Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thoughts on Father Ray Ferguson

Thoughts on Father Ray Ferguson

Wind Beneath My Wings Benefit Concert
Tillamook County Women’s Resource Center
St. Alban’s Church, Tillamook
May 1, 2011

---Neal C. Lemery

For so many years, when the community gathered to face an issue, to struggle with what to do, or where to go, or how to get us started down the path of solution rather than crisis, he was there.

Usually, it was in the small groups of people, doing the work of Sisyphus. He was there, daring to dream, daring to imagine what could be, not accepting the status quo. When our courage faltered, he would speak up, and quietly urge us forward. Sometimes, it was a story from Scripture. He was a priest, you know, and you would expect that. His reference to the Bible was never preachy, never dogmatic. Yet, it was always what we needed to hear.

More often, it was a story of one of his experiences, a story of hardship and determination. He
would challenge us to take the hard road, and to live our principles. Funny how he never asked more of us that we were able to do. He knew each of us that well.

When there was grief, he stood beside us. When there was hunger, he would find food and a firm, warm handshake. When there was confusion and anger, there were quiet, gentle words, filled with wisdom and support.

When there was loneliness or a turning point in our lives, there was his gentle voice and his laughter, which filled the room with hope.

Doing something about domestic violence was a passion for Father Ray. When h was a child, he had seen its ugliness, its ability to tear apart a family, and to paralyze good people.

I had the rare privilege of going hunting with Father Ray one fall, and we camped high up in the mountains in Eastern Oregon, enjoying the fire, a bit of firewater, and good stories. One night, I asked him why he had become a priest.

He fell silent, and looked deep into the campfire, choosing his words carefully.

He spoke then, of the poverty, the hunger, and the violence he had seen as a child, and as a young man growing up in a rough neighborhood of a working class factory town in Massachusetts.

He wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he wanted to change how people treated each other.

When Father Ray came to Tillamook and took up his ministry in this church, there was no domestic violence hot line, there was no women’s resource center, there was no shelter where battered women and their children could find refuge. In the courts, most domestic violence cases weren’t investigated very well, and most trials ended up with an acquittal.

Father Ray decided to do something. He spoke up, he called meetings, he got other people fired up. And, he set his agenda. In a year or two, our community had a women’s resource center, and we had a domestic violence hot line. And, domestic violence was a topic of serious discussion.

In a few years, a local AA chapter found a home downstairs every Monday night. And, Father Ray started getting other services on board in our town.

And, a big chunk of Father Ray’s discretionary fund found its way in helping a victim get a motel room, a tank of gas, some food, medicine, and, most importantly, hope.
We all know Father Ray as being pretty outspoken when it came to the needs of those who are less fortunate.

Yet, he did some amazing work back behind you, in the quiet of his office. He never turned anyone away. He would listen, he would counsel, and he would find a way to help his neighbor out, and make a better life.

One raw winter morning, the air filled with rain turning to hail, I took a young man to him. The man had shown up in my court that morning, dirty, tired, and hungry. He had been sleeping in his car and hadn’t eaten for four days. I took him to breakfast and then to see Fr. Ray.

All of us have ended up in Fr. Ray’s office, when there was a great need. The young man dragged his feet, not wanting to deal with a priest or step inside a church. Yet, there was a big smile and a warm handshake, and kind words. And, twenty minutes later, the young man had hope and direction, and knew he would go to bed that night in a warm place with a full belly, and the prospects of a job. But, most important, he had a new friend.

One of the blessings of my life is being a friend of Fr. Ray. Not that he needed friends. Everyone in this community is a friend of Fr. Ray. And every time he saw me, there was always a big wave and a big smile, and his love for all people would fill the room.

The last time I saw him, he was at the Domestic Violence Summit. I had thought his cane and his electric wheel chair might slow him down, even just a little bit, but he took it all in, in his usual style. He added his voice at the critical times, to move us down the road a bit, and recommit ourselves to doing the good work he did every day, in his quiet, steady, and powerful way.

We found ourselves in the bathroom at the same time, and had one of those delightful one on one conversations that you always treasure after it’s over. We marveled at just being at a conference of over a hundred people in the brand new community college in our little town. And, we laughed at how things have changed.

Twenty years ago, when I was at one of those sparsely attended meetings, the ones where you are feeling discouraged about why you even showed up, he spoke about domestic violence and the need for a real community college building, and all the other things this community suffers, its needs, and its hopes and dreams. He was usually the lone voice willing to be heard when no one else dared speak, or when the topic wasn’t politically correct. He always spoke up, though. He broke the silence and reminded all of us what we are here to do in our lives.

As we washed our hands, he urged me to keep working. The journey wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. As I dried my hands and walked out the door, I was inspired again, renewed. He always had that way about him.

The next time I go to a community meeting about an issue we need to deal with in our town, his car won’t be in the parking lot, and his smile won’t light up the room. But, his big heart and his determined call for action will be there, right in the front row.

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