Over the Labor Day weekend 2013, 15 women from the Florida District of the Moravian Church, Southern Province, gathered at the Duncan Conference Center, Delray Beach, Florida, for a spiritual retreat focused on sharing stories of coming closer to God. Pastors Willie Israel and Judith Justice (who was not able to attend the retreat), and Gloria Barker were retreat organizers, and Dr. Julia Simmons of Mountain Laurel Moravian Fellowship facilitated the program.
As participants placed items on a lovingly made altar, they relayed stories of important people in their lives: a brother who had moved away and had not been seen for over 30 years; a father’s health which had declined and our retreat sister had stayed with him until his death. These and many other dear stories were stepping-stones as we got to know one another on our first evening together.
On Saturday, participants were invited to draw pictures of their favorite Bible stories just as they would have done as children. Shared memories of Daniel and the lion’s den, David and Goliath, Jonah, the birth of Jesus and the prodigal son provided smiles and knowing nods.
Later participants were invited to draw pictures from a time during which they came closer to God. Pain, loss and struggle wove through each story. Most of these women grew up in places such as Nicaragua, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. All told of concerns that took them to their knees in prayer.
One woman told of her and her mother sharing food with others in their community. Later when political conflict and violence tore through her country, someone snuck to her house and told her that she and her family must leave immediately. She took her children and her mother with only the clothes on their backs and crept up into the mountains and hid away over night. The next morning their house was completely gone. Had they stayed at home, they would have perished along with their belongings. This same woman told that when she had settled in Florida and thought that she had finished raising children, she adopted her grandson and another boy. She spoke of the challenges and joys of raising two young boys at this time of her life.
Another woman told of going as a young missionary nurse to an island country. Doctors that came to serve sometimes knew less about what to do during births than the young nurse. A woman was brought to the mission hospital by her husband and was in painful labor for many hours. It became apparent that the baby was too large to be born without trauma. The nurse told the baby’s father to get down on his knees and pray, NOW! The father did so and the nurse helped bring a 15 lb. baby down the poor mother’s birth canal. The baby sadly died, but the mother lived, and the young nurse gave thanks.
Several of these women told of helping to create new Moravian churches or fellowships. One woman told of beginning a church in New York. She felt grateful that God had used her in this way, but was later heart broken, as she had to leave this congregation due to health problems. Yet God still had work for her, and in Florida she once again worked with others to create a Moravian congregation. Our sister-in-Christ gave thanks for this work.
Another told of being at the point of death when prayer brought a new doctor who brought new treatment, new hope and restored faith. Other stories included finding income-producing work under difficult circumstances, finding avenues to unexpected and satisfying work through education and finding a loving church after giving up on church altogether.
As these strong and lively women related their stories, words such as honesty, humility, faith, confidence, prayer, self-control, love, strength, challenge, peace, joy and closer walk, came from their lips. We wrote these words on a long frieze and began to see a pattern. The “fruits of the spirit” came alive before our eyes. We spent time contemplating these fruits and where they had come from, including time spent in Sunday school, Bible school, church, at the knees of mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, and for many of these women, lessons learned in Moravian schools. These sisters of our Moravian community have had painful and difficult lives. Tears were shed as stories were told. But what stands out in these stories of coming closer to God is not fear or bitterness; it is joy that is heard in their laughter. What remains is enthusiasm for sharing their own stories and stories of the Bible with others in their communities.
What a blessing to spend three days with women who have been sorely challenged and who have been greatly blessed by the gifts of the spirit.
Thanks to: Julia Simmons, PhD, Mountain Laurel Moravian Church, Laurel Springs, N.C. and The Rev. Willie Israel, pastor of Rolling Hills Moravian Church, Longwood, Fla. for this article.
From the March 2014 Moravian Magazine