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I would be helped if clergy would… - February 25, 2014

Last month Courtney Fowler, newly elected Lay Leader for the Great Plains conference, presented at a conference at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. Read her reflection below on how her experience with Healthy Families, Healthy Planet has helped her find her voice in ministry.

I would be helped if clergy would...
By Courtney Fowler

Presented at Phillips Theological Seminary

1. Challenge me to trust God enough to live a risk‐taking faith.

Before I started my new role as Conference Lay Leader, I found my voice and calling through advocacy training and based on my experiences living in South Africa. When my husband and I were faced with a job opportunity in Durban, South Africa, it was my clergy father who was the most encouraging and supportive regarding what seemed like a risky move from all angles—career, safety, distance from family and friends. His words, “God has something good in mind for you,” inspired me to be open and look for God in the midst of everything around me.

Even though our three years came and went quickly, I’m still affected in ways that God has been guiding me to this place today. While I was there, I would volunteer for a friend’s organization that provided early childhood development to orphanages. Here I felt God saying to me, “This is why I brought you to Africa, to show you where I’m doing my best work.” Being with babies who lost parents in the escalation of the HIV/AIDS crisis, knowing they are left alone in the world is gripping. I’ve spent the last 10 years haunted by their fate and prayerful for their future, wondering about their lives today.

2. Challenge me by reminding me that God already knows us and I am strengthened by God’s steadfast love for me.

When I might otherwise feel overwhelmed by life or the desire to run away from something, this reminds me to stay steady. I’ve spent and continue to spend too much time wondering what more I could have done to help those babies. The feeling of helplessness lingers ever‐present, especially when I look at pictures of that time. I don’t get to “undo” the fact that I’ve seen their faces and touched their tiny hands with mine.

So around the occasion of my 40th birthday, a great clergy friend of mine challenged me by asking, “What is your passion if it’s not the work you do?” No one had ever asked me that quite so bluntly before.

It was through connections facilitated by clergy that today I serve as a maternal health advocate through an organization called Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, part of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. It focuses on the reproductive healthcare of women, specifically advocating for healthy and safe conditions for them to give birth, improve access to healthcare facilities with trained midwives, nurses or doctors. In this work, I believe I have found my voice and my passion at last.

3. Challenge me by reminding me God is present and working in my life.

Remind me that I don’t have to rely on my own strength. I can trust that God will use me as I am for God’s purpose in the world. As the Great Plains Conference Lay Leader, I am working to help people see a connection in God’s world, both locally and the global.

In 2000, the United Nations undertook an ambitious approach to improving the lives of people in the world by 2015. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) range from fighting poverty to achieving environmental sustainability and universal education. I work on Goals 5 and 6, focused on improving maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS and Malaria.

Through my advocacy work, I’m blessed that the church has provided an outlet for advocacy. When clergy colleagues of mine call on me, “Courtney, you’re needed here,” I’m grateful for the opportunity to advocate for those that the world often does not see. This calling that I am living out is a privilege that God has put before me to speak up, advocate, and bear witness to the loss so many experience. I wake up every day with a sense of urgency, hoping to share my story with just one more person.

Sometimes it’s quite hard where I live. Kansas is quickly becoming an unfriendly place to talk about women’s health and reproductive justice. But I do it anyway, because 2.5 million children in South Africa alone don’t have parents because they lacked access to reproductive healthcare. I hold them in my heart when I’m speaking in front of groups and everything else is pretty easy.

This personal transformation happened because a clergy friend challenged me to accept that God could use my strength and my weaknesses to be a part of God’s work in the world.

My father’s prediction for me in South Africa came true and today I share that story from about 10 years ago that was the beginning of my journey that brought me here today.

We were driving through the South African countryside on our way to our favorite game reserve for a weekend safari getaway. My husband was driving, and my four-year old and baby were asleep in the back seat. As we approached a road checkpoint on a semi-rural road, we saw a long line of standstill traffic and a long wait ahead of us. As we slowed down, I noticed women selling fruit along the roadside.

Paige, my baby girl, awoke and began crying. Outside the car, women began tapping on the car windows, showing off their produce. I smiled but shook my head. Then one woman noticed my baby crying in the back and smiled, gave me a look, and turned sideways, so that I could see her baby asleep on her back, tied in a traditional African sling. I reached for the car handle to open the door.

I opened the door and got out to see that woman’s baby. It was a baby boy and he was sleeping in his sling as peaceful as ever. The woman poked her head in the car to try and calm my baby who was so shocked by her abrupt appearance that she stopped crying in confusion. Despite every difference between that woman and me—economic, social, national—we were just two moms admiring our babies with everything and nothing in common. I said to her, “Your baby is very beautiful.” And she replied with simple words that changed my life, “Yes, God has blessed me.”

It was one of those small life changing moments that we experience when we least expect it.

Of the two woman there, one of us knew that God knew her, blessed her and she lived fully in that knowledge. And the other one…well, I got back in the car a completely different person. I’m grateful for the many clergy that have loved me, challenged me, guided and shepherded me and ultimately helped me find my way here today.