Elicit the Best from Sun. November 20 by Kyle Nienhaus

They said I have three to five minutes, so you’ll have to forgive me if this takes six minutes! — I have a slogan that I say to myself not infrequently: What would James do? I thought to abbreviate it, but then found: WWJD? Oh no… well, forget the abbreviation then. My point is deeper, more subtle, more sage- like.

James Croft arrived at The Ethical Society of St. Louis as Outreach Leader shortly after my wife, Nikki, and I became members, and immediately I was enthralled by his presence. The smarts, the style, the really cool accent, James had it all, and on top of all that we were the same age, if I’m rounding a bit. We even nearly crossed paths in Boston, with I leaving Berklee shortly before James arrived at Harvard in the late aughts. I even made it out to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, but too early to cross paths with my future Leader, though we would stand in many of the same places at different times before meeting. My incredible reverence for Kate Lovelady, our Leader at the time, opened up wholly to James, as they were a fantastic duo bringing wisdom and action to the largest Humanist congregation in the world right here in St. Louis. When Kate was retiring as Leader there was no question in my mind that James should succeed her, and I looked forward to many more years of James developing The Ethical Society along with who he might train up into the position as new Outreach Leader. The future was bright.

Enter COVID-19. All of us were wrenched into quarantine as society ground to a halt under threat of a deadly virus improperly contained. What was to be a celebratory sendoff and invigorating inauguration for our Leaders became a virtually-attended, pajama-wearing, meeting in a window on our computer screens that was simply unfair to everyone. For James to have taken up the role of Leader at this time was a daunting task, to say the least. To not only take over the responsibility of the direction of a Humanist congregation at these times but the heavy decisions to close the building for two years and mitigate the maintenance of The Ethical Society’s community in these uncharted waters was a task new to James and literally everyone else. James shouldered and paid what was necessary to see The Ethical Society through the storm and back into the light… only to announce that he could honestly give no more, would not be seeking further terms as our Leader, and was to return to his family and homeland in England after nearly a decade in America. The news hit like a ton of bricks, and oh how I raged at the fates and the void! I didn’t blame James, I empathized with him, for what he did for this congregation was an achievement and his assessment of himself honest. But it still wasn’t fair, and I hate to even mention this name, but… this is literally Donald Trump’s fault! One night at home I was carrying forth about the entire situation and Nikki said to me, “Wow, James leaving is really upsetting you, isn’t it?” To which I replied that of course I was disappointed in the scenario but really I was fine, this is fine, I’m fine [drinks from flask], totally fine.

All of this to say: James Croft elicits the best in me. My interest in putting all of my energy into The Ethical Society was already reaching a fever pitch before the pandemic, and upon our reopening as I dipped my toes in I found the water warm and welcoming, along with the empowering sense that it is each and every decision each and every one of us makes that makes up the world. Mountains come from the sea, the bedrock of which is layered by one grain at a time over a long, long time. Seeds, sometimes dormant for years before sprouting, become a tree one ring at a time. In this regards, James is the finest talker of talks and strongest walker of walks that I have personally known. One need only to meet him or hear him speak to know that his is a spirit overflowing with spirit, one that gives away oneself and must give away oneself. This is no small task, in fact it is the greatest task we should all continually strive to be worthy of. I have another slogan that I coined, the inspiration for which was taken from Felix Adler and tempered by my experience with James Croft: Become Leaders unto yourselves, for by doing so you inspire others to do the same! To me, James is the philosopher become sage, and a strong voice par excellence for prose, poetry, and song. I shall never fail to be inspired by him so long as I live.

So James, I’ll miss you, I love you, I thank you for eliciting the best in me, and I am wishing the best for you.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.