“Nearer my God to Thee, nearer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me; still all my song would be nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer, my God to Thee, nearer to Thee.” AMEN.
Three words stand out to me when I think of Tony Marsh. One is “elegance.” One is “graciousness.” And one is “dignity.” From my very first impression of Tony, sitting with Cleanthe in the pews on the center aisle toward the back of St. James’s on the Massachusetts Ave. side, I never saw him that he wasn’t what my grandmother, raised by her Belgian grandmother to speak French natively, would have called “point device!’ Not one hair out of place. Always discreetly dressed with taste and style, with a punctilious attention to detail. The only man I’ve ever known who would have made sure to brush his teeth before going to the hospital with a stroke! So I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn from Cleanthe and Tony’s daughter Tonie this week that Tony loved to do the family ironing! Yet I was surprised. Surely this was not something every Haitian man of style and authority would have deigned to do. But iron he did. Superbly.
Which points to a whole other dimension of who Tony Marsh was. If elegance were all there were to Tony, we would not love him as we do. Under that tasteful exterior beat a generous and loving heart, a gentle and steadfast heart. The kind of heart that would impel a man to take care of four girls alone in Haiti while his wife made her way to the United States, clearing a path forward in a new land. Then he joined Cleanthe in Somerville, bringing the four girls with him, escaping the random violence and chaos of the reign of Papa Doc Duvalier as President of Haiti, to begin again in a new land, trusting that indeed in God’s house there are many dwelling places and a place prepared for all in them. Tony had the kind of giving heart to support his grandson Emmanuel throughout his growing up, backing up Emmanuel’s single working mother so that Emmanuel grew into the sort of young man who would graduate from Suffolk University and go on to get himself elected last year as the first Haitian-American on the Malden School Committee. Tony’s daughters will tell you that there has been no kindlier or more dedicated father or grandfather than Tony.
And that brings me to that third word that stands out to me when I think of Tony Marsh: dignity. Tony Marsh was a man who knew his own worth. In a society that is woefully marked by prejudice against men of color and particularly those from other countries, Tony occupied his own space with grace and assurance. In fact, he knew his own worth well enough and was confident enough to set his dignity aside when circumstances called for it, and get busy at the ironing board or with the after-dinner dishes in the sink. He was a man who had navigated from a good job in management with the Coca Cola Company in Haiti to a position at the hospital where Cleanthe worked in the Boston area without losing one whit of his self-esteem or his sophisticated concern for the affairs of the world. Quintessential Americans that the Marshes are, people who have brought industry, a high value for education – their own, and that of their children and grandchildren – astutely perceptive judgment and participation as citizens of this democracy, generosity to their church and their community, Tony and Cleanthe have both been a shining rebuke to anyone who thinks this country doesn’t need to welcome people from other countries, often countries beset by violence and social unrest.
But there’s a fourth word that applies to Tony Marsh, and it undergirds all the rest. And that word is faith. Tony was a man of deep and abiding faith. And thank God for that faith, because after 94 years of health and 68 years of devoted marriage to Cleanthe, Tony’s 95th year, with the devastating stroke last spring and all the challenges of physical therapy and infection and times in and times out of the hospital, put that faith to the test. In the last year, both Cleanthe and Tony had to call upon their faith at a depth that even the times of troubles under Papa Doc, when a knock on the door could mean arrest and execution without warning and without trial, hadn’t demanded. When elegance and dignity were almost impossible to maintain, Tony Marsh never lost his faith, and fueled by the grace that faith supplied him, never lost his kindliness, either. No matter what the challenge, Tony always “chose life,” putting all his considerable will and effort into it.
I will never forget bringing Tony communion last winter in the hospital, when we were terribly afraid that we were going to lose him to an infection, and the joy and fervor he brought to our prayers together, even at such an extremity of ill health. “Oak of righteousness” that Tony was, he was able even in such extremity to wear “the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” Because he was confident in the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, confident that God was always “making all things new.” And that even when he was finally called, as he was called last Monday, to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, “life would only be changed, not ended.” That his kindly heart, joined to the loving heart of God, would truly encompass not just his beloved Cleanthe and his girls, and Emmanuel and all his beloved family and friends, but the whole wide world.
So no wonder that Tony’s family wanted to sing “Nearer my God to Thee” to remember him today. It was one of Tony’s very favorite hymns, and he couldn’t sing it without tears. “Though like the wanderer, the sun goes down, darkness be over me, my rest a stone, yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!”
And echoing in his heart, throughout his life, come what may, the words of Psalm 91, the Psalm Cleanthe made all her girls memorize and repeat when they were growing up, words that we’ll sing at communion today, “You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life, say to the Lord, ‘My refuge, my rock in whom I trust! And I will raise you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of my hand.” AMEN.