Commemorating the life of John David Leeper
Below are remarks that I made at my grandfather’s funeral today at Bethel AME Church in Marysville, CA.
The kindest most gentlest man I know passed away on Thanksgiving Day. He was 78 — though he seemed so much older. Lifetimes older. When he spoke you could hear the voice of the ancestors speaking with him. Generations of wisdom and experience transmitted through song and story, folkways and traditions — the cultural DNA of a people. He had a heart purified of arrogance and strife. He had a mind sharpened by study and prayer. He had a soul pleased with and pleasing to the Creator.
I’ve been thinking a lot over the last week about his personal effects. The objects he’s leaving behind. Like his driver's license. Tooth brush. Pin ties. I thought to myself: Isn’t it strange how death can turn the mundane into the sacred? His favorite handkerchief. The rocking chair he sat in after breakfast to read the newspaper. Once incidental, unremarkable objects. Now relics imbued with ineffable meaning. Talismans that we’ll use to conjure the memory of a sage, a saint whose time, it seems, came too soon.
When I was five I came up to Granny & Papa one day and said: “I’m going to become a doctor and make a pill that makes you live forever.” They laughed and smiled. Told me they loved me. Never crushed my juvenile dreams. At the time, I couldn’t conceive of a life without them in it. And, despite all the talk of children’s egocentrism, it was really the opposite. They were my universe and I was just a tiny blue dot milling about in what resembled an orbit. Can any of you imagine a life outside of our universe? Just close your eyes a moment and try. The mind can’t fathom it because it's all we’ve ever known. In my toddler imagination, Granny and Papa were that ubiquitous, inescapable presence. Yet I knew that, like the universe, they would eventually pass away. Hence my plans to solve the problem of mortality — and put it in a pill, apparently.
That was when I was a child. As the Apostle Paul says in the book of Corinthians, when I was a child I spoke as a child, understood as a child, and thought as a child. But when I became a man I put away childish things. I got a little older and abandoned the foolhardy venture to find the secret to immortality in this world. I started becoming interested in other more worldly matters. Like Batman and Pokémon cards, then basketball and girls. These were the knowledges that I now found important. I pushed the thought of mortality out of my mind and fell into the self-delusion of assuming that there’d never be a time when my Granny & Papa wouldn’t be around.
Then I became an adult and began studying another knowledge, which contains the secret of life everlasting not in this world but the next. Islam — the sister religion of Christianity and Judaism, three of the largest religions in the world, all of which share a reverence for God, a belief in prophethood, an expectation of the Messiah’s return, and an understanding of the immortality of the soul.
Everyone knows that Papa was a mortal man and like all mortal men he had to one day pass on. This is a shared fate that we all accept as reality — regardless of our religious belief or lack thereof. God says in a verse in the Muslim scripture that, “Every soul will taste death.” As believers we also know that there is a life beyond this temporal world. The rest of that same verse says: “And you will be paid on the Day of Resurrection only that which you have fairly earned. Only he who is saved far from the Fire and admitted to Paradise will have attained the object (of Life). For the life of this world is but the comfort of illusion.” Humans live with the illusion that this life is all there is and there is nothing but the seen world. Our forgetfulness about our own mortality only compounds this. One of the moments when the comfort of these illusions is disrupted is the death of a loved one. We react in disbelief. We ask ourselves “how could this happen?” We despair at the thought of never seeing the one we love again. Not waking up with them next to us. Not being able to hear the sound of their voice over the phone. We become the child that wants to make a pill for his grandparents to live forever.
When I first got the news of Papa’s passing I became that little boy again. I was in shock, which soon gave way to a boundless despair. I was planning to surprise him with a visit the following day. All I kept thinking about was how I didn’t get to say how much I love him before he left. How I didn’t get to say goodbye. My wife was sitting next to me on the bed, also grieving. Then, hearing our cries, my father in law came in the room to console us. He began reciting part of a verse from the scriptures of our shared tradition.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’iun — From God do we come and to God do we return.
He kept saying it over and over and over again. I stopped crying and in that moment came the clarity that can only come from the word of God. I was reminded to consider that Papa was not my universe. He too was a tiny blue dot in a vast creation not of his making. The muslim scriptures say: “God is the one who created you, then provided for you, then will cause you to die, and then will give you life again”. Isaiah the Prophet said: “Even when you are old, I will take care of you, even when you have gray hair, I will carry you. I made you and I will support you; I will carry and deliver you.” Papa was called back to the One who made and sustained him. And one day that One will call me and all the rest of us back. The question is — in what state will we be when we are called?
Prophet Abraham is considered the patriarch of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Throughout his life he received various visits from the angels, some of which have been recorded in scripture. When God sent the Angel of Death to take his soul, Abraham (AS) was reluctant to go initially. The Angel looked at him and said: “What lover would deny an invitation from his Beloved?” Then Abraham went on back to his Lord willingly. Papa, the patriarch of our family, was a faithful lover of God. Like any lover he did not deny the invitation of his Beloved. He said goodbye to his earthly companion of 55 years, told her he loved her and entered the embrace of God — glorified and exalted is He. From God he came and to God he did return.
John David Leeper carried the names of two prophets of God. Two prototypes of the Messiah, men who embodied courage, gentleness, and strength — gifts that come only from the Most high. Papa’s life was a proof that God never abandons His servants, that He tests them then gives them the support they need to patiently persevere. He lived through three major wars, two civil rights movements, and saw the first black president. He raised a beautiful family, mentored multiple generations of young men, served in the Air Force, and served God in the church for decades. He lived a full life and when I think about Papa I am overwhelmed by the incomprehensible mercy that God has shown by placing me in his care. The humblest, most generous man you could ever meet: John David Leeper — Papa. May the Most Merciful ennoble his face, reward him for his good deeds, forgve him his faults, give him honor in this life and in the next, and raise him to a high station in paradise with all the righteous servants of God. Let the church say Amen.