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We spent Saturday at a memorial service to Brother Blue – Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill. I say “we spent Saturday” because it started about noon and went on until about 4pm. At no time during those four hours did you want to leave. There were several hundred people present, coming from far and near – Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, Canada, California – to name a few places of which we were aware.
Ruth Hill, Brother Blue’s wife, organized a remembrance of her husband which will last in memory as long as Hugh lasts in memory.
Some of you, who frequented Harvard Square, may remember Brother Blue. He was the “Character” dressed in blue, preaching, praising, storytelling, making you feel special as one of God’s chosen. When he raised his hand to welcome you showing you his palm, on which a beautiful butterfly had been painted, letting God’s blessings fly out to greet you – it was his version of the open, giving hand.
The service started with a procession into St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston which set the tone and called Brother Blue back for this performance in his honor. Tejo Ologboni, drummer, led the procession. He is amazing performing by himself, but leading this procession it was as though the roof lifted off the Cathedral, light shone in and the colorful Butterfly Puppets appeared following Ologboni. Their wings moved as butterfly wings move, their faces were bright and lit up with smiles that woke those in the congregation who Tejo Ologboni hadn’t yet touched – if such existed.
Memorial services tend to be beautiful, sad, very tearful with much longing and regret from missed opportunities hanging in the air, during and after. This one started with incredible light, color, shouts of joy, drums and more.
It was the first time I saw Brother Blue in the context of his community and it was glorious to see! We mostly saw him with Ruth, his wife, by his side telling stories, exorting, praising and calling those who passed by to be their best selves. In the context of his community you understood, finally, who Blue was and what his life had been about. “…I see through a mirror dimly, but then face to face…” could characterize this event.
A very long succession of people brought their talents and their being to pay tribute to Brother Blue.
Warren Senders – composer/musician from New England Conservatory composed, sang and got the audience caught up, with great gusto, in the chorus to his song which went:
“My brother Blue, My Brother Blue,
he was the kindest man I ever knew
he took your light and shined it back on you!”
The politicians were there and they normally dampen down any event they attend. These politicians must have been carefully chosen because they added to the remembrance and took it to a higher plane – Charles Yancey from the Boston City Council – who made us remember that Blue was the Official Storyteller of Boston, Alice Wolf from the MA. House of Representatives reminded us that he was also the Official Storyteller of Cambridge and had received many other honors as well; Kenneth Reeves from the Cambridge City Council; Byron Rushing also from the MA. House of Representatives who reminded us that we are in Blue’s story because he put us there and then he insisted on our being in everyone else’s story. Steven Tolman from the MA Senate said what Blue meant to him and the affect he had on Tolmans running for the Senate.
Blue was a storyteller, preacher, prophesied, danced, entertained. He had several mantras – one “The greatest thing you will ever learn is to love and to be loved in return.” And he clearly spoke that from a marriage which was an example of love and love returned.
A powerful performance was by Wendy Jehlen, dancer/Choreographer, Director Anikai Dance. The music to which she danced was a recording of Brother Blue’s breath. It was very moving and magnificent. Once you die, the one physical thing you no longer have is your breath – one thing you can no longer do is breathe. Your body begins to deteriorate because the breath which circulates the oxygen to keep you moving and living is gone. For a few very exquisite moments, Ms. Jehlen brought back Brother Blue’s breath and breathing.
Those gathered to remember Blue in the Cambridge/Boston area were the most truly diverse group I have ever seen in that area. When you die, your funeral and your memorial service say much about how you lived. As I looked around the Cathedral and saw the great diversity of people there to remember Brother Blue, it was a testament to his life. White, Black, Asian, Indian (both East and American), very prominent citizens, those who were clearly living on the edge, in various kinds of dress and comfortable in their clothes. And it was a group of people who lingered and talked in groups at the end of the remembrance and went from group to group even talking to those they did not know in a joyful, light-infused, animated conversation. A rare occurrence in this world.
Byron Rushing reminded us that one form of Brother Blues dialogue was “Praise Poetry” which came from Africa and was meant to authenticate who you are – not who the speaker is! Many spoke on the effect Blue had on them when they were in his audience. Rushing spoke on the effect it had on you when Blue was in your audience. It was a profound testament to the man we were remembering.
With Guy Davis‘ presentation – storyteller, actor, blues musician – there was dancing in the aisle and he was beautiful and extremely talented. Elizabeth Morse‘s harp music was a beautiful meditation which brought us back to the sacred. Ms. Morse is someone Blue asked to accompany him over the years.
Eliot Fisk, classical guitarist, was the final person giving a testament to Blue and it was a musical gem.
I saw, for the first time, the power of the Story. We heard about Dr. Hill’s end time in a rehab facility, which will never be the same again, and it was beautiful because you knew through the story that he didn’t ever lose his humanity or identity or interest in others, nor did he stop blessing others. The story about the “Star Child” – one born prematurely and on the life support systems in which we put some of our children – being told stories by his father with his head pressed against the plexiglass and we heard the father’s promise to continue to tell to bring his child in, the way an air traffic controller brings in an airplane.
It was the remembrance of and homage to a man who made his vulnerabilities into a tower of strength and shared his light and blessings with others. It all ended with a video of Hugh Hill over the years. His voice narrated the message which is one he preached over and over again during his life. It was all done with the background music being different renditions of America the Beautiful.
You left knowing your life had been touched by a truly great human being, who walked this earth in his bare feet and brought goodness, kindness and love to many as you heard story after story of how he so positively affected the lives of literally thousands of people.
Our “Praise Poetry” to Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill comes from his obituary: “Most often known as “Brother Blue” Dr. Hill has degrees from Harvard, Yale and the Union Graduate School…. He wanted his stories to be ‘bread for the mind, the imagination, the heart, the soul. He said, ‘I SOUL my stories out, to speak from the middle of the middle of me to the middle of the middle of you…..’ He presented workshops in prisons, schools, colleges and universities, libraries, and conferences and told stories before countless audiences via radio and television, and in person in streets, parks, and festivals in the U. S. Canada, Europe, South Africa and the Bahamas. Among them were First Night Boston, the World’s Fair in New Orleans, Lincoln Center, Spoleto Festival, United Nations Habitat Forum, yukon Storytelling Festival, the National Storytelling Festival and Sharing the Fire in New England. He received many awards and was storyteller-in-residence for the Harvard Law School’s Saturday School and much more.”
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