Bil Browning

A Eulogy: Help Keep Betty's Dream of Equality Alive

Filed By Bil Browning | October 15, 2014 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Betty Greene Salwak, memorial service, obituary

birdie2.jpgAt the end of last week, my good friend and former Bilerico contributor, Betty Salwak, passed away after battling cancer. Betty, also known as "Birdie" to many longtime Bilerico readers who engaged with her in the comments section before she became a contributor, was a straight Christian moved to action after her gay brother died of AIDS and admitted he had hesitated to tell her he was infected because he was afraid she would reject him.

Betty spent her life fighting for justice for LGBT people so that no one else had to endure the same pain her brother felt in his last days. She had legions of fans across the internet and made plenty of devoted friends in real life once her activism jumped from online to offline as well. Betty came to a seminar I led as her first foray into "real-life" activism and she didn't stop once she'd gotten her feet wet.

Surprisingly enough, many of Betty's family members and her church family didn't realize the impact she had made on so many of us in the LGBT community. They knew it was a passion of hers, but they didn't have a clue how many of us knew Betty and how she changed our lives. One of the most beautiful parts of Betty's story comes from her funeral. Betty's family and church members were stunned when over 100 LGBT people showed up to her funeral to say goodbye to our beloved Birdie.

Tony Adams, known on Bilerico as Father Tony, was another close friend of Betty's and he set up a memorial fund in her honor. So many of you wrote me beautiful notes full of memories of Betty after it was announced that she'd passed on. Would you take one more moment to remember Betty and her dream of a more inclusive Christian community and a larger role for allies in the fight for equality? Please pitch in $10 (or more!) to the Betty Salwak Memorial Fund and help keep her dream alive.

Betty responded to her brother's death by embracing the LGBT community with her whole and wonderful heart. She sought out LGBT writers and bloggers, wanting to learn from them all she could about her brother's world. As an informed Christian, she then took the courageous step into LGBT activism. In the process, she became a close friend to many in the LGBT community who describe her as the kindest, most loving and careful person they have ever met.

Betty's life was cut short by cancer. When she got the diagnosis of cancer, her first reaction was dismay over the amount of work she had yet to do on behalf of the LGBT community. To honor Betty Salwak and to continue her work as she would have wanted, the "Betty Fund" is established to support initiatives that encourage welcoming, affirming and open churches, that support programs for straight allies who want to fight for LGBT equality, and to support, in memory of her brother, David, programs for those living with HIV/AIDS.

A copy of the eulogy from Betty's funeral is after the break. If you don't feel like you knew her well enough, take a moment to learn more about a beloved friend and champion. If you're mourning like we are, use it to reflect back on a life full of grace and kindness. The minister warned me that the manuscript hadn't been edited since Betty was everyone's copy editor. I didn't edit it either. That's what Betty loved doing and I feel it's appropriate to leave it like our grief: raw.

If you loved Betty like we did/do, if you chatted with her in the comments or read and responded to her posts, if you wanted to attend the funeral but lived too far away to travel, or if you simply want to honor the memory of the world's kindest person, please consider kicking into the fund. Let's help Betty's work continue and keep her shining light lit like the stars she loved so much.

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Memorial Meditations for Betty Salwak


October 14, 2014

Hear God's word of comfort, truth and hope for us this day.

John 14:1-7, 25-27
14 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going." 5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

25 "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Light Bearers

In our evening worship service here with children and their families, we have been taking a slow walk through the first days of creation. This past Sunday, we wondered about day 4. This is the day, you may remember, when God placed the sun in the daytime sky and the moon and stars in the night time sky.

What the children and I found curious was ... there was light from day 1, from God's first INVITING word, "Let there be light!" Where did the light come from? From the sun and the moon? No... they weren't there yet... For three days... there was light, but no sun and moon. The light came from God... from God's inviting word.

But God is not one to keep light to himself and so on day 4, God creates the first bearers of light... Sun, Moon and Stars.... The Psalmist writes that those lights tell us about God's glory...without words, only through their shining.

How Betty enjoyed looking at those lights in the sky. She wanted to be an astronaut you know... she applied to be the first teacher in space.. to be on the shuttle flight in 1986 that ended so tragically. Betty's computer password was an indecipherable series of numbers and letters that spelled out her desire to be an astronaut, and the license plate on the front of her convertible says, "ICStars!" Betty was a stargazer... a light seeker. She never missed an opportunity to take her telescope out into a dark night and study the stars... and help others to see them to.

Later, THE INVITING WORD of God, Jesus, said this, "You are the light!... let your light shine before others so that when they see your good works, they will give glory to God in heaven."
More light bearers created by the word of God, telling... through their shining of the glory of God.

Betty Greene Salwak was not only a star gazer, she was a star. In the words of Betty's blogging friend, Joe Denney, "she was the Rock Star of the Universe!"

Brilliant!

Betty was brilliant. Glenn, Betty's husband of 37 years recognized Betty's brilliance from their first meeting across his friends dorm room at the University of Southern Florida... she a freshman studying English. He was a sophmore... studying Betty.

And how could you miss it in that brilliant smile and sparkling laugh? A smile that Betty's friend Diane describes as, "not just the upturning of lips, but a whole body glowing with God's love."

That smile came easy to Betty, for she found joy in so many things...

  • a ride in her convertible, top down, music on. A few weeks ago, friends were able to see that smile and hear that hearty laugh when they took her out for a ride on a beautiful Friday night all the way to Cicero.
  • volunteers and friends stopping by her office at church... to talk, to request some of the material of ministry she was always prepared to offer, to collaborate on the next big idea.
  • lunch with the library volunteers... Sophie her dog, hunting for treats.
  • And best of all, being with her family... February in Sarasota with sister Douglass, a visit from niece Ellis, Christmas night... the big Children's Christmas Eve Worship service behind her... heading out to St. Louis for a week with Bo and Lori, nieces Dougie, Sara Anne and nephew Randy, summer trips to North Carolina and Georgia mountains, and adventurous trip to Alaska with Nelle.

Betty not only had a brilliant smile and a sparkling laugh, she possessed a stellar intellect. Betty's friend Wendy wrote, that she always tried to work it so that she would be on Betty's Trivial Pursuit team.

Betty was a curious learner. She digested vast amounts of information on any topic that interested her and especially on those that challenged her. She would offer us what she had learned in bits that were sized down to our interest level, attention span, or perhaps more limited intellect.

Betty's son Scott, who walks his own uniquely stellar way in the world, remembers his mom as an eccentric thinker. "She would not take every situation at face value," Scott says, she would think a situation through, and find an often unexpected, unique and valuable solution. She was a critical thinker.

Betty was a brilliant teacher. With a degree in English and a teaching certificate, Betty began her career teaching English and history. Her baby brother Bo was lucky enough to be her student.

Teaching was not just Betty's job, it was in her DNA. Betty's daughter Lina, who possesses Betty's beautiful smile and whose laughter rings with the same timbre as her mother's, remembers her mom reading to her EVERY single night... and she did all the voices. Berenstein Bears were a favorite. Reading together didn't stop when Lina was old enough to read for herself. No, together they went on to read Ray Bradbury, Ayne Rand, Catch-22. Reading beside her mother helped Lina to understand these challenging books way before she was old enough to read them on her own.

If Betty didn't have an answer for you... she would find it. When Lina was little and became curious about her body and how it worked. Betty bought her the complete medical dictionary, which Lina devoured.

Betty, the teacher knew, that not everyone learns by reading, but that we must see and touch... smell and taste. When Lina's 5th grade class was learning about the stars, Betty took a cardboard box, and made a standing room observatory, punching holes in the shape of constellations for the students to observe the light through.

Since 1997, Betty has worked in partnership with a team of dedicated volunteers to develop a hands on, multi-sensory, multi- intelligence rotation curriculum for elementary students at Second Church. Her ideas were so creative, her theology so sound, her writing so clear that this BRILLIANT curriculum has been shared, only for the cost of reproduction, with over 40 congregations across the United States and even around the world.

Of her work here at Second, Betty would have said that she specialized in stuff... and indeed she was good at the stuff. She spent hours creating props that made God's stories come alive... a well for the Samaritan woman and Jesus, a burning bush for Moses and God, hand painted logs for a fire.

It was Betty's responsibility to herd the donkey and line up the parade for Palm Sunday and to chorale wise men on Epiphany. Betty's attention to detail made sure we had what we needed when we needed it and knew where to find it. It made us feel peaceful and confident that a place had been prepared for us... where the story could be told and the children embraced.

Betty's words written and spoken not only instructed us but encouraged us. She wrote regular emails to volunteers, working out details of the coming week and always ending with gratitude for sharing time and faith with children.

Burning!

Have you ever seen a Wordle? It is a computer program, where you can enter a list of words... or it can take a piece of writing and find the words that come up most frequently and weave those words into a picture, a constellation of words ... some bigger than others because of the frequency with which they showed up on the list.

If I were to make a Wordle of all the words that have been said to me these last few days of Betty, the biggest words in the constellation would be: Shining, Bright, Smile, Laugh, Teacher, Loving, Fun, Thoughtful ... and WELCOMING.

One of the things that I will forever be grateful to Betty for is her generous welcome to me and my ministry here at Second. The latest in a long line of co-laborers during Betty's long tenure here, Betty WELCOMED my new ideas and encouraged my leadership.

Betty's sister-in-law Lori, remembers Betty as the one who made her feel a part of the family. Betty knew that an open-armed spirit was at the heart of God... and this truth... that nothing... could separate us from God's love, deep in the heart of Betty, was the fire that ignited her passionate advocacy for the embracing of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender persons in the life of the Christian church.

It broke Betty's heart when she learned that her brother David had been afraid to tell her of his sexual orientation and then of his AIDS diagnosis, because he knew she was a Christian. From that point on, Betty made it her work to show forth a smiling, welcoming Christian face to the LGBT community, witnessing to God's all embracing covenant promise of love for everyone.

From Betty's passionate words to her brother David, "We do not care who you love. We love you," to her well written words on the Bilerico Blog, "The loving God, I know, (is a God of) grace and unconditional love for all people, just as they are, just as he made them to be," Betty has been a Christian voice of welcome and love to this community.

It was one of Betty's proudest moments when she was welcomed as a guest blogger on the Bilerico Project. Through her blogging, Betty's word of welcome, on behalf of Christ, went out to all the world. Betty offered not only her voice, but her superb grasp of grammar rules serving as a volunteer editor for other bloggers.

Betty had hoped to write a book about her experiences and to teach a class to Christian Educators about gender identity and sexual orientation. She has left that work to others.

She was delighted to learn that marriage equality became a reality in Indiana shortly before her death and looked forward to the day when, "this civil victory will be shared by most churches." As passionate as Betty was, friends of differing opinions shared with me that Betty generously made space for their point of view and continued to embrace them in friendship.

Betty served as the Secretary to PFLAG, an organization of straight allies for gay family members and friends and volunteered weekly at the Damien Center caring for people living with AIDS. It was her joy to one year win the costume contest, with a reproduction of Carol Burnett's Scarlett O'Hara's post-war ball gown... made from green velvet curtains ... complete with curtain rod. And later, in 2011, her great honor to receive from the Center, the Florence L. Elias Compassion Award.

Fellow blogger and friend Joe Denney wrote, "Betty chose to be an absolute blazing light for truth, justice and equality."

Betty knew and followed the loving way, truth and light of Jesus Christ.

Constant!

Betty's light was joyfully brilliant! Betty's light was passionately blazing! Betty's light was constant.

Betty was disciplined.... some might say stubborn. She was committed to her Apple Computer... although it didn't always interface well with the PC using world.

In her late 30s, Betty gave up chocolate... something she dearly loved, for over a decade. At 50 she allowed herself to once again enjoy this treat she loved so much. Returning home from out of town last week, Glenn was able to stop at Betty's favorite chocolate shop and bring Betty a chocolate turtle. Betty's eyes lit up... Glenn says it was when she saw the chocolate... I think it was when she saw Glenn, her constant and loving companion for more than 40 years. One of her last sweet tastes of this life, was that chocolate. Her last sensation was Glenn's gentle kiss.

Betty was a constant friend to so many.

Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project said, "She was the kindest person I know." Her dear friend, Tony Adams wrote, "When Betty wanted to be your friend, you could not resist her." The family group gathered this weekend, could not remember Betty ever having and unkind word about any one.

Betty's life-friend, Shelly, rushed up from Sarasota early last week. When Betty heard she was coming, she asked Shelly if she were going on a cruise soon. Yes, Shelly said. Betty replied, "Good... you're going to need it." Betty was thoughtful about others even as she walked in the shadow of death.

Betty fought a valiant fight (as Bill Enright wrote in his kind note to Glenn), but she fought in her way (reading everything she could, seeking the best care all the way in Houston, rallying her troops: friends who brought meals and sent funny cards, sisters and friends who joined her in Houston, enduring treatments that addled her brilliant brain and decimated her beautiful body, but never faded her smile or stole her laughter.... Yes, she fought a valiant fight... but for Betty, it was really more of a curious journey of trust and discovery. Betty had a trust in God's grace... and wondered at the fullness of it, where would it show up next?

When I asked Betty during one of her last hospital stays, "How are these days for you?" She replied, "There is a wonder in them. What's next? Oh... there is a path, let's take it, see what is there. It's not hard for me," she said, "Oh... this is what we are doing now? OK."

That's really how Betty traveled through life her sister Nelle told me...She had an adventurous and curious spirit, confident that there was something new and good right around the corner.

There was so much she wanted to wrap up, take care of in the end... so we wouldn't have to... but she found that ultimately, the list of essentials grew smaller and smaller... until as she said, "it contained only people."

Formerly a professed agnostic, in 1983, Betty, together with her husband Glenn became a Christian, committing her life to Christ...an answer to a decade of prayer by Glenn's brother Dale.

She lived out her life of faith among us... in a group that started off as TNT - Twenty's and Thirtys that now lives on as the Covenant Group. True to their name, they have been faithful to one another... sharing adventure, joy, child expecting and birthing, child rearing, child supporting, and child losing with one another. They have shared laughter and tears as they have been the face of God for one another.

Betty's life and work bore witness to her faith... a faith that was strengthened by the witness of her family and friends to her! Here is what she said when I recently asked her how she was experiencing God. Betty said, "I felt God very close to me, when the doctor asked if I had talked with my family about the end of my life. I know I will be welcomed into heaven and what a welcome it will be! I am not worried about myself," she said.

"For me, GRACE is at the center of it all. There is no scale in grace. It starts with God's grace... Christ dying for us. You can't pay that back. You get filled up, and then it pours out of you someplace else. You know that feeling, when you were able to give just the right word, just the right idea, just the right thing that was needed? You can give that feeling to someone. That's a privilege."

Betty had the privilege of offering that grace to us, but she also experienced that grace from you in the generous gifts of resources, time, friendship, the right word, a good laugh that you shared with her. The grace of your love was the fruit of her life's work... it was a bright light in her life.

Shine on!

In the beginning, God's inviting word spoke, "Let there be light!" And there was!
There was Betty, fearfully and wonderfully and brilliantly made.... bearing God's light / for the glory of God.

And here at the end... she is still with us... for we bear some portion of that brilliant light she bore in us: in a smile that glows with God's love, in laughter that rings, in the savoring of chocolate and convertible rides, in minds that inquire and find unique solution, in thoughtful attention to detail, in an inviting word and covenant love that will not let a brother go.

Shine on my friends, in memory of Betty, in glory to God.

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