Monday, March 21, 2011

Dancing In Heaven: In Memory of Erica Trantham

Unity In Chicago, the church where I've played music almost every Sunday for the last 4 years, just lost its beloved minister, Erica Trantham. If there is an afterlife, Rev. Erica is surely partying there now. She was a prime example of my old therapist's dictum that "people are complicated." Erica was simultaneously serious and fun-loving, intellectual and silly, spiritual and earthy. Although she led this church for just 5 years, she wisely shepherded both the community and the business through difficult times. And she did it with grace, compassion and a gentle, loving touch that will not soon be forgotten.

Rev. Erica often said that she was "born into Unity" but she took a circuitous route to become a minister. She grew up in a Southern Baptist household, then made her way to New York City in the 1980's to be an actress. On the way, she earned degrees in theatre and entertainment law, taught high school and worked as a "suit" in the programming department of HBO for 12 years. She finally heeded the call to go to ministerial school in her 40's. Erica regularly intimated that her lifestyle in New York was both excessive and spiritually formative. She did what most young people do - pursued personal pleasure and material success. But she also came under the powerful influence of Eric Butterworth, minister of The Unity Center of New York and a legendary icon of the New Thought movement.

From what I gather, Rev. Erica took over the leadership of Unity In Chicago during trying times for the church. Attendance had apparently been falling off and the collective energy of the community was flagging. By the time I was hired to play Sunday services with my close pals Peter Polzak and Sarah Allen, Erica had firmly taken charge. She vigorously championed "light, love and laughter" while admonishing everyone to focus on how they could best use their talents to be "of service" to others.

Erica regularly began her weekly message with a joke, often poking fun at herself or some absurd aspect of religion. Irreverence was part of her personality and it served her well when she did get serious. Erica could be notoriously long-winded. She had so much information to share; sometimes her enthusiasm would lead to multiple digressions, causing some teeth gnashing by those of us who wanted the service to end in a more timely fashion. But unlike too many of her colleagues in the minister business, Rev. Erica never put herself above her congregation. She made it clear that she was struggling right along with us to remember and practice Unity's principles. I believe she saw herself as a conduit for the collected wisdom of previous scholars and teachers. She loved doing research into metaphysical Biblical interpretations and relished the opportunity to reveal the etymology of words often used incorrectly in spriritual parlance. She got a kick out of the "gotcha!" moments uncovered by her studies.

Erica was also a huge ham. From my perspective, ministering is a form of show biz, and Erica played the role to the hilt. One of the high points of her career at Unity was the weekend production of "Always, Patsy Cline". The always fabulous Megon McDonough sang the role of Patsy and Erica played her loud-mouthed Southern friend who narrates the story of their meeting and ensuing lifelong relationship. I was lucky to take part in this labor of love for Rev; she had so much fun with it. And the congregation ate it up.

There is a lot I still don't understand about, Unity but that is not Erica Trantham's fault. I have problems with what I perceive as the "magical thinking" elements of the New Thought philosophy. I'm disturbed by the pseudo-science and the language of "We know..." when applied to aspects of life that are inherently mysterious and unknowable. And, if God is in and around all of us, exactly what entity are they addressing to when they end meditations with "thank you God" (chanted 3 times, of course). But in the few substantive exchanges I shared with her, I felt that Erica respected my point of view. I don't think she ever presumed to have "the answer". This humility was one of Erica's many strengths.

Rev. Erica most impressed me by the way she handled her illness. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after taking the job at Unity. She took very little time off, only missing a Sunday when it was absolutely necessary. She didn't hide the illness from the community but chose not to make her cancer the subject of her lessons. She didn't preach about her illness and what it "meant"; she focused on her mission to educate and inspire people with Unity's spiritual and practical message.

Rev Erica's final message expressed her gratitude to the congregation for providing the opportunity for her to fulfill her lifelong goal of spiritual leadership of a highly receptive community. She strongly urged those present to support the growth of the church and to bring about positive change in the world through our actions. She said that the greatest gift we could give her would be to continue moving forward in the work that needs to be done. It was a selfless, graceful and impassioned lesson - one of her best.

For me and for so many people whose lives she touched, Sundays just won't be the same. (Rev, if you can hear me, here's a final rendition of Brick House for you.)