Memorial Comments from
the Rev. Dr. Arlene K. Nehring

Donald DeWayne Lawrence was born July 11, 1969 in San Jose, California. He was the fifth of five children born to Evelyn and James Lawrence. Donald’s big brothers and sisters include Linda, Richard, “Jeannie,” and “Jim.”

Donald was raised in San Jose, California and lived his entire life in the Bay Area. He was baptized at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, received his First Communion at Santa Clara, and was confirmed at St. Michael’s.

Donald distinguished himself early on as a performer. He regularly entertained his family with pantomime shows after dinner as a child, and took up ice skating as a youth.

Donald had a wonderful wit about himself, which endeared him to small children, and those who looked for a lift at ho-hum social occasions or boring board meetings. The photo montage that Billy D’Anjou created, which has been running on the TV screen tonight, attempts to captures a taste of Donald’s whimsical spirit, which so captivated the child in all of us.

Donald received his primary and secondary education through the San Jose public schools where he attended Independence High School, and later, Leigh High School, from which he graduated in 1987. Donald matriculated at Ohlone College in Fremont, where he studied office management and bookkeeping. While at Ohlone, he was active in the International Deaf Club, and served as club treasurer.

To help finance his education, Donald worked as an administrative assistant at Gallaudet University’s Regional Center Campus in San Jose and as a sales associate for Encyclopedia Britannica and Mary Kay Cosmetics.

Donald moved on from Ohlone to work as an office receptionist and administrative assistant through Olsten Staffing Services in San Francisco, and later worked as a data entry clerk for EDS, where he was responsible for inputting and updating MediCal records.

Donald was a life-long advocate for diversity and inclusion. He served as the treasurer and board member for several Bay-Area advocacy organizations including: the Rainbow Deaf Society; San Jose Lambda Society for the Deaf; the Deaf Counseling Advocacy, and Referral Agency; and San Jose Lambda Society for the Deaf. Starting in 1990, Donald volunteered as a Special Support Provider and as the social coordinator for the Northern California Association for the Deaf-Blind.

Donald Lawrence and his partner of 14 years, Tony Lewis, first met at a Christmas party for the San Jose Lambda Society. From all accounts, it was “love at first sight” and their relationship and Tony’s burgeoning ASL skills rapidly evolved. Together, Tony and Donald shared a home on the Peninsula and later moved to Castro Valley, during which time they provided a loving home for six foster children.

Tony introduced Donald to the United Church of Christ. During the early years of their relationship they were both members of Congregational Church of Belmont, and transferred their membership to Eden Church after moving to the East Bay.

During Donald’s past eight years of membership at Eden, he served one term as the Vice Moderator of our Cabinet. He volunteered countless hours to prepare weekly PowerPoint presentations to support the Sunday worship experiences for persons who were hard of hearing and deaf. And, last year, he served on the Chocolate Committee.

In recognition of Donald’s love to party and his support of our Chocolate and Dessert Faire, we have left the decorations from yesterday’s gala event intact for this evening’s memorial reception and provided an abundance of chocolate candies and desserts.

On a personal note, I will remember that Donald was one of the first members of Eden Church whom I met. We became acquainted long before I came to serve as the pastor of this congregation, when we were both involved in national church work. Through these and the many other ways, Donald and I got to know each other, and through these experiences, I came to know him as a deeply loving and sensitive person, who had a special concern for children, animals, and persons who were frail, vulnerable, or on the margins of church and society.

One expression of his commitment to inclusivity was lived out as a long-time member of what we now call the Accessible to All network in the UCC.

The Rev. Peg Slater, a member of the UCC National Staff, who is Minister for Diversity and Inclusion, staffs this network and had expected to be here to share words of remembrance on behalf of this important body in our church. Unfortunately, Peg lives with severe arthritis and was injured in a fall this past week, and was unable to travel. So she sent flowers and this letter on behalf of the network, which she asked me to share with you tonight.

  Dear Tony and Others Who Loved Donald,

We, the members of the Boards of Directors of the United Church of Christ Accessible To All, Inc., send you greetings and ask to be with you in spirit as you celebrate Donald’s life and mourn his death.

We will miss Donald so much. He was fun to be with and he brought many, many gifts to a ministry which seeks to make God’s church accessible to all....We needed Donald; he helped, he questioned, he laughed, he shared, and he gave much to all of us.

Dee Brauninger, from the Nebraska Conference, asked me to share this brief experience with you to illustrate a sacred moment she shared with Donald. Dee writes: “Donald and I sat across each other at lunch and engaged in an animated, in-depth conversation. He could not hear the inflection of my voice but saw my words; I could not see the expressions of his face. Yet, our interpreter brought together at the level of soul a person who is deaf and a person who is blind. I began to understand patience, persistence, and the smile of our joyful Creator.”

Yes, we will miss our friend and colleague. We give thanks for his life, his gifts, and his ministry. We hold you all in prayer this day. May Donald dance at the sight of his God.



Through the medium of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts of various interpreters, Donald touched us on the soul level. Many of us did not share a common language or many similar life experiences with Donald, so we may not have known him in the same way or on the same terms as we may have known others who have been important to us, yet his soul touched our souls, and that is why we are here tonight.

Donald’s death has ushered in a torrent of emotion for us, and grief is but one of those profound feelings that wells up in our hearts tonight.

Some of us may be surprised or even shocked to hear—perhaps for the first time—that Donald was gay, that he had AIDS, or that he did not always make the life-affirming choices that we would have wished for him. So tonight we must face the truth that we live in a very homophobic world and that despite the fact that Donald was a great advocate for inclusion and acceptance of others, he was not always able to accept himself, as Christ accepted him, or to advocate for himself with the same energy and imagination that he advocated for others.

This congregation, Eden United Church of Church, is an Open and Affirming congregation. We believe that all people are children of God; that persons of all ages, races, and sexual orientations are part of our increasingly diverse culture. And we welcome all persons into the full life and ministry of this church.

As an Open and Affirming congregation, we have tried to be for Donald (and for everyone) a community of faith who accepted him just as he was; and yet his illness and the way that he lived and died serves as uncomfortable reminder that our work to proclaim God’s radical hospitality has only just begun.

There are many of us here tonight—myself included—who have spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince Donald to make healthier choices, and to take better care of himself, but our efforts have seemed futile. In our despair we find ourselves driven to the full range of grief-stricken emotions including denial, bargaining, anger, and depression.

So we have been challenged in new and deeper ways to pray and to live the prayer of our UCC forebear, Rheinhold Neibur, who wrote these words: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

There are some in our congregation who may be experiencing death up-close-and-personal for the first time. Donald was just 35 when he died. He had a very special relationship with his nieces and nephews who are teens and young adults. He was close to the children in his San Jose neighborhood, and to many of the children and youth in our congregation.

Death is always difficult for loved ones, but especially difficult for those of us of tender years and for those of us who lose someone so young. So let me leave you with these words of encouragement from one of the first-graders in our congregation, Willow Moniz.

About ten days ago, Willow crawled up in my partner Stephanie’s lap, looked at her with a “pouty” face, and said, “I’m really sad.” Stephanie asked her why she was sad, and she said, “Because Donald got really sick and he died and I miss him big time.”

Stephanie gave Willow a hug and assured her that her feelings were appropriate and that we were all really sad, because we loved Donald, and that when we love people and they die we naturally feel sad. Then Willow piped up and said, “Yah, and Tony loved Donald too, and that was OK.” Then she popped off Stephanie’s lap and ran out to play with the other kids on the play structure in the backyard.

Like Willow, we all need to take time to express our grief, and to allow ourselves to be comforted by others who care about us, so that we will be able to move on with our lives in healthy—playful ways—mindful that there is nothing, nothing in life nor death that can ever separate Donald, or us, from the love of God. Amen.

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