How sad I was to read about the passing of the Rev. Ben Williams.
For so many reasons, as people have written in the pages of this island journal, my family will miss him, but he holds a special place in my heart for what his spirit brought to the community of Hilton Head Island 30 years ago, at a time when youths of all ages needed a lot of reasons to gather and laugh, sing and feel encouraged by one another.
For around 25 years — from the late 1970s to the 2000s — my mother, Susan Hawkins, along with others of her era, once organized around the grand, generous spirit of Williams periodically in ecumenical, musical programs that only the angels on high could possibly have imagined in their lofty positions in the heavens.
Those organizers included the late, great Rev. Holland Clarke, the Rev. Greg Kronz, Tim Reynolds — all of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church — Penny Rose, Ann Gerschefski, the awesome Greg Pryor of Little Compton, R.I., who preached from the pulpit of All Saint’s Episcopal Church during the ’90s, and so many more.
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And when I say organized, I mean they really culled from the cream of the crop of Lowcountry instrumentalists, including vocalists such as Presanna Grant who could sing the Lord’s praises from the depths of their throats, and organists such as Wayne Lenke and Charles Farley, both of First Presbyterian.
Those services were so ambitious, charged and galvanizing, that my dear late brother, Preston, and I used to actually look forward to going to church on those weekends.
“Mom, can we go back to the Calvary Baptist Church today?” Preston used to whine after we’d been to the ecumenical service the week before when he was around 10 years old. That was around the time when I was 12, and neither of us were too hell-bent on sucking and tucking it all in with panty-hose, checked shorts with white shirts, and ties sticking out sideways. All so we could go pray, and kneel, and sit, and stand, and kneel, and sit, and be real quiet — all at the same time — and read from the prayer book and don’t light the flowers on fire on the way down the aisle if it’s your Sunday to be the altar boy.
Preston and I were confirmed in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church after moving here from Philadelphia from another Episcopal church, called St. David’s. We had been christened at birth, as is customary in our family’s religious tradition. We followed our parents’ lead, growing up when it came to Sunday-going-to-meeting.
How fortunate we were to have been surrounded by so many wonderful friends, family and neighbors, who enjoyed the community experience of Sunday worship. My mother still laughs at the time when we went to an ecumenical service at the Unitarian Church in Devon, Pa. Afterward, Preston and I were allowed to play around in the choir rooms, where they had desks, typewriters and chairs for the conductor and choir directors to organize such extraordinary services.
She laughs to this day because for weeks and weeks afterward, Preston and I asked her if she would take us back to the Typewriter Church.
So, when we were offered the opportunity to participate in any ecumenical choir program involving Williams, we knew it had to be a concert of enormous merit, and it never disappointed. I’m pretty sure the cornbread and oysters served after the program were NOT on our minds when we volunteered lickety-split to get up early and dress up real nice and prompt for the Sunday ecumenical services with Williams.
I’m also pretty sure that talking and acting up were not on our minds either whenever Mom would say as she pulled into the parking lot: “Remember yourselves, now. Preston, stop waving like a nut over there, that lady doesn’t know you … .”