In 1984, from March 25 to April 1, I came to Westport as a candidate for the position of senior minister. It was an intense time. I had reservations about coming to Westport – in part, because I didn’t want to leave Attleboro, and in part because it would take me away from familiar and family territory; and in part because of Westport’s reputation as a difficult congregation, which turned out to be completely undeserved. But I won’t go into that now – it can wait until later.
Early in that candidating week I met Doris and Mel Brenner and they helped to put my mind at ease. Doris knew that it was ‘an intense time,’ so she told me a joke, saying, “I thought you might be able to use this…”
The story she told was that captives from battles who had been enslaved by the Romans were given an opportunity to gain their freedom by getting into the arena with a lion. If they survived they would be set free. One such fellow volunteered and as soon as he got into the arena he walked right up to the lion and whispered something in the lion’s ear, and the lion put his tail between his legs and crawled off into a corner. Soon the Emperor set the captive free, saying, “Before you go, tell me what you said to the lion.” The freed man said, “I told him that after dinner he would be expected to make a few comments.”
Doris had an extraordinary way of making you feel comfortable. She was a rare and wonderful woman. We shared lots of good stories over the years – laughed together often, and shared some tears, too.
One of the things I especially appreciated about Doris was the way she welcomed new folks into the church, walking them through those sometimes difficult beginning Sundays, helping them to feel more and more at home here. Carol Porter said, “Ray and I were Brenner babies,” meaning that Doris had provided that kind of warm welcome, sharing the time it takes to feel at home here.
Carol said, “There are lots of Brenner babies in this congregation.”
Doris wrote hundreds of personal notes to folks over the years, in response to things people had shared at candle lighting on Sundays, and things she learned about during the week. The remarkable thing about those notes is that she made a point of avoiding using the first person singular. She told me, “It’s not about me – it’s about them.”
Her work with Family Re-entry, providing prison inmates presents for them to give to their children at Christmas, was, like those notes she wrote, and the way she greeted new people, a perfect description of the woman she was – a woman who was deeply loved, admired and appreciated. We’ll miss her, of course, but she left an indelible mark on us and this place.
At the conclusion of the service in celebration of her life last Saturday I said, “I feel Doris’s presence here today, and she has asked me to do one last favor for her – she wants me to light this candle for you. She wants to express her appreciation for you and for this congregation, expressing her sense that she got back much more than she gave.”
I will carry her with me on whatever roads I travel in the days and years ahead.