Tesshin Roshi used his talk this week to eulogize Jeannette J. Phillips who was one of his clerical colleagues in the Hudson Valley region. Roshi noted that right before her death at 90 years old, rev Phillips was actively assisting our group setting up the Peekskill mediation “circle.” It was quite a surprise that she was working one day and gone the next.
It is said in Zen that our practice is all about “Learning, Understanding, and then Doing.” Although Reverend Phillips was not a Zen practitioner, nobody embodied this approach more than her. One of her signature initiatives was bringing healthcare to underserved areas. Roshi explained that instead of simply protesting the situation, the reverend took the time to learn about the needs of the community, then deeply understand why the community was underserved, and finally to do something about it.
It is important to note that her project to bring healthcare to underserved communities was not done in a day, but over a period of decades. The clinic she helped found started as a simple storefront. Through determination, it grew to become Sun River Health which is one of the largest federally qualified health center networks in the nation including 45 locations in NYC, Long Island, southern Westchester, Rockland and Dutchesscounties. The reverend’s dedication, determination, and patience serve as an example of how we should approach our practice. Results are only achievable through long and diligent work. Even stories of “immediate enlightenment” come after many years of diligent practice.
Roshi also noted that the reverend was tireless in working with anyone who shared her vision. This could include working with government agencies like the Westchester County Department of Health, but it also meant raising funds by selling homemade pies and cakes. Reverend Phillips was not a lobbyist in fancy clothes working government corridors, rather she very much focused on the “grassroots” efforts in the community which she cared so much for. Roshi noted that the thing he remembered the most about the reverend is that she never would take ‘NO’ as an answer. Roshi asked the group if we would have such a no compromise attitude to our goals in life and practice.
Roshi next mentioned that his relationship with Reverend Phillips came through the strong interfaith group in the region. He noted that interfaith relationships are really an American tradition and do not exist in countries like Japan. There is mutual respect and formal relationships between traditions in a place like Japan, but religious leaders seldom simply spend time and socialize like they do here in the United States. Roshi speculated that this interfaith tradition sprung from the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s when many groups joined together to further that cause. Roshi mentioned that this interfaith dialog is so important because without it, he would never have come in contact with a person like Reverend Phillips. To be exposed to great leaders across many traditions deepens our practice in ways that working only with people in one’s own tradition cannot. Roshi wrapped up by inviting each of us to study the life and achievement of Reverend Phillips and perhaps aspire to the life of service which she was an exemplar of.
(Photo from sunriver.org)