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December 2013 Issue

Forever Called

By Richard Lord


Passion is the overriding energy that flows from the Brooks-Howell Home, a United Methodist Women-owned facility in Asheville, N.C., for retired United Methodist missionaries and deaconesses. The more than 100 residents are relieved of the responsibilities and schedules of employment but never from their Christian vocation of service.

Take Deaconess Barbara Campbell. She moved to Brooks-Howell after her 1995 retirement from United Metho-dist Women's national policymaking body, then the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries. She retired as assistant general secretary for administration and was known then as a walking repository of United Methodist Women history and the stories of "unsung female leaders" instrumental in molding The United Methodist Church. She documented some of it in In the Middle of Tomorrow, which the Women's Division published in 1975.

At 87, Ms. Campbell remains a historical resource to the organization. Since retirement she chronicled the work of United Methodist Women foremothers' international efforts to educate girls and women in To Educate Is to Teach to Live, published by the division in 2005.

"When I resigned my position, I asked myself, 'What do I do now?'" Ms. Campbell said. "I tried to retire, but I couldn't stop my activities. So, I started my new life by studying my family history. That grew into my research on the Church."

At Brooks-Howell, retired church workers not only share memories of their years of service but also a contagious zeal for mission that lasts a lifetime.

Ms. Campbell is very active in Asheville's St. Paul's United Methodist Church, where she's chaired the administrative council and now serves as president of the local United Methodist Women. St. Paul's United Methodist Women has prepared health kits for United Methodist Committee on Relief, corresponded with incarcerated people and worked in a women's shelter.

Ms. Campbell is not an anomaly at Brooks-Howell, a place created for women dedicated to service through The United Methodist Church.


In 1956, the original Brooks-Howell property, a stately three-story home was purchased. Its name honors Mrs. Frank G. Brooks, then president of the Woman's Division of Christian Service, and Mabel K. Howell, former professor of missions at Scarritt College, then the organization's mission school in Nashville, Tenn.

The main building, named Bethea Building in 1988, was completed in 1961 and houses a kitchen, dining room, library, lounges and other ancillary rooms. Nineteen suites were added on the second floor when the facility was renovated in 1989. Thirty-eight beds on the first floor are licensed for nursing care.

Over the years more land was purchased, and the 10 Chandler-Burris Apartments were built in 1965 to accommodate up to 12 residents. The Jones-Cadwallader Apartments were built in 1970, adding 14 apartments housing up to 22 residents. As the population grew and residents aged, more health care space was needed. The Cummings Health Unit was built in 1977 to house 20 resident-patients as well as the facility's laundry, a fellowship hall and additional storage.

In 1993 more property was purchased. A driveway connecting the home with Merrimon Avenue was built, another cottage completed, and 10 residents moved in from Robincroft, a residence for retired missionaries that closed in Spring Valley, Calif. Construction of four two-bedroom apartments near Merrimon Avenue was completed in 1995. A village with 11 two-bedroom apartments and an activity building were constructed in 1998, and an aqua-therapy pool was added 1999.

In 2003 a chapel and four apartments were completed.

The Brooks-Howell Home Advisory Board supports the operation of the home under United Methodist Women policies and administration. The home is a member of the North Carolina Association of NonProfit Homes for the Aging and the American Association of Homes for the Aging. The North Carolina Department of Human Resources, Division of Facility Services, licenses the home for 58 nursing beds. Physical, occupational and speech therapy services are available in-house. Brooks-Howell's outreach ministry makes health care beds available to persons in the community who are not otherwise eligible for residency.

Currently, about 10 of the residents are men, primarily spouses; 25 percent are deaconesses; and 50 percent were missionaries. About a quarter of the residents are from the community and unaffiliated with United Methodist Women.

Rents are based on a sliding scale related to income. United Methodist Women subsidizes the facility's annual budget.

Called to served

For many, Brooks-Howell Home functions as a place where those who've answered God's call to serve"retire" to their next appointment. Such is the case with Esther Megill. While she's known throughout the Asheville area as a progressive activist, Ms. Megill views her activism as part of her faith.

"As a Christian, one needs to be political," said Ms. Megill, who is engaged in West Carolinians for Peace in the Middle East, Church Women United and People of Faith for Just Relationship, which works for civil rights for gay and lesbian people.

Ms. Megill says her political activism sprouted from the 21 years she was a missionary in Sierra Leone and Ghana. When she returned to the United States, she sought ways to change the nation's policies to help people in other countries. Before retiring, Ms. Megill served as executive secretary for North and West Africa for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries' World Division.

Over the years, her outreach methods have changed with the times. Social media, she says, frees her from the physical rigors of traveling to meetings and is increasingly effective.

"Young people don't want to go to meetings. For them, it is all over mobile phones and the Internet," she said. "Now, I'm staying connected with them by using social media."

Resident Susan Carmichael, 89, also a United Methodist deaconess, focuses her activities within the Brooks-Howell community. Ms. Carmichael came to Brooks-Howell in 1996 after teaching religious education at United Methodist Women-related Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C., for 32 years. She serves the community by working in the library one day a week and covering the complex's main desk on Sunday nights. A member of the American Association of University Women, Ms. Carmichael books speakers for Brooks-Howell programs and other events.

The energy level at Brooks-Howell spreads throughout the complex. It would require a conscious decision to not be involved in the community. In addition to the aqua therapy, exercise classes, chapel services and library, the facility has a closed circuit television station, and social and cultural activities.

Brooks-Howell is a community.

"We're a community of like-minded people," Ms. Campbell said. "We relate to each other on a multidimensional basis. We learn about each other's personal lives. It is not like when you are working and all you know about people is their professional lives. The community is built on the attitude that people have when they arrive. Once they are here, we make certain that each person is included in everything in which they want to be included."

Ms. Carmichael agrees. "It sounds trite, but we're something like a family."

"There is an infrastructure which encourages community," Ms. Megill added. "There are many programs. And it is small, so we all know each other. And we all have a lot in common."

Residents' common roots in Christian service has special meanings at Brooks-Hollow. Some of the artifacts from residents' years of service as missionaries in distant lands are on display in the facility's International Room. The collection is diverse and includes carvings from Africa, prayer wheels from India and a Japanese screen with a peacock and more.

At Brooks-Howell, retired church workers not only share memories of their years of service but also a contagious zeal for mission that lasts a lifetime.

Richard Lord is a photojournalist based in Ivy, Va. He traveled to Brooks-Howell in August for this story.

Last Updated: 03/20/2014

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