don’t mean for that to sound selfish. I was just so clear to me that Bill and Aimee got it; they understood how to bring young people to life through the lens of faith. If there is one thing that I want for my children, for all God’s children, it is this one thing.
I hope Bill and his family know there are many of us who are praying for them and will continue to do so. Celebrating her life will be hard because it was a brilliant life cut off too soon. But we will rise to that challenge because there was so much good worthy of celebration. There will be many ways, I have no doubt, in which we will be able to see her light shine on in others. She was that kind of person, and she will be dearly missed.