Women's Division, Deputy General Secretary Report
Jan Love Gives Her Personal Testimony of Faith
by Jan Love
At Wesley United Methodist Church in Columbia, SC, we make use of a “call-back.” Maybe you’ve used it in your church or local unit, too. It goes like this:
I say: God is good. You say: All the time. I say: All the time. You say: God is good. Let’s practice.
My entire speech tonight could be summarized with this one set of phrases, but as you can guess, I will not stop with just a summary!
At Wesley, another tradition that I appreciate is that members periodically give their testimony to the congregation. This method of sharing our faith, found in evangelical traditions, is one of the ways we strengthen our community and encourage each other in the journey. Growing up in Alabama with half my extended family rooted in Baptist or nondenominational churches and the other half in evangelical Methodism, giving testimony about one’s individual salvation story was about as normal as eating a pot roast Sunday dinner, occasionally so normal that the strength and power of sharing the intimate ways that we meet Jesus Christ in our personal lives sometimes got trivialized.
When as a young person I gave witness to my salvation story in places like church camps, revivals or lay witness missions, on occasion I puzzled people. “That’s different,” some would say. A few of my relatives got quite worried that my testimony deviated from theirs. They laboured hard to convince me that my witness should conform to be more like theirs. With my father’s firm support -- and he was the one ordained in the family -- I always resisted this pressure. Despite tension that popped up periodically over our different understandings of the faith, we had lots of fun together as an extended family and continue to enjoy each others’ company.
The occasional use of testimonials in the World Council of Churches, where I have in one way or another represented The United Methodist Church for about three decades, has strengthen my appreciation for giving such witness. In the WCC, I encountered on several occasions the wonderful passage from 1 Peter 3: 13 that says: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” In the World Council, I heard numerous stories of faith that gave an account of the hope that lives within individual Christians and their communities all over the world, some having undergone severe persecution. These testimonials moved me greatly, stretched me considerably, taught me about the many faces of Christ, and demonstrated extraordinary hope in situations that most of us would consider hopeless.
At the local level, Wesley UMC taught me that we can create safe places in the inner city where blacks and whites come together and where rich and poor alike are welcome. In this fascinating mix of folk in South Carolina, every time I hear an intimate portrayal of why faith matters in a particular person’s life, I discover anew the wonder and joy of the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the strength we gain in the community of the faithful.
Tonight I want to give a testimony of my faith journey, an account of the hope that is in me, a hope that is intimately tied to mission and ecumenism. As a youth in Alabama, my witness was off-beat, even peculiar, to many around me because it inextricably interwove mission and ecumenism, two concepts whose meaning I did not even know at the time. Experiencing salvation in Christ for me has always been a story of a love so large that it cannot be confined or reshaped to fit the categories that describe or dominate our world in the neighbourhoods where we live or across the globe. Our Book of Discipline entreats us to “Join God’s mission to reclaim, restore, and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention…”(Para. 1301). Our Women’s Division policy statement on giving, “Mission: Responding to God’s Grace,” states that, “It is God’s will that all people share in the feast of God. And, by God’s grace, all shall.”
In ecumenism, we stretch across the deep differences that often divide Christians and humanity to build bridges of understanding and reconciliation. By accident of birth into a wonderful family, I grew up learning about and experiencing Christ as the One in whom there is abundant life for all. Being in mission and striving for Christian unity pervade my faith journey from the very beginning. So that is where I’ll start, giving you a glimpse into how early on and throughout my life, I encountered the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
I hope that my testimony will not only demonstrate the inseparable, synergistic, and creative dynamic of personal and social holiness in the Wesleyan tradition, but also that my witness will encourage you to continue to talk about your faith journey with me and others in the Women’s Division as together we deepen and widen the supportive community in which we know God and “experience freedom as whole persons though Jesus Christ.”
I want to share three stories from my life: growing up in Alabama, being a young woman in the World Council of Churches, and deepening my faith through our daughter, Rachel’s illness. As with almost all testimonials, some of what you will hear will not be easy to listen to, and much of it will be intimate, as faith journeys always are. For me, such a witness is only possible when a group creates considerable safety in a supportive community, something I believe we have already begun to achieve this quadrennium. I feel very honoured that I get to address you as the Women’s Division on a regular basis and share my thoughts with you.
So let’s get started. God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.
Growing up in Alabama
As you have read briefly in Response magazine, on March 10, 1958, in a coordinated attack on several pastors, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) burned a cross in front of the parsonage where my family lived in Satsuma, Alabama. I was five years old at the time, and the sight and shock of this incident made a deep impression on me. My father, along with sixteen other white Methodist pastors (plus fourteen from Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, and Disciples congregations) had published a petition in a local newspaper supporting the campaign by 37 African American pastors to end bus segregation in Mobile. A year earlier, the Montgomery bus boycott, under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had desegregated buses in that city, just 180 miles north.
Like a number of the men who joined the campaign, my father was young, 28 years old at the time. Many like him experienced shame when, in Montgomery the year before, white Methodists leaders either worked actively to defeat the bus boycott or remained silent in the face of the turmoil. In contrast, pastors of the largest Methodist churches in Mobile, together with their District Superintendent, Dr. Andrew Turnipseed, organized the white pastors’ support for the black pastors’ campaign. Like my father, however, those attacked by the KKK served in small, more vulnerable rural congregations.
As described by Donald Collins in his book, When the Church Bells Rang Racist, the crosses were twelve feet tall, made of burlap sacks and rubber inner-tubes that were wrapped around two by fours, soaked in gasoline. At least one of the crosses was built in the back of one of the local police stations. Although only five, I can still remember my father’s rage when my mother, alarmed at the sight, called him home from church as she huddled my sisters and me in the house away from the windows. Daddy kicked the cross down into the dirt road on which we lived. It burned for some time, blocking what little traffic there was.
Having acted in faithfulness to the Gospel as they understood it, these men and their families knew that their work would be controversial in the context of the entrenched racial oppression of the Deep South and the turmoil of the still young civil rights movement. Nonetheless, the sharp reactions that their fairly small efforts provoked startled many. The pastors’ activism had been encouraged by local church leaders, yet the bishop counselled strongly against such engagement and actively punished some who were involved. In every case, the local churches withdrew salary support from the pastors and requested their transfer, which happened at the next meeting of the Annual Conference. In the meantime, Dr. Turnipseed, in one of the beautiful illustrations of our connectional system, helped to ensure that these men and their families received enough money to live on. The bishop, however, provoked by Dr. Turnipseed’s leadership, demanded that he leave the Alabama-West Florida Conference. In 1959 he transferred to the New York Annual Conference where he served until 1973. Most of the families that stayed in Alabama, including ours, continued their witness for racial justice, often in small ways, but we moved frequently from parish to parish, branded as difficult by the hierarchy and as misfits in our local communities.
As children, we each reacted differently to our circumstances, as is normal. We frequently discussed our recurring, sometimes welcome, sometimes unwelcome, moves from one parsonage to the next, and the tension that occasionally erupted in our local church or community. We regularly rehearsed why we were seen as so peculiar by those around us. The reason was shockingly simple, of course. Why are we doing this?, we asked our parents and ourselves, sometimes with tears, sometimes with laughter. Because, the answer always came, as you know from the Sunday school song, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, as our Sunday school lessons had taught us so well, had very clear, practical consequences, and working for racial justice was one of them.
Therefore, in my most formative years, I knew that, out of the depths of our faith, my family stood for a wonderful and joyful truth about the fullness of life in Christ that those most immediately around us rejected. Our isolation within some parts of Methodism and in the communities where we lived, however, stood in sharp contrast to the warm but distant embrace of those whom we knew to be our Christian companions in this struggle. We made a point of spending time with some of the other families that had been targeted by the KKK, having fun together and immersing ourselves in a friendly, safe space. Furthermore, we felt surrounded and upheld by the prayers, statements, activism, resources, and encouragement of those in the wider denomination and in ecumenical bodies who understood racial justice to be at the heart of the gospel. We knew all too well that many suffered far more harm than we did, some losing their homes, their health, or their lives. For me, being able to count myself as one of their number constituted a high honour. Their accompaniment in our little struggle in our little place strengthened our resolve, gave us courage, and helped us to overcome the isolation immediately surrounding us. We knew why we were hopeful. We were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who had always understood that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrew 11: 1), and sometimes faith was all we had. But it was enough.
In middle and high school, I turned repeatedly to the comfort of two of my favourite bible versus. One is from Matthew 7: 1-2 (NRSV), which say, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” The other is Romans 12: 2 (KJV), which says, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God”
This story about growing up in a parsonage in Alabama is a testimony about mission because our family deeply believed that witnessing to our faith meant joining in “God’s mission to reclaim, restore, and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention…” We knew in the depths of our souls that in Christ there is abundant life for all. This testimony is also about ecumenism, our call to Christian unity, because the deepest divide among Christians was race. For us, acting on Christ’s prayer in John 17: 20-21, “that they all be one…so that the world might believe…” meant building bridges across the chasms of difference we experienced as black and white Alabamans and as black and white Christians.
The issues of mission and ecumenism that face us today as United Methodist Women and as Christians generally seem at times to be much more complex than those of the civil rights movement and other social justice causes of years past. I believe, however, that this perspective dangerously romanticises and distorts the tough realities of the history many of us experienced. Furthermore, we sometimes conveniently forget how deep the divisions were among Christians at the time. For those who made the choice then to play a prophetic role, the answers were not always obvious, the way forward was not always clear, and the burdens were not always bearable. Even when offered in the most loving and joyful way possible, obedience can be costly. Nonetheless, as best we knew how, we waded into these controversies praying that, with God’s help, we might “find a way out of no way,” as many African Americans put it.
God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!
A Young Woman in the World Council of Churches
In 1975, six United Methodists, including Theressa Hoover and me, were elected to represent our church on the 158-person WCC Central Committee (or board of directors) at the Council’s Nairobi Assembly. Because of its timing, this gathering of 1000 delegates from about 300 member churches inevitably focused special attention on human rights violations. Many church leaders who came to Nairobi were from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe where Christians and others experienced first hand the crushing weight of political oppression in the 1970s.
One of the controversies at the Assembly focused on a sculpture made by Guido Rocha, a Brazilian artist. This figure was a large, life-size crucifix, but it was shocking. Its title is “The Tortured Christ.” The Jesus depicted on this cross is emaciated and screaming boldly in pain, anguish and rage. For many, it represented Christ’s identification with those who have endured torture, disappearances, war and other forms of violence. I had never encountered such a picture of Jesus. I was so shocked, I had to sit down and meditate on it when a friend took me to the basement to see it. WCC leaders had removed it from public viewing because many delegates found the sculpture much too disturbing. Paradoxically, however, I have found this display of Christ’s agony to give me comfort across the years. As Matthew 1:23 tells us, “’…the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” God is with those who experience deep pain and distress, even torture, as we know happens all too often, even at the hands of those acting on behalf of our own government.
In January 1979, together with Theressa Hoover and the four other United Methodist delegates, I attended my third meeting of the Council’s Central Committee in Kingston, Jamaica. This was a grand event, not least because we found ourselves on a beautiful island in the Caribbean in the middle of winter, but also because of the wonderful reception local churches gave us.
Early in the meeting, one night three of us, a young woman, whom I will call Marjorie, a young man, and I, were abducted by two men armed with semi-automatic weapons. They took us deep into the woods, sat us down, emptied our bags of all our valuables, and asked us about ourselves as they smoked marijuana. Then the leader took me away alone and raped me. He eventually brought me back, got Marjorie and took her away to rape her. When they returned we continued to sit all together for what seemed like an eternity while the abductors made jokes about Americans. Eventually, they escorted us to a fence bordering the campus where we were staying and told us to climb over and go back. They assured us that they would watch us from afar and that we should speak to no one. We passed several campus armed guards as we made our way silently back to the dorm.
All three of us believed for most of our time in the woods that we would die that night. We were grateful that we had our lives, but for Marjorie and me, especially, our lives had been turned upside down.
I know this story is horribly shocking, and although different in detail, many women and some men have similar stories, even perhaps some of you who are seated in this room. I have told this story publicly only twice, once to Women’s Division staff. I tell it now not to shock you or to cause anyone distress, but to convey the profound role it plays in my faith journey, my personal understanding of salvation. From my point of view, my recovery from this trauma is nothing less than a resurrection story.
Women played the primary role in helping me and Marjorie recover. The first one was Theressa. I sought her out and assured Marjorie that she would help us. She immediately found us a safe place to sleep for a few hours and began tackling other practical details of helping us cope in the immediate aftermath. (She also insisted on rooming with me on a trip that we both took a few months later. She wanted to make sure I felt safe travelling again.) Dame Nita Barrow, a nurse, an extraordinary Christian lay leader from Barbados and eventually a president of the WCC, also played a key role the next day in getting us access to excellent health care.
When we finally decided that we had to return home, that we could not stay for the remainder of the meeting despite our somewhat valiant desire to do so, Theressa made all the arrangements. I returned not to my apartment at graduate school in Ohio but to the amazing love and care of my remarkable mother in Alabama. For a week, she and my sisters surrounded me with careful, appropriate support, nurture, and a quiet, peaceful place to rest. When, after a week or so, I mustered the courage to tell my closest friend, she, too, rushed to be with me. In ways that I did not comprehend at the time, these women were the face of Christ for me, the loving, compassionate, grace-filled presence of the One who “…gathers the outcasts…heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” as Psalms 147: 2-3 says.
Marjorie could not share her experience with her family but found wonderful support for recovery among a group of friends back at school.
Another group pivotal to my regaining strength and confidence was a feminist organization at Ohio State University, where I was in graduate school. The group taught courses on risk assessment, self defence, and the realities of violence against women. They helped me believe I could navigate the world again. I began jogging and worked hard to become physically fit, a powerful tool as I sought to regain a sense of confidence. Along the way, however, I had to acknowledge the painful and horrifying reality that, as with many women, nothing that I had the capacity to control that night could have stopped this rape from occurring. Like many women, I would have to learn to live with the inescapable sense of constant vulnerability. Yet this group of feminists in Ohio taught me that rape, grief, and fear need not define my life, that I could continue to chart the course of who I wanted to be, and from my faith perspective, who God wanted me to be.
This is a gripping story about me, but what does this have to do with women in mission? One answer to this question is that I became a woman on a mission to help the church and the university, my arena of everyday work, address the issue of violence against women. In the various places where I found myself employed as a professor, I worked to organize courses to teach women about rape, sexual harassment and other forms of violence. I helped the WCC begin a process, in the language we use in the United Methodist Church, of creating safe sanctuaries for women, especially young women.
The first time I spoke about the Jamaica experience publicly was in 1994, 15 years later. I was invited to give the closing sermon for the first meeting of the Central Committee in Johannesburg. In acknowledgement of the WCC’s strong advocacy against apartheid, we had been invited by the churches in South Africa to come and celebrate their new-found freedom. Hundreds of leaders of world Christianity gathered for the occasion. At this time of great joy in one part of the world, however, we were witnessing the revival of rape as a weapon of war in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, just we have seen it recently used in Darfur. In a horrible betrayal of trust, even United Nations Peacekeeping troops have engaged in rape recently in the Congo. I employed the occasion of my sermon to say to church leaders across the world in a state of very deep denial about violence against women that rape has a remarkably familiar face: that of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters -- even me.
When I contemplate the horrific violence that too many people suffer, I reflect on the rage expressed in the Brazilian artists’ crucifix that I first encountered in Nairobi in 1975, a sculpture too disturbing to display publicly. I know a little of what that kind of rage feels like, a bit of the humiliation and scorn that Jesus must have suffered. Since the rape, I have meditated frequently on what it means to love my enemies, to do good to those who have hurt me. I often ponder the full meaning of forgiveness and what consequences it has for my life and that of my attackers. As I already indicated, due to the extraordinary support I had for recovery, even through occasional set-backs, this is ultimately a resurrection story, an experience full of hope, endurance, determination, renewed strength, and complete confidence and joy that, for Christians, the crucifixion is never the end of the story. For those who open themselves to the loving grace of Jesus Christ, hope always overcomes despair, and life always overcomes death.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good!
My Faith Journey Through Rachel’s Illness
One day when Rachel was just beginning first grade, she rushed into the house after school. She said, “Momi, guess what? Guess what we studied today? Did you know that they used to believe that girls were not as good as boys? That girls couldn’t do what boys could do?” I looked at her, trying to be startled and surprised, trying to accept this lesson she wanted to teach me. She then said with complete confidence and a measure of comfort in her voice, “Don’t worry, Momi. They don’t believe that anymore. We girls can grow up to be whoever we want to be.” And she raced off to play.
What a joy to see a child all full of eager anticipation and assurance! Children teach us so much! At the time, I remember reflecting not only on how it feels to see a child like Rachel confident of her own future, but also on the very real possibility that, one day, something would come along to break Rachel’s stride, to undermine her sense of self-assurance, and to bring her sorrow that might, for a while, outweigh her joy. This “something,” of course, is called life. If she ever stumbles, I thought at the time, I hope Peter and I have the capacity to help her regain her balance, to find her footing, to tackle with determination the inevitable challenges that life will bring. At the time, however, I had no idea how challenging life would become for Rachel.
From the age of 10 to 15, from 1998 to 2003, Rachel suffered a series of debilitating illnesses that were unusual and miserably difficult to diagnose. Periodically, for months on end, she experienced pain so severe that all she could do was lie on her back. We had wonderful doctors in Columbia, and they helped us find terrific specialists at Johns Hopkins University. Rachel endured six surgeries across these years, two of which were brain surgeries. We would get one problem under some control only to have another one break loose. She attended school part time, if she attended at all, during this period. A series of wonderful, dedicated public school teachers came to our house every semester and during the summer to help her keep up with her studies.
Again, I want to convey this story not for its own sake but for what it taught me about my own faith journey and my understanding of mission. Like Rachel, many children suffer terribly, probably some in your life, but not all of them have access to resources such as the best doctors in the country. And, like Peter and me, perhaps like you, many parents watch their children endure unbearable burdens without the support and resources we had. As Christians, what is our obligation to those children and those parents?
I learned a lot during Rachel’s illness. I learned that I was married to an extraordinary man who gained strength upon strength, and helped me be strong, as we faced the challenges together.
I learned how to sit for hours doing almost nothing except simply being present for Rachel when she was in pain. I learned the meaning of failure, repeated failure in one of the most important jobs entrusted to me, that of helping to heal my own child. We did our very best, as did the doctors, but these illnesses where tough to tackle. At times our best was just not good enough, and our failures weighed heavily on us all.
I learned anew the meaning of crucifixion from another angle. I meditated deeply on what Mary, the mother of Jesus, must have felt when she saw her child endure excruciating pain, what the mothers and fathers of children who are wounded or die in war must feel, or those who watch their children stunted by malnutrition, as you heard this morning in the report on Laos, or so many more such circumstances.
I learned the profound importance of our faith communities, family and friends, and others of good will. Members of my congregation and Peter’s Quaker Meeting poured out prayers, gave referrals, cooked meals, and kindly reminded us of their quiet, steady support. Local women friends of mine who are devout Hindus, Muslims, and Bahais prayed regularly for us. My friends in United Methodist Women, the Women’s Division, and ecumenical arenas all over the world sent messages regularly and kept us on their prayer lists. As Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswald said in the video you saw today, “This isn’t a journey we make alone. We are the ministers of salvation to one another, which is part of the mystery of being members of Christ’s body....” We had opportunities, through these communities of support, to glimpse the reality of the Risen One in our midst.
I struggled with the meaning of prayer and at times expressed my anger at God, as though somehow God was responsible for Rachel’s suffering. Nobody else was responsible, and I wanted to blame somebody. Let me suffer, I said. I know I can take it. Don’t let her suffer, please don’t let this child carry this burden. I found it uplifting but also humbling for our family to be the subject of so many people’s prayers, so much noise going up to God on our behalf. At one point, I became so frustrated that I screamed in agony to God, how many prayers would it take? What’s the point if she’s still in so much pain? How many more petitions do we have to pile on here, God, for this thing to work? I acted as though I believed that God works magic, not miracles.
But then an important epiphany broke through. I found that if you get mad enough to start arguing with God, God argues back, as the wisdom of the Jewish tradition has always taught us. The point of all the prayers, I discovered in a fresh and powerful way, was to remind me, Peter, and Rachel, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. The power of intercessions both locally and globally is to help us stay focused on the reality, as stated in Romans 8: 38-39, “…that neither death, nor life, nor angles, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God...” I needed to be reminded of a basic truth I already knew. God was in the middle of Rachel’s suffering and ever present for us all.
I reacquainted myself with that wonderful 19th century hymn by George Matheson,
O Love that wilt not let me go,
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
Moreover, I relearned a great lesson I already knew from being a child in Alabama. Suffering, as horrible as it is, especially for a child, is not the worst thing that can happen. I would not wish suffering on anyone. Furthermore, a lot of the suffering many people endure due to poverty, lack of health care, neglect, abuse, war and many other social diseases could be prevented, if only we had the will to address these problems.
But sometimes, as in Rachel’s case, suffering is unavoidable; it happens whether we are ready or not. One of the most important points of being in community, and in Christian community in particular, is to help each other through such pain and problems that come our way. Christ calls us to bear each others burdens (Galatians 6:2). When we bear them together they become much lighter.
Furthermore, Romans 5: 3-5 says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts…”
Rachel herself gave an account of the hope that is in her in an essay she wrote late last year. She poignantly describes her pain and confinement. She ends the essay by stating,
Our little girl who ran home from first grade with such confidence and joy will finish high school in May of this year with an even deeper sense of her own strength, thanks be to God.
Meanwhile, I am ever mindful of the extraordinary privileges and resources our family brought to bear in getting Rachel well. Most families don’t have access to the best doctors in the country. Many have no access to regular health care at all, much less health insurance. Many have no sustained nutrition from which to build lives of confidence and determination. One of the reasons, I accepted the call to be the chief executive of this organization is that I am determined that United Methodist Women and the Women’s Division will continue our great legacy of being in mission with women, children and youth, to reach out in ministries of charity, mercy and justice to create a world where all children can be healed and whole, where every child gets a chance to be surrounded by a loving community of those who uphold them when they suffer, who demonstrate hope in the midst of despair, love in the midst of hate, and life in the face of death. Jesus loves all the children of the world and calls us as United Methodist Women to love, serve and seek justice for every single one of them, sharing near and far the loving, saving grace of Jesus Christ.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, these three stories constitute significant parts of my faith journey and personal salvation story. I cannot easily sort them into neat categories of what constitutes personal holiness and social holiness. They are inextricably interwoven in one complete fabric. God has worked to deepen my faith through intense personal interactions, sometimes violent interactions, with social realities. Social and family circumstances have given me repeated opportunities to understand new forms and dimensions of God’s gift of personal salvation in new and challenging ways. This dynamic has always been characteristic of my encounter with the wideness of God’s mercy.
I look forward to hearing testimonies to your faith in Jesus Christ, your encounters of God’s love and grace, as together we give account of the hope that is in each of us and in the work we undertake on behalf of God’s mission.
Date posted: Apr 11, 2005