In the summer of l969 the Covenant gathered at North Park College for its annual meeting. It was hot, as I recall, and it was at least 15 years before the gym was air-conditioned. Delegates fanned themselves with programs and folded budgets, escaping whenever possible to George's or Laurie's depending on their orientation — for a cool drink and more meaningful conversation.
This was the first time that I had any interest in attending the conference. I was part of group of students who wanted to bring the issue of Vietnam to the floor for discussion which we hoped would result in a resolution opposing the involvement of the United States in that unending carnage. Our motives were not entirely pure. Certainly, it would have been wonderful to hear the church speak a strong word for peace and reconciliation, but, for those of us who were seeking the status of conscientious objector, a position from the church was vital. You couldn't claim opposition to the war on grounds of religious faith, unless one's religious tradition was on record as supporting such a position.
It was to be only the first of many disappointments at those annual conferences. The overwhelming response of the general assembly (not to mention the administrators) was against our resolution. I was naive, to be sure, but I was also deeply hurt. I began to wonder if I could remain a member of a denomination that could not support a position of conscience, a position meant to defend its own children. The vote was barely over, the assembly still sloshing like a shallow lake from this tempest, when a man stepped up to the microphone He asked for the floor. "I am Dewey Sands, from South Bronx. . . ."
One could feel the assembly begin to turn at once and focus on this man — finding in his presence some inner authority that demanded listening. His petition to speak was granted. His voice was strong, powerful, yet his face was twisted with an anguish that ran deep. He cried as he spoke, anger and hurt sing from within him into a mixture of personal and corporate lament as he gathered us together within his own emotional force. The meeting quickly fell silent under his prophetic spell. He argued that, for him, the meeting could not continue with business as usual, not while men and women died, and a nation was laid waste. Not while the church refused to take a stand on this most vital issue. "I'm going to walk out," he cried. "I cannot remain as if nothing has happened here today!" Dewey began to make his way out, his footsteps the only audible sound in the stunned silence. But soon other sounds could be heard, bleachers creaking and chairs moving as others began to follow him. Not a great exodus, but the evidence of a true remnant.
I ran to catch up with him. "Reverend Sands,... thank you." He turned and held out his arms, and, for the first time, I was embraced in the powerful grip of this man. He was weeping. "I'm sorry. .. but, don't give up in what you know to be right... and don't give up on us. This church needs you."
Dewey and I embraced many times over the years. Sometimes in sadness; sometimes out of the sheer joy of feeling the Gospel move within us; sometimes because it was wonderful to hold each other close as brothers. His embrace was unlike any other. He didn't smother or dominate — you just always got all that he had to give. He sang with gusto. He prayed with kavanah, as the Jews say — like an hasid. He held no stoic distance but looked right into your eye. He spoke for justice often, and he loved Jesus. He was as fine a blend of pietism as I have known — one who held me in when I might have fled to safer places. I miss him greatly and yet am filled with gratitude for his enduring presence and witness in my life.
It is an easy thing for me, in this festive season of the Resurrection, to image him standing with Jesus, brothers in the work of the kingdom, sharing stories — especially that time when Jesus stood in the midst of another gathering of delegates and announced the theme of his ministry:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
— Luke 4:18-19
What an embrace that must have been! It is the reward of good and faithful work. Peace to the memory of this servant of God, Grace and peace to his family and to all of us who mourn his passing.