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Gates DeHart receives the 2013 Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Award at Roanoke’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. He’s shaking hands with the Right Rev. Heath Light, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia.
Saturday, July 20, 2013
On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples a feast … a banquet … the best … the finest … (and) wipe away the tears from all faces.
— (Isaiah 25:6-8)
Gates DeHart of Roanoke, a retired North Cross High School teacher, has been honored by the Virginia Theological Seminary.
Nominated (without his knowledge) by St. John’s Episcopal Church of Roanoke, DeHart was selected from a 12-state pool for the 2013 Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Award.
The award’s namesake, an Episcopalian from Bedford, was known by the mid-1900s for perceiving the great worth and heroism of human beings in their many troubles, and her work to offer kindness and help wherever needed.
The same spirit infuses DeHart, who has given his whole “retirement” (every bit — including Sundays, weekdays, all-nighters and holidays) to countless others needing a friend, a tutor, some take-home food supplies, overnight shelter, car rides, a bag of ham biscuits — or simply the reassurance that they matter to someone on the planet.
“Gates has provided a home away from home for the families in our program,” said Marie Muddiman, executive director of Family Promise of Greater Roanoke, an interfaith hospitality network DeHart helped found 15 years ago.
Through the network, 28 Roanoke-area faith communities coordinate overnight parish lodging, meals, case management, skills coaching and job placement as a bridge from homelessness to self-sufficiency.
“When our families stay at St. John’s,” Muddiman said, “Gates makes the atmosphere homey and comfortable, while making them feel special.”
“Gates welcomes our FPGR guests as though members of his own family,” agreed Sandy Webb , an associate rector at St. John’s Episcopal, Roanoke, who spearheaded DeHart’s nomination.
Not only are meals home-cooked — even gourmet at times, thanks to one of DeHart’s former students who became a professional chef — “all dinners are served by candlelight with folded linen napkins at every place.”
DeHart also works through Blue Ridge Literacy to improve language skills for refugees and others, helping participants move toward community college, employment and a sense of belonging.
He takes the eucharistic sacrament to the homebound, never just “stopping by” but becoming family to those with none nearby.
And he coordinates St. John’s part in Old Southwest Congregations in Action (CIA) — nine interdenominational congregations that provide “study buddies,” weekend food packs and friendship to kids at a Roanoke primary school. DeHart, 70, retired from teaching four years ago.
“I have observed Gates enthusiastically ‘adopting’ both small groups of students and (entire) classrooms,” said Tim Harvey , pastor at Central Church of the Brethren, one of the partners.
Harvey also noticed DeHart quietly bringing in student school supplies “and shopping for the weekend backpack meals program. These two tasks are quite ‘behind the scenes,’ yet are essential in the lives of some of the students.”
But calling such actions “tasks,” even “ministries,” will only puzzle DeHart, who described a few of them to me simply as “pure bliss,” “joy,” “a privilege,” a chance to “see my friends.”
DeHart exults over lunches in a noisy, fish-stick-steamed cafeteria, at a table of kids clamoring for his attention, the way that others might describe the opportunity for fine dining with rare scholars.
“Their lives enrich mine … as we work together on difficult school work and enjoy lunch,” he told me — mystified as to why anyone thought it meritorious: Who gets praised for a retirement full of days enjoying his family?
And that’s how DeHart — like a quick-moving, embodied Ghost of Christmas Present — views all people, everywhere. Humankind is his enormous and dear family, whose joys and woes, math stumpers and fuel bills, bereavements and lack of supper table, are his own.
That’s why any recognition for his work completely puzzles DeHart, and why nominating him took major sleuthing.
“Gates DeHart’s modesty was the greatest obstacle in completing the nomination,” Webb said . “None of his many friends and colleagues knew all the details of Gates’ many projects.”
The VTS award honors those who “affirm in their lives that Christian ministry is not limited to the ordained.”
Nor is ministry limited at all to Christians, DeHart long ago realized.
“The good people of the Reformed Temple Emanuel ,” a partner in Family Promise, “have been a highlight of my life,” he told me. “I am constantly reminded that we Christians do not have the market cornered on ‘service to others above self.’ ”
He added, “I understand the Christian injunction in Matthew’s gospel to ‘feed, visit, quench, etc.,’ and that when we have done these things we have done them for our blessed Lord.”
But “I am also aware that the same requirement is evident in other world religions.”
Moreover, DeHart reasoned, “I believe it was Socrates who said, ‘To know the good is to do the good.’ At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I believe it with all my heart.”
See Gates DeHart with some of his extended family at www.vts.edu/lettiepateaward.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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