First United's Rev. Julie Harley inspired in death from ALS

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Julie Harley died Feb. 14, 2014 from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." It is a degenerative nerve disease that gradually destroyed the nervous system's ability to control the voluntary muscular system. Rev. Harley was diagnosed with ALS in November 2012 and subsequently announced her retirement in December 2012.

Rev. Harley was called to First United Church in the fall of 2008. The Pastor Nominating Committee saw her as a person of lived faith, with compassion, humor, and willingness to be invested in the life of the congregation and its members. They saw an effective communicator with people of all ages, with an ability to harness the power of language to invigorate the congregation to think creatively about the Bible and embrace the mysterious nature of God as we relate it to our lives. They saw someone who would be an effective administrator and staff leader, who inspires confidence and is worthy of trust.

Julie's ministry among us unfolded amidst the raising of two daughters she loved very much, Emma and Rachel Harley. Both have become remarkable young women who bear Julie's imprint in special ways. Rachel graduated this year from Elmhurst College with a certification in elementary education. Emma is now at Loyola University and is studying film. Rachel has continued to be involved at First United as an adult advisor to FUJI, the junior high youth group. Emma recently went on a delegation to the Middle East and taught an Adult Education series at the church on her experience; Rachel was part of that delegation with her mom two years earlier.

Upon her arrival at First United, Julie restructured Faith in Action into its action teams, staffed the Vision 2020 mission statement for our church, and helped to keep spiritual nurture a priority in our congregation. During some major pastoral and administrative staff transitions, Julie built morale amongst staff by bringing them out to lunch and bringing paczki to staff meetings every Fat Tuesday. Julie led groups to Columbus, GA, to protest the School of the Americas, to New Orleans to do rebuilding in communities hit by Hurricane Katrina, and to lobby Congress in DC at Ecumenical Advocacy Days and in Springfield with the Community Renewal Society Lobby Day. Throughout her ministry, she was of service to the denomination in the United Church of Christ, and later with the Presbyterian Church (USA) too.

As a member of the New Orleans Work Camp in 2010, I worked with Julie and other members of our congregation to repair a classic, New Orleans "shotgun" house. Our group encompassed a variety of skill sets and Julie spent much of the week painting siding as more skilled members of our group selected tasks more suitably performed in the shade. She did whatever was asked with determination and good cheer. One afternoon found the two of us perched on a scaffolding, in full sunlight, repainting wood siding. It was not pleasant work in 90 (plus) degree temperatures and near 100 percent humidity but it was pleasant conversation.

Her ability to say "God is good" challenged us to see beauty and holy presence in a form weakening. Some of us wondered how God could let this happen to someone who had been a spiritual role model for so many. Her decline in health reminded us that we all someday must die. Her reaching out to Team Julie, her community, her family and to God modeled for us that we do not need to be alone.

During these last weeks Julie expressed a readiness to die. She expressed her last wishes in conversations with her family and with her spiritual mentors. She has been so well-loved by those who knew her here. We trust that God will carry on the work of loving and caring for Julie's spirit as she is reunited with God in some kind of profound way that we do not fully understand but will someday know.

This remembrance was written by Sam Dammers of the First United congregation.

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