By Madoline Markham
Photos by Keith McCoy
Saint Jane. That’s what everyone at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church knew her as. And for good reason.
On Sundays Jane Pounds, age 84, was one of the first people to arrive for the Cahaba Heights church’s early service. On Mondays she’d show up at the church at 8:45 a.m. to count the offering money and clean the sacristy. On Tuesdays she’d be back for a bridge group or Memorial Garden Committee meeting. On Wednesdays she and her prayer group gathered around the church’s altar to pray through a list of concerns, and she’d be back later in the day for a knitting group. On Thursdays she’d setup the altar for the Sunday service unless there was a wedding.
Somewhere in the hours in between, Jane gave away hundreds of prayer bracelets, hundreds of cards of encouragement and many prayer shawls she knitted to remind others of the love of their church community. She even made prayer shawls for her grandchildren’s future children.
In all she did, she had in mind this perspective she wrote 15 years ago: “Every experience God gives us, every person he puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only he can see.”
But one week, Jane’s pattern stopped unexpectedly. On Thursday, June 16, she and her dear friend Sharon Yeager entered the the nave at Saint Stephen’s like they did every week. They made sure the Eucharist wine chalices were clean and put the bread in the paten, a special plate for the sacrament. “Jane made sure we would have church on Sunday,” the church’s rector would later note. And then she went to the parish hall to share a potluck meal with friends.
As news stories all over the country and world would recount, Robert Findlay Smith was sitting alone at that Boomers Potluck when a fellow church member, Walter “Bart” Rainey, 84, invited him to sit at his table. Robert refused. Within moments, Bart would lose his life to gun shot, and Saint Jane and Sharon, 75, would die later from gun shot wounds from those moments as well.
To recount the story as Saint Stephen’s Rector The Rev. John Burruss did at a Sunday service three days later, “Jane and Sharon and Bart sat at a meal with friends: three of the pillars of this community, three of the most faithful people we have ever met who pretty much lived at the church. They took bread, they shared wine, they gave thanks for their love for each other as a community. That evening they made sure that everyone was welcome at the table. They modeled unconditional love as they have done their entire lives, and it cost them their life.”
It’s this message of love that Burruss would echo again and again in the church’s nave in the next week as its people grieved, at one funeral service after another. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that Bart and Sharon and Jane would not invite their Judas again and again to sit down and share a meal,” he said that first Sunday after the shooting. “Because they knew God’s unconditional love, it was their guiding ethic, and they fully embodied it. And they knew it was the way to eternal life. They taught us that all are welcome at the table.”
Sharon and Jane had a lot in common in how they lived out that love. Each week Sharon would check in with The Rev. Katherine Harper about how many people to expect on Sunday at Saint Stephen’s and how many wine chalices would be needed and to update her on who would be helping with the Eucharist.
In whatever she did, “Sharon was quick to say, ‘How can I help?’” Harper said at Sharon’s funeral. “When flowers needed to be delivered and people needed phone calls, she was passionate about caring for others’ spiritual, social and emotional well being. She exuded love, God’s love.”
Sharon also had a knack for paying attention to the beautiful things of this world. Earlier this year, Harper recalled, Sharon sent her a text after some flooding had subsided with a photo she had snapped of sunset. “It had Auburn orange and Auburn blue in the photo,” Harper said at the funeral. “It was beautiful and hopeful. I found that picture again today. While in one way it’s the setting of the sun, it reminds us of hope, the glowing love of Christ that cannot be darkened.”
Amidst the darkness that cloaked the church after the June 16 tragedy, Burruss spoke to his church of hope at Bart’s funeral as well. About three months before, Bart had walked into Burruss’s office to share a specific thought. “You probably don’t like Johnny Cash because his songs don’t always seem so Christian,” Bart told Burruss. “But this book made me a fan: Johnny Cash on the Apostle Paul: A Man in Black Teaching Us About a Man in White.”
“Isn’t that the true essence of Bart, wanting to make sure we see goodness and possibility and hope?” Burruss said at Bart’s funeral.
And that essence would carry into his last living moments “as he had done his entire life, leading from a posture of inclusion, hospitality and welcome,” Burruss said.
“Bart loved Jesus. He loved and adored (his wife) Linda. He loved his daughters and his family. He loved his brother and sister. He loved his grandchildren who he often remarked brought him more joy than he had ever know…And he loved the stranger. His last act, an act of compassion, taught us all what Jesus’ love really meant. He taught us all how to see and love God and how to love our church as much as he did.”
Writer’s Note: This article was adapted from Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church sermons on June 19, 22 and 23. They can be accessed on the “Saint Stephens Birmingham” channel on YouTube. The Rev. John Burruss’s sermon from June 19, “The Light Shines in the Darkness,” had 3,400 views as of the writing of this article.
How Should We Respond?
As The Rev John Burruss spoke at Jane Pounds’ funeral, he posed the question of how those present should respond to her life, harkening back to Saint Jane’s words when her husband, Jim, passed away. Her response was to do “anything to help Saint Stephens and to be a friend, to be a supporter and to encourage my grandchildren.”
And so Burruss’s response for his congregation was the same: “Jane would tell you the only faithful response to her life would be to do anything for your faith community, to be a friend, to be a support and to encourage your family. And she showed us what that truly meant.”
Saint Stephen’s clergy shared equally poignant reflections on how to respond to the loss of two of Jane’s friends at their funerals as well:
The Rev. Katherine Harper on Sharon Yeager:
“My prayer is for each of us is that the light of Christ that shined in Sharon’s eyes and twinkled in her heart will continue to be professed in our words and lived out in our lives.”
The Rev. John Burruss on Bart Rainey:
“Bart has given us something good and hopeful to change our lives, that love for each other, the love for the stranger, the love for the fellow human, this love which comes from God is the most important and powerful thing we will ever experience. The way he loved others and invited him to sit down and share has taught all of us the true love of God and our Christian witness.”