The rain came down in near-Biblical proportions the afternoon of Sept. 29, but that wasn’t about to deter the St. Martin-in-the-Fields congregation members and other well-wishers from parading their way to the Germantown porch of the day’s much-loved honoree:
The irrepressible, indomitable Rena Graves, who turned 100 years young that day.
Some revelers wore hats; the retired deaconess was known to be a snappy dresser. Ms. Rena herself wore a birthday tiara for the occasion. Her porch was decked out with balloons and flowers. There was a band, a harmonica player, and the West Powelton Steppers came to perform. And, of course, everyone made a big deal about the 100 years.
Everyone except Ms. Rena.
“Age was not important to me. I never thought about,” she said, grinning. “I just live my life, and I live every day. I think you live a better life that way.”
What a life it’s been. And she still has plans.
“She’s 100, and she’s tackling the computer” said Betsy Masters, a fellow congregant and friend. “She can bring great wisdom to any situation. She’s just a very special person. We love her.”
For her birthday, her St. Martin’s friends printed a memoir they helped Ms. Rena compile. She’s already well on her way to finishing her second book, about her insights into the aging process.
“Her whole life was helping other people,” said Barbara Dundon, another St. Martin congregant. “That’s what deacons do. It’s a life of service.”
Rena Graves was born Rena Ruffin, the youngest of three children, raised by her mother and grandmother. The grown-ups cleaned wealthy people’s houses, and the children, from a very young age, helped out, doing laundry and ironing. They moved around the city — South Philly, North Philly, West Philly.
Her mother put her in William Penn High School, then a mostly white school, because she thought the education was better. The teenager had her first experience with racism in the 11th grade, when she spoke with a counselor about her future plans. She said she wanted to be a social worker or a dietitian.
“When I said that to her, she said to me, ‘Well, you don’t have to go to college to learn how to cook. Just get a job in somebody’s house.’ I knew then that was a racist remark.”
It wouldn’t be the last time, but it didn’t stop her. Ms. Rena went her own way in work, faith, and life.
She worked many different jobs — cleaning, taking care of children, attending to those with special needs, laboring in factories. With each job, she made sure she earned at least a little more than the one before.
“I used those jobs as stepping stones,” she said.
In 1957, she was hired by Honeywell. Several years in, she was promoted to line supervisor. Her mostly white coworkers' friendliness turned cool.
“I didn’t pay them any mind,” she said. “I knew I had a job to do.”
By the time she retired from Honeywell after 25 years, she had bought her own home, her own car, and she had her own money.
“I was so independent, you wouldn’t believe it.”
She had good times, too. She and nine female friends called themselves Just Ladies. They went on outings locally and to dinner and shows in places like Washington and New York. One day, one of the ladies invited her to a family picnic in Chester. She caught the eye of a cousin of her friend. His name was Preston Graves, a custodial supervisor with the Chester school district.
“He said to me, ‘I’m coming to your house.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’”
They were wed in 1977, but their bliss was short-lived; Preston died of prostate cancer in 1981. Ms. Rena never thought to marry again.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful man,” she said. “I knew the kind of man that I had, and I wasn’t going to look for another one because I knew another one wasn’t there.”
Ms. Rena followed her own mind when it came to church, too. She was raised Baptist, but as a young woman, she decided something else might suit her better. She settled on the Episcopal church.
“I like pomp and ceremony,” she explained.
In 1985, she was ordained a deacon and loved that it let her help people. She retired a few years ago, after serving in several churches in West Philadelphia and Germantown. From 1987 to 1997, she also worked as a chaplain at Wissahickon Hospice.
The Rev. Helen Williams, one of the friends at her 100th birthday party, remembered meeting Ms. Rena when they worked together at the hospice.
“I said, ‘Where did this fireball come from?’” Williams recalled.
Fireball indeed. Age has never been a barrier for Ms. Rena. She was in her 80s when she earned her master’s degree in theological studies. In recent years, City Council has honored her for her long history of civic activism. Writing poetry is one of her latest advocations.
And about 13 years ago, feeling the need for new spiritual home, she found her way to St. Martin. She was visiting churches, looking for a new congregation. She went to a Sunday pre-service forum at the Chestnut Hill church and was taken by the friendliness of the congregants. She already knew some of them, but the fact that there weren’t many other Black congregants didn’t faze her.
“When we sit and talk to each other, we learn from each other,” she said. “I say to myself God has me here for a reason. I think He wants me to get Black and white people to sit down together and talk.”
And while she served as deacon for other congregations, St. Martin, which has embraced racial justice and inclusion as important missions of its faith community, became her church family.
“Here I am now at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, being loved by these people,” she said.
She says she never had a birthday party until her 95th, when the folks at St. Martin’s stumbled upon her age and decided to make a fuss. They’ve given her a party every year since. The Sunday school kids make hats to honor their resident classy dresser. She loves it.
Ms. Rena seem decades younger than her age, especially in conversation, but she says cooking and getting around have gotten to be a bit difficult. And since the pandemic hit, her doctors have cautioned her to stay home. Her St. Martin friends have organized a meals ministry to keep Ms. Rena fed and well-cared for.
Because of COVID-19 precautions, she also had to miss registering folks to vote in person as she has done the last 10 years, bullhorn in hand. This year, she could only work the phones. Which, of course, she did.
“You can’t stop her from trying to get people to vote,” said Carol Duncan, a St. Martin’s deacon.
And neither pandemic nor rain wasn’t about to stop her 100th birthday celebration. Her guests all were treated to goodie bags containing cupcakes, ice cream, and inspirational bookmarks. They shared the lawn with signs for “Black Lives Matter,” “Hate Has No Home Here”, and Ms. Rena’s choice for president and vice-president.
Ms. Rena’s secrets to living long and staying are pretty simple: no fast or processed food; live a good, clean life; and never stop being willing to learn.
“Life is always different,” she said. “You need to be able to accept and endure — accept how life changes and endure the changes. And thank God for all of it.”