There have only been a few people in my life whom I could describe as larger than life. Wendy Bailey was one of those people. Larger than life. She filled a room. You knew she was there before you saw her. Yes, it was her laugh that often gave her away, but it was also her vitality, her energy, her vibe that reverberated in ripples through a crowd. Do you remember when she did the mash-up of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” at a Presbytery Meeting? That’s what I’m talking about. Wendy wasn’t a candle in the wind…she was a bonfire.
Like the rest of my friends in Monmouth Presbytery, I only met Wendy five years ago when she and Dwayne moved east. Five years was not nearly long enough to know the inimitable Wendy Bailey. In her I found a kindred spirit. Anyone who loves that rare and wonderful combination of holy and irreverent, knows exactly what I mean. Her jokes were often at the expense of the church she loved so much and made her vocation to uphold and nurture. Wendy knew better than anyone how strange and quirky we are when we come together as the Church.
I was fortunate to serve with her on the Presbytery Staff for while, so I got to see her in action. I actually looked forward to staff meetings. As we ate lunch, Wendy opened the meeting with a devotional time, reading from the daily lectionary. For the uninitiated, the daily lectionary contains some of the quirkier texts of the bible that don’t often make it to the big-time hit parade of Sunday sermon favorites. So we’d start with something obscure from First Kings or Joel and she’d read the text and then she’d say “The Word of the Lord?” and we’d respond “Thanks be to God?” The rest of the meeting was an extended check-in, each of us sharing in turn aspects of our personal lives as well as the important business of the presbytery. It was an intimate setting where we grew in our knowledge of each other and of the Church. Isn’t that really what the church is about? Wendy was just so authentic and she encouraged and drew out the same in all of us; in every one around her, really.
What I admired most about Wendy was that she was an out-of-the-box thinker in the truest, most consistent, extraordinary sense of that phrase. It was Wendy’s go-to posture to push back against the status quo. Whenever I found myself in a problem-solving mode with Wendy, which was often, inevitably during the conversation she would shock me with some wildly-different solution only an alien would think of, and I’d say, “Can we do that?” And she’d say, “Sure! Why not?” It became a joke between us. Funding dilemmas, polity issues, personal matters, human drama – it didn’t matter she’d apply that out-of-the-box thinking with great affect. She was immensely creative.
There was nothing Wendy enjoyed more than a good challenge. She had a natural intellectual curiosity, so moral dilemmas, theological paradoxes, changing social norms…these were endlessly interesting to her. Every now and then, we’d meet for an afternoon matinee. Wendy usually picked challenging movies like the Big Short and Eye in the Sky. But during the coming attractions, she’d lean over and say, “We really should try a comedy next time.”
Here’s the thing. Yes, of course Wendy was a Woman of the church – that was her vocation “Church Woman.” But she would be the first to ask us what we meant by that. Some of our best discussions were around the changing nature of the Church. We are living in a time of radical movement in the church and it impacted Wendy directly…and not usually in positive ways. She wrestled with the implications of diminishing opportunities for professional clergy and the nature of ministry and mission, and dying congregations. The last conversation we had was at the Sabbath House in the New Worshiping Communities Working Group. It was a week before her surgery. We discussed at length what it meant to be “in community.” As usual, Wendy’s contribution to the discussion challenged the traditional understanding. Ultimately, we concluded that community is where we are best able to find our own authentic identity in God.
Wendy Bailey was as authentic and inimitable as they come: A fearless protagonist in the ongoing drama of life. Her faith, though perhaps unconventional, was rock solid. She was a God-lover in a way that delights the Creator — like the curious kid in class, with her hand always in the air, saying “Yeah, but what about…” It was because her faith was so strong, she could poke and prod and challenge the status quo and bravely go where very few of us dare to venture. Wendy was secure in the love and knowledge of the Lord.
I am richer for having called her a friend. And now poorer for the hole in my heart that her absence has created.