Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sally Gross - Many parts to a whole

There cannot be many people - (no I am teasing, there is only one) - who would have started life as a Jewish boy called Selwyn; converted to Christianity; became a Dominican Monk; became a communist; entered the anti-apartheid struggle, joined the African National Congress and helped organise the Dakar talks between the ANC and the apartheid government; and then decided to investigate what she called her "bodiliness" only to discover that she had been incorrectly described, at birth as male. She called herself Sally and she wore a dress.

When she approached her Order about the anomaly of a fully ordained Roman Catholic Priest, who was actually a woman, the church did what it normally does in instances where it is caught between a cross and and a garotte - and simply excommunicated her.  There she was, left on the streets - a world authority on the works of St Thomas Aquinas, but homeless and jobless because of her preferred gender.

After reading some of the emails Sally sent out about about her plight, I put the matter to my boss - a deeply humane and excruciatingly efficient person - and a contract was arranged for Sally to work in the Regional Land Claims Commission of the Western Cape as a researcher.  She worked there, reasonably happily, for many years.

In the beginning it was strange, many people tell me - to have this large person with a deep booming, rather plummy voice, in a dress, insisting that she was MISS Sally Gross.  Claimants who encountered her on the telephone, would sometimes insist, when they met her, that they had spoken to a man, not a woman.  She would quickly put them right.  Fellow officials, even today, many years after she had left the Commission, will recount instances of Sally emerging furious from her office, in full flight and throat, flailing her cane about and not shy to connect with anyone in her rampage.

Sally was a character.  I remember her in Pietermaritzburg, (when she was still Selwyn and teaching at St Joseph's Seminary).  When you met her casually in the street, she would immediately engage on some issue or the other.  She would quote Latin, Hebrew, Greek to you - and assume that you understood.  She knew everything about everything - as far as I could work out.  And not just the basics.  Not just the general drift of an argument.  She would know the fine detail - the argumentative twists and turns - the very substance of anything you wanted to talk about - with references.  And her graciousness was never to expose you for your mere nodding acquaintance with the matter to hand.  She would simply assume that your knowledge was as vast as hers - and carry on.

The Church scarred Sally.  It did so knowingly and it did so repeatedly. And the people in it who did so should please bow their sorry heads in shame at this point.  Hold the false grief, please.  Close your avuncular mouthes.  Bury the platitudes and just shut up.  You can have nothing to say.  Take your loving Jesus anywhere else - but not here.

Sally didn't ever pretend to be a saint.  But nor would she pretend to be anything other than who she was.  She refused to allow herself to be anything other than what she was - and she was made to pay dearly for doing so, by the church with the victim saviour.  She refused to fit the mould.  She would not.  She could not.

I once said to her, not so long ago when we were discussing our mutual disgust with the church, that I had never depended upon a belief in God to appreciate the goodness of the world - she agreed with me, in a simple and uncomplicated (and unreferenced!) way.  Neither had she and neither did she.

Sally had journeyed from Jew, to Christian, to Communist, to Buddhist to secularist.  And although she would share and appreciate a range of beauty in all of these, it was to the beauty of nothingness, of the nihil that she would trudge towards in the end.

She had no fear of death - we discussed it on numerous occasions.  She had a fear of dying alone.  And that is what happened.  And the fact that it happened in the way that it did is a testament to the singular, lonely path she trod.  It was never easy.  It was never grand or ostentatious.  It was never flashy.  It was what it was. And those of us who knew her should not punish ourselves too much over it. It was usually unsupported.  That was her life.

I will miss her insight and her shy sense of humour.  I will miss the camaraderie we shared as exiles and outcasts, both as priests and as christians and as ANC members.  I will miss that plummy voice on the end of the phone, quoting Hebrew at me.  Most of all, I will miss her courage.  I will miss the fact that she was not only form - she was also substance.  A rare thing in this country of ours. Hamba Kahle MISS Sally Gross.


  1. Thank you for writing this. She was extraordinary.

  2. Thanks from me too. I only regret that I met Sally so very late in her life and was too consumed with my own busy-ness to get to know her better. Such richness lost to the world, so soon.

  3. I met Sally Gross as a buddhist a long time ago, just on the internet. I knew enough about her to know she was one of those people who are really worth to have on a buddhist forum. I didn't know she was so unique and special, though. Maybe her secular side will indulge me in wishing her happyness, wherever she is, and wherever she's going.

  4. Thank you for this. The dictionary reference for Catholic states:
    adjective: (esp. of a person's tastes) including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.
    synonyms: universal, diverse, diversified, wide, broad, broad-based, eclectic, liberal, latitudinarian.
    Your words, together with this description resonate strongly and portray the inclusiveness and the totality of Sally's path through life. There were no half hogs in her life, her plate or her intellect. As much as I wish Sally could have been more "worldly", had she been so, would have diminished her.

  5. Thank you for calling this to my attention. You say Sally never pretended to be a saint, and yet it seems that she was a saint in the true sense of the word. Rest in peace, Sally!