Rev. Pamela Shepherd
As your Consecrating Steward this morning, I’ve been asked to talk about why I give. There is no way to talk about why I give without telling you about my mother.
My mother, Geneva Shepherd Seltzer, grew up in Rome, Georgia during the Great Depression. She was eight years old when the stock market crashed in 1929. Her family lost their farm, and her father died of pneumonia by the time she was eleven. She dropped out of school in the 5th grade to go to work in a textile mill to help support her widowed mother and six kids.
Her family was as poor as it gets in America. They stayed alive through the Great Depression with the help of a weekly box of groceries the Baptists dropped off on their porch. So when my mother married a guy who had money, she believed in spreading it around. To whom much is given, much is expected, she always said. I later learned that Jesus was the one who first said that, but it was how my mother lived.
In our rural Pennsylvania Dutch community, long before the invention of retirement homes and assisted living centers, we had a place called The Widows Home. It was a place for destitute widowed women to live out their lives in comfort and dignity.
My mother was one of the founders and chief fundraisers for the Widows Home, and I remember being dragged there with her as she cheered up the elderly widows by letting her young children run around.
My mother remembers my sister, Patty, running down the halls and throwing herself joyfully into every stranger’s lap, while I stared and stared, and watched and watched, and hid behind my mother.
I was so shy, but I was learning: We belong to one another. We are the answer to other people’s prayers. That’s how God works; that’s how God’s working. That’s how I’ve seen God work here.
My mother believed, and still believes, that we are called to improve the world where we touch it. We are called to serve where we live.
I was, because my mother insisted on it, the kid who came to your door with a can, collecting for muscular dystrophy, the Cancer Foundation, Unicef. Whatever the cause was, you name it, my mother had a can for that, and she sent out the can with a kid.
My mother founded our local Library with the Women’s Club she chaired. They recruited their husbands to build the shelves in a spare room in City Hall. As the men worked on weekends building the shelves, they drank beer and tossed their empty cans behind the shelves into the walls.
My mother is one of the smartest people I know, and she is also well educated. She educated herself by reading our schoolbooks. I don’t know the answer, she’d say when we asked her a question. Let’s find out. And then years before Googling or Wikipedia, my mother always did.
Since her brothers and sisters still lived in poverty, my mother spent a lifetime helping other people’s children. She helped nieces and nephews and shirt-tail cousins go to college. She educated a whole lot of kids.
My mother believed we should make our wealth a pipeline to the poor. She knew in the scars on her own body what poverty takes from poor kids.
In 1972 Hurricane Agnes hit the east coast, and whole towns and cities were flooded. If you’ve never been in the middle of a natural disaster you may not know this, but for days, at first, there is just confusion. The Red Cross and the government finally do show up, but they often don’t show up for days.
On the day the rain stopped, my mother put on her American Red Cross uniform. (She had uniforms, by the way, for several volunteer positions.) And with no authorization or authority from the Red Cross, my mother gathered up her teenaged children and all our friends, and she drove us into the worst hit neighborhoods with buckets, mops, and shovels.
People stood in the streets bewildered outside their destroyed and mud-filled houses, while my mother unloaded teenagers with buckets and mops and told us all how to begin.
My mother was only five feet tall, by the way, at her greatest height. (I am still, in my family, the tall, leggy one.) As people took instructions from my mother and began to dig out houses, I saw how a tiny woman with no authority at all, could step in when hope was needed, and teach people how to begin.
In 1975 when the Viet Nam war ended with the fall of Saigon, an abandoned Army base near our town was turned into a refugee camp, and within just a couple of days thousands of Vietnamese Refugees were dropped into the abandoned camp without any plan at all.
It was late May, and I had just arrived home from my first year of college. My mother hustled my brother Michael and me into the car and drove us out to the Army base. She was wearing her Red Cross uniform, of course, so the soldiers at the camp let us in.
Introducing herself to the camp commander, the unauthorized little woman in her Red Cross uniform volunteered my brother to work with the Tolstoy Foundation to resettle refugees with American families, and then volunteered me to the U.S. Army to set up a school and teach English. I had no training, skills, or interest in ESL or teaching. My mother just totally made it up that I could do that for them.
My parents then took in two young women who had been airlifted from Saigon without their families. At ages 17 and 18, Witt and Thu became their kids. Then my mother talked our church into sponsoring sixteen more people. They rented a big house on Main Street and furnished it, and three refugee families moved in.
One of my favorite memories from that time is laughing so hard with my new sister, Witt, as she practiced for her first job interview, trying to learn to say in English, Welcome to Chicken Licken!
My mother is 94 years old, and she lives in an assisted living center now that her short-term memory is sketchy. She meets with a few others once a week in their communal kitchen, and with the help of a young woman on the staff whose job it is to remember things, like how many eggs they just put in the bowl, they bake cookies to sell in the lobby to raise money for local charities.
They don’t have uniforms yet, but I am hopeful. To whom much is given, much is expected, my mother still says. With her whole life she taught us the joy of it.
It’s time to say goodbye to you now. It helped me this week to read how hard it was for Jesus to say goodbye to his friends. And that commandment he left them, by the way, it’s Love God and Love each other. That’s really all we need to remember. That’s really the whole point of this.
In the Sweet Bye and Bye is an old Baptist hymn I learned from my mother. As I’ve prepared to leave you I found that I kept singing it: In the Sweet Bye and Bye, we shall meet on that beautiful shore. In the sweet bye and bye we shall meet on that beautiful shore.
To our bountiful Mother above
We will offer our tribute of praise
For the glorious gift of God’s love
And the blessings that hallow our days.
It is a core part of my faith that you and I cannot be parted. We have always been, and will remain Christ’s Body in the world together.
It has been the greatest gift of my life to be your minister. I will never be able to thank you enough for that glorious gift, and for all that we did here together.