Thank you, Sue Wolfe. A fond remembrance of the woman who told me to shut up.
By David R. Weiss – December 16, 2016
Yesterday morning Sue Wolfe died. Just one month after a precipitous encounter with cancer. She was just 61. The ache in my heart is not grief—that belongs to those closer to her in recent years. My ache is for the debt of gratitude I still owe her and that I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying.
I met Sue in 1982 during my first year at Wartburg Seminary. Sue was three years ahead of me. I don’t recall exactly how we met—friendships across classes several years apart didn’t happen easily. But Sue took me under her wing, and to a wide-eyed first year student hers seemed like a mighty wing indeed. She could be bombastic for God. For justice. For gospel. I feared her about as much as I admired her—which was a lot.
I say without reservation—this is my testimony—that no professor, no other classmate so profoundly shaped my theological education or my vocation as did Sue Wolfe. Because she told me, with searing grace, “David you have to shut the fuck up.” Some of us need our gospel spelled out with four-letter words. In 1982 that was me.
I was far from a college activist, but I arrived at Wartburg Seminary holding liberal ideals … as I sat in my intellectual armchair, from where I safely engaged, dissected, and rearranged my world.
In the second semester (so Sue and I had maybe six months of trust built between us) we were both in a short seminar on “Men and Women in Church and Society.” It’s possible Sue had encouraged me to sign up for it. Here’s how I described my own “burning bush” moment in a piece I wrote in 1999:
At some point I opened my mouth in this class of mostly 2nd and 4th year students, and shared some (in retrospect) inane thoughts about how “in favor” of women I was and so on, utterly oblivious to the rising rage in the room. It was one of my closest friends, a 4th year student, Sue Wolfe, who exploded first. All fall Sue had taken me under her wing. Now this woman, to whom I would’ve gladly entrusted my life, rose up (she was small in neither stature nor presence) like a divine mother bear protecting her cubs (Hosea 13:8), and said to me, “David, what the hell do you know about our pain and our struggle? Do you think we give a damn about your warm fuzzy pro-women sentiments? You don’t walk into a class like this and talk, you sit down, you shut the fuck up, and you listen.” I stopped just short of soiling myself … and I did keep quiet and just listen.
For a long time.
Eventually, I became a feminist … after listening. I became an ardent ally for LGBTQ persons … after listening. I became a supporter of Black Lives Matter … after listening. I spent the rest of my theological education—two more years at Wartburg and six years of graduate study at Notre Dame—measuring the voices in the canon by listening to voices at the edges. In large part thanks to Sue Wolfe.
Sue and I didn’t stay in frequent contact after seminary, but years later, when she heard I’d left a violent marriage—with my emotions and finances both exhausted—she was the first person who reached out to me, with generous words and a generous check. We last saw each other in 2009 at the ELCA Assembly when we toasted the church’s decision to honor the wideness of God’s welcome to LGBTQ persons. She was one of the very first to buy my children’s book, When God Was a Little Girl, when it came out. Three copies for the three children in her parish. Her message to me at the time (December 2013) concluded, “You know, I have always been a fan of your work!” Well, at least after I learned to shut up and listen.
More than any other person, Sue’s fierce love for me—and for my hearing—brought me face to face, life to life, with the persons and places where gospel happens. Not always, but sometimes “Shut the fuck up” is the first word the gospel utters. And it was my good fortune that Sue Wolfe spoke such gospel to me. Godspeed, Sue. I’m still listening.
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David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”