We mourn our just-retired Minister, Clay Nelson, who died on 2 November 2023. Clay was our Minister from September 2014 to August 2023.
Givealittle page to raise funds towards Clay’s funeral.
Nina Khouri has launched a givealittle page to support Clay’s family with funeral costs.
Clay Nelson touched so many people through his 40 years of ministry, introducing folk to the power of radical love and acting as a resource to all who desire to experience their full humanity through their chosen spiritual path. And dedicating his life to building communities committed to transforming the world to be a little more just and a little more peaceful.
The Funeral was on Saturday 11th November, at the Auckland Unitarian Church. and was livestreamed on YouTube, follow this link Funeral Service for Clay Nelson -https://youtube.com/live/ByH9HkpcDVo, to view that.
Follow this link for the NZ Herald death notice and condolences page.
Here’s the Eulogy delivered by Rachel Mackintosh at Clay’s Funeral.
Clay was born on 31 May 1949 in Coral Gables, Florida.
His father, Calvin Clayton Nelson Sr, was a student at the time and was subsequently an academic whose career took him all around the USA — so Clay and his younger sister Cynthia, recently reunited for some happy days in Philadelphia, lived all over the place … a couple stints in Florida, and also Sandy Oregon, Yakima Washington, Gunnison Colorado, and eventually LA California …
Clay described his peripatetic home life as loving and secure. He was brought up on the Socratic method, led by his father to question and to think. And he was brought up feeling loved. His parents, his father Calvin and his mother Gloria, both semi-orphans growing up, always provided a stable home for their children. Clay greatly admired their marriage, and he searched for such a committed and loving situation for himself for most of his adult life.
However, outside his home, he frequently found childhood a difficult and isolating experience. Often the new kid in town, always skinny and little, he experienced bullying, beatings and alienation. At high school in Gunnison, Colorado — high on the western side of the Rocky Mountains — he wanted to play saxophone but got to play the tuba instead, accentuating his smallness and doing nothing for his street cred.
But he always got involved, in band, in school work, in sport, travelling all over Colorado for school athletics. After several years at high altitude, his efforts running at sea level on the sand in California caused the high school coach there to tell the other boys that they would all be champions if they “worked as hard as ‘Nelson’”.
And he was always involved in his church. In preparing for their marriage, his parents had looked for a faith community, tried out quite a few options, and had chosen the Episcopal Church because the services were no more than an hour. That almost random choice would go on to provide Clay with a haven wherever he went. In church, he memorised bible passages, sang in childrens’ choirs, participated in outreach programmes and became an acolyte. Thus, his life had a shape and a sense of community. Church was a safe place for him.
His undergraduate years at UC Santa Barbara were a time when he became socially and politically involved, supporting the civil rights and anti-war movements, and being deeply engaged in student affairs. He also attended class occasionally, and crammed enough at the end of each semester to get through exams. It was his father who pointed out to him that — given his ratio of community involvement to study — he might well be interested to know there was such a discipline as organisational development and that there were careers to be had. And so off he went on a full scholarship to the University of Ohio for his first masters’ degree.
He had a fine career for the rest of his 20s developing small communities of up to 2,000 young people, running university residence halls, first at Kalamazoo (yes it’s a real place) Michigan, and then at George Washington University in DC.
It was during this time in the 1970s that his two children were born — Sarah and Elissa. I have heard many stories of the time he spent with his daughters. You will hear some of them later from Sarah, reading a tribute from both of them. Clay loved his children. He was very proud of both of them, and never forgot a birthday of any of their six children (between them).
And so to his ministry.
Clay had been accepted into a PhD programme in organisational development and ended up doing a masters of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary instead. He had been worried that he wasn’t holy enough. I know what he means. When I met him I remember commenting to him that he was wonderfully gentle — with just the perfect amount of pepper. (I like quite a lot of pepper.)
Some parts of the church haven’t always so much appreciated the pepper.
But in the end the priesthood was a calling. He excelled in seminary and loved the learning, the ideas, the history … he loved finding meaning there. His learning and thinking led him over time to describe himself as a non-theist; he had no belief in an interventionist God, but he maintained to the end an appreciation of the wonder and mystery that makes life worth living.
Clay explained to me that once you are a priest, you are a priest for life. These 40+ years of ministry have seen Clay creating community wherever he has been. One of his clear messages to this Auckland Unitarian community is that a church is not a club. To have any hope of being what it needs to be — a place of transformation and justice — a church must be an open and loving community.
In Buffalo New York, Bloomfield Hills just out of Detroit MI, Glen Ridge New Jersey, Sun City in the California desert, at St Matthew-in-the-City here in Auckland — where he received death threats over his blasphemous billboards and took the bishop to the Human Rights Commission because of that person’s refusal to ordain a gay man — and most recently in his time here at the Auckland Unitarian Church, Clay has created community. Giving people space, but stepping in when required. Making things happen — restored stereophonic organ, anyone? — and letting things happen, as the community builds itself with singing groups, social justice action, alliance-building, community fundraising, theological discussion, the sharing of food, and friendship.
But I don’t just want this eulogy to be a CV.
When Clay and I got married I said that when it feels like someone is a whole cosmos, focusing on one small star may give us a sense of the whole. I spoke of just one aspect of Clay’s gifts — his generosity. I repeat now more or less what I said then: Clay’s generosity was personal, political, social and theological. He was always generous to me, and to my family. He was generous to many of you too and you will have your own memories. That was personal. In 2017 when a group of Indian students was in danger of deportation, Clay led us as a congregation with absolute certainty to show generosity to the students, and we offered them sanctuary. We weren’t all keen all the time — people were nervous about the liability and also the possibility that the students were being deported because they deserved to be. Clay was really clear: those were the wrong concerns. Generosity is not something we demonstrate because we have judged a needy group to be virtuous, and it is not something we demonstrate once we have ensured our own safety; it is something we do because they are vulnerable, the least powerful people in the story, and it is within our capability to fill their need for safety. We show generosity because our values guide us to do so. Our generosity was political because the students were powerless and together we challenged the powerful. Our generosity was social because the bonds formed transformed both our community and theirs. Our generosity was theological because it expressed the purpose of this beloved community.
And a personal note from me. I know because he told me that our marriage was the one Clay had dreamed of since witnessing his parents’ loving union. I am so honoured to have been that to him. I have been enriched beyond words by our love. As was he. I always knew I was likely to outlive him. I wanted to have as much time as possible with him. I guess we did have exactly as much time as was possible.
As our house fills up with flowers, many for Clay and many for those of us who loved him, their proliferation — apart from being beautiful — speaks of the connections between all of us, and of our beloved communities, in all their configurations.
Clay would approve.
Darling, you had a wonderful life.