I hope to write plenty of cheerful posts in 2011, but I’m afraid this may not be one of them. Although I was blessed with some fun times over the festive season, tomorrow is a day for another funeral. This time, the deceased is someone I have never met, and who lived an ocean away. But I have cried more than I might have ever guessed for a woman I knew from an internet forum who had ferocious skills to which I don’t generally aspire.
Erin Etheredge was the community editor for the Ship of Fools web forum, a discussion site where Christianity and the fringes of Christianity have been the subject of much serious and hilarious conversation over the last 12 years. I was a frequent contributor to the site about 6-8 years ago and still have regular contact with friends I met there via Facebook. During a time where my church attendance was patchy or worse, the discussion boards allowed me to rant and ponder issues of faith, surrounded by an eclectic mix of generally supportive ‘shipmates’ who would console, challenge, carp and congratulate… sometimes all in the same post.
Erin was represented by an alligator avatar, and her caustic wit, intolerance for trolling and bullshit and wise knowledge of what was best for the community as a whole made her seem indispensible, even to those who were sometimes on the receiving end of her crafted put-downs. A week ago she died unexpectedly after a sudden bout of ‘flu. It is hard to imagine the boards without her – she was someone who seemed like she would always be there and the very suddenness of her death at just 39 has left a large online community in shock.
Erin was the antithesis of weak and wimpy Christianity. While I would rarely have chosen the same words she used, the way she cut through crap and dealt fairly with pests, newbies, whingers and people who were having an off-day was truly masterful. But at the same time she was a beloved and sweet aunt: a picture on her obituary page shows she could welcome little children as well as tearing strips off hypocrites and driving out those who weren’t respecting God’s holy place.
Her plain talking reminds me a little of my church friend who died recently, and I do wonder whether some of my grief has got mixed up between the two women. Perhaps it’s easier to cry for someone further away, or where my own memories are tied up with what the whole community meant for me back then. I haven’t visited it much lately – moving south, studying and a new preoccupation with Facebook meant I didn’t have so much time for the Ship. My faith journey also moved on to the extent that I didn’t personally need the safe, anonymous place where I could express my faith and doubts in the same way. But I know other people are now in the place where I was then. And perhaps I have something to offer in terms of compassion, righteous challenge and even something more ferocious now and then. Sometimes you need a ‘gator in your corner. She will be missed.