Transcribed from the audio
Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Togo Dennis West, Jr., was quite simply one of the finest people I’ve ever known. It was my profound privilege to be counted among his friends and to have him as a cherished mentor for over 30 years. Tiffany and Hilary spoke so beautifully of Togo as their beloved father and his place in their family. Former mayor Sharon Pratt spoke forcefully about this extraordinary friend and the difference he made in all of our lives. President Clinton spoke not only of his friend, but the mark Togo made on our nation.
I’d like to reflect with all of you this afternoon on Togo through the lens through which I best knew him, which was as a man of faith, deep, abiding, profound faith. Because you see, I think that that undergirded everything that Togo did and what he was about. As we all know, Togo was a brilliant and eloquent speaker—and no notes! But as much as we remember and celebrate what he said, I think he’ll be most remembered for how he lived his life because Togo let his life speak. If you wanted to know what Togo cared about, all you had to do was look at how he lived his life, where he dedicated his time, his energy, that towering intellect and all the God-given gifts that were bestowed upon this extraordinary man. And it all began very early.
Togo’s parents were teachers. His mother was the church organist for decades at St. Stephen’s Church in Winston Salem. His parents were there every Sunday, which meant, as you would guess, Togo was there every Sunday. But there was something about that that took root. Togo knew who he was and whose he was. He was always clear about that and that deep profound faith was only nurtured over a lifetime. When Togo moved to Washington, D.C. and attended Howard University, he took two buses to come and worship at this very cathedral. An undergraduate student, who does that? I’m not going to embarrass all of us for a show of hands of people who faithfully worshiped weekly because, well, we know what the response would be and I’m not going to embarrass you or me this afternoon. But Togo did it. That’s who he was. That’s what he was about.
I got to know Togo and Gail and Hilary, and Tiffany and later Dan and Jackson and Natalie at our church, St John’s Church, Lafayette Square, which was my church home for over 20 years. As you might imagine, Togo West held about every leadership position there was to be held and it was my dubious honor to follow him in a couple of those leadership positions. I say dubious because who would want to follow Togo leading anything? But he always made time for me, too, to be a mentor, a counselor, to give me the advice that I needed when I most needed it. We have a cathedral full of people who can attest to how Togo made time for them and showed them what it means to live a life of meaning that matters and makes a difference.
One of the things that Togo modeled for me so powerfully is what moral leadership looks like, with clarity and courage. A few weeks ago, the Cathedral showed a video of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching his last Sunday sermon from this very pulpit. Sadly, so many of the things he said 50 years ago are still true today. But there was something he said that day that in re-watching and hearing those timeless words reminded me so much of Togo West. He said this, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not someone who seeks consensus, but molds consensus. That there comes a time in one’s life where you have to take a position, not because it’s safe or politic or popular but because your conscience tells you it is right.” That was Togo and he modeled this for me one time in a way that I will never forget, even though it was 24 years ago.
At the time, Togo was Senior Warden of St. John’s Lafayette Square, which was essentially like the chairman of the governing body, and I was the junior warden, always following Togo. Our beloved rector, The Reverend Dr. Luis León, and friend, was fairly new in his position at St. John’s. And the opportunity presented itself for St. John’s to consider welcoming into our community of faith, another community of faith. It was at the time the Hispanic Mission Congregation of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Misión San Juan. Togo and Luis and I talked about it. We prayed about it. We felt it was the right time. We felt it was a good and appropriate thing to do. But as you might imagine, few places of worship that I know are eager to embrace change. You may have noticed that. There was understandably some nervousness and anxiety around that. This congregation was comprised of immigrants from Central America and their service was in Spanish and our friends weren’t so sure about what that would mean. What would that say about St. John’s? How would that change us? What would we be if we proceeded?
And so the day came for a gathering of the entire congregation to talk about it and Togo laid out the opportunity and some of the implications of that, and then he opened it up for anyone to ask questions or make comments. And a man stood up whom I had never seen. I didn’t know who he was and he began to spew forth the most vile, bigoted, racist statements I’d ever heard in my life. I couldn’t believe it. Who was this man and this was our church, and what in the world was he saying? I was speechless. I didn’t know what to do, but Togo did. You see, Togo was no stranger to racism. He’d had to face it all of his life.
When that man stopped speaking, Togo Dennis West, Jr., stood up, with his full height, those broad shoulders back, and in that calm, reasoned way essentially held up a mirror. And he said, let me see if I understand what you said, and then he repeated back what this man had said, every x, y and z vile thing, and then he paused and he said, “Is that correct?” This man assured him, “Yes, that’s exactly what I said and that’s exactly what I mean.” And Togo, that moral leader stood there and said, “You know, we can disagree about the merits or even the moment of this possibility, but there is no place in this conversation or in this church for that sort of bigotry.” He didn’t attack him personally. Togo never would. But Togo was clear and he was courageous and he took a stand and it turned in that very moment. Anyone who was sitting on the fence no longer was. They didn’t know that guy, but they knew Togo and they respected him and they admired him and they trusted him and they would follow him even if they weren’t sure where that would lead.
That was Togo—someone who would take a position not because it was safe, not because it was politic, not because it was popular, but because it was right. Togo was a giant in our lives and he was a giant in our land. He leaves an incredible legacy. But the greatest gift that we could give to our dear friend is to learn well the lessons he taught us, by the way he let his life speak: clear, courageous, knowing what is right and doing it and leading others to follow him in that way. Never has there been a time that I can remember when we needed this moral leadership and clarity and courage for what we know is right than we do now. May we learn from our dear friend and carry that forward to live lives of meaning that matter and make a difference.
Togo Dennis West, Jr., exceptionally well done, good and faithful servant. May God bless you and keep you always. Amen.