Doug Adams memorial: A wild, creative celebration of a dynamic professor

October 18, 2007

The book of Ecclesiastes says, "For everything there is a season...a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Eccles. 3:1, 4). In the case of the raucous celebration of the late PSR professor of religion and the arts Doug Adams held on Sunday, October 14, the season had come for all of these expressions and many more. Adams died on July 24, 2007, after a battle with esophageal cancer. His last wishes, expressed in a flurry of e-mails and letters sent from his sick bed, were for a celebration involving dancing, media, wildly creative liturgy, wine, food, and song. In short: all things Doug.

Friends, family, students, colleagues, and collaborators of Doug Adams began arriving at the Pacific School of Religion campus well before the event's 4 pm start time. They milled around the campus quad in the late afternoon Berkeley sunshine, sipping wine and enjoying opera singers, shape-note singing, and clowning from performers who had come for the event. The participants had been encouraged to dress in colorful clothing and crazy hats. Several wore shiny masks and feathers. Some wore medieval jester hats with bells jangling from the tips. Others wore colorful stoles and neckties given to them by Doug Adams. Some wore sashes of toilet paper.

The “formal” part of the service began with an invocation led by dancers dressed in white, chiming Buddhist singing bowls, and a banner-waving procession from campus quad to University Christian Church next door. From outside the church, they heard the sounds of a Dixieland jazz band playing in the sanctuary. As mourners/revelers squeezed into the small, gothic sanctuary, golden light glowed from the windows, casting silhouettes of drama masks and musical instruments from banners specially designed for the event. Before the service had a chance to start, the jazz band's upbeat renditions of "All of Me" and "Sunny Side of the Street" had the crowd dancing in the aisles and on the pews of the church.

Following the call to worship and an "opening acclamation," the Omega West Dance Company performed a dance to the words of the Sufi poet Rumi:
Come, come whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair, come, come again, come!

Reverend Gordon Dragt led off words of welcome by advancing to the center of the aisle and throwing sheets of paper into the air, emulating the way Professor Adams legendarily distributed class handouts. The papers in this case listed upcoming events for Doug's beloved Center for Arts, Religion, and Education (CARE), a GTU center, which co-sponsored the memorial service.

In his introductory remarks, PSR President Bill McKinney stressed the seminary's continuing "commitment to religion and the arts, in the closest possible partnership with CARE and GTU." McKinney added, "No other theological school in North America could have produced Doug Adams."

Doug Adams's sister, Sally Adams Urban, noted that even with his strength greatly reduced by his illness, her brother "continued to touch lives and bring people together." Dean Mary Donovan Turner offered Urban a gift from PSR, a hand-blown glass wine carafe, which was meant for Adams on his 30th anniversary at PSR last May.

Doug Adams' creative style came out in the scripture readings, as well. Normally the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1 would be an unlikely choice to read at a funeral. But, in a reading developed by Adams, the liturgist read the passage with colorful commentary describing each biblical character’s feats or foibles, and their contribution to the history of Israel. With each name read, onstage cheerleaders held up large signs urging the audience to cheer, hiss, or boo, depending on the reputation of the biblical character named. Adams, author of The Prostitute in the Family Tree, then explained posthumously via overhead video how the genealogy of Jesus shows that, through God, the best of humanity can emerge even through a history of heroes, scoundrels, and prostitutes. In the same creative way, the famous story in Luke of the prodigal son came to life through the mime and dance of the Omega West group, with commentary by Adams following on video.

The many who eulogized Doug Adams spoke of his generosity and creativity as a teacher, and his ability to draw out hidden talents in his students. Duf Sundheim spoke about Adams' continual discussions with him about politics, even in the context of a religion and the arts class. Sundheim said Adams helped him to realize his ability to make a difference through his interest in public service, a realization that eventually led to Sundheim chairing the California Republican party. Sundheim also noted Doug Adams' devilish sense of humor at having him address a crowd filled with Berkeley liberals at the memorial service.

Father Michael Moynahan noted Adams' history as a beloved troublemaker, and joked that he had "come to bury Doug Adams, not to praise him." He held up gifts Adams had sent him in the final package he received as Doug was on his deathbed. In the package was a crucifix and a clown nose, with no note of explanation. Moynahan interpreted this strange combination of gifts as Doug Adams' dedication to transforming pain through grace, creativity, and humor.

Reverend Eliza Linley, who had been seen in an Episcopal priest collar and gold Mardi Gras mask at the reception prior to the service, led the congregation in a blessing of all artists, creative people, and their friends and supporters.

At the end of the church portion of the service, the participants sang a hymn and went out, but were led in procession by the jazz band, playing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" in New Orleans funeral procession style. The congregation waved banners, feathers, scarves, and white handkerchiefs as they slowly made their way out of the sanctuary for the final outdoor portion of the service.

The final ritual of the service took place in front of the Mudd building, where Adams had taught so many of his students. The communion service was billed as a "sunset meditation" but the unpredictable Berkeley weather had other ideas: a cold fog settled in over the bay, engulfing the normally visible Golden Gate Bridge and chilling the celebrants as they came outside. But the planners of the service had a backup—a large, gold paper mache sun stood by the musicians and vested clergy gathered for the occasion.

In addition to a medley from Les Miserables, participants enjoyed "Canaan Land," sung by a choir in the primitive harmonies of shape-note singing. After words of institution and an invitation to people of all faiths to take part in the feast, the presiding clergy broke a five-foot long loaf of bread, and poured out a special vintage of wine for all assembled. In addition to the Christian symbolism of Eucharist and resurrection, the service was the most basic representation of good food, good wine, and fellowship that Adams valued so deeply.

After eating and drinking, those who had braved the chill warmed to a lighting of candles and a final prayer and song. The closing prayer was written by Doug as a statement of faith a few days before he died, and included the lines,

"We are the prodigal sons and daughters:
God forgives us no matter what we have done.
God forgives us no matter what we are doing.
God forgives us no matter what we will do. Thanks be to God."

As the jazz band kicked up "When the Saints Go Marching In," the lawn filled with dancing celebrants honoring the life of their teacher, mentor, and friend, as others headed to the warmth of D'Autremont dining hall, and tables laden with wine, cheese, and desserts.

Asked if this spiritual cacophony was what Doug Adams would have wanted for his memorial, his sister Sally Adams Urban said, "We tried to make this as Doug-like as possible. And I think we might have even outdone him!"

The final line listed in the liturgy was "Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!"

Thanks go to all event organizers, participants, and co-sponsor Center for Arts, Religion, and Education (CARE).