A Life in Mission
Listening to Mary Ellen Owen is something like watching a docudrama covering the growth of United Methodist Women and the nation over the better part of the past century. At 92, she’s seen — and made — quite a bit of history: women’s suffrage in 1920, six U.S. wars, Jim Crow , the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s liberation movement, the formation of the United Methodist Church and much more. With so much living under her belt, Ms. Owen has a perspective filled with good reasons for hope and joy as United Methodist Women walks into a new future.
“Goody, goody!” Ms. Owen said when she arrived at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla., and learned United Methodist Women’s autonomy had been approved and the deaconess program was back with the organization. At the time of the church merger, the women’s mission organization was placed within the new United Methodist Church’s Board of Missions and much of its work placed with corresponding divisions of the board, but that arrangement was not the women’s first choice.
“We were against it, frankly,” Ms. Owen said. “You see, it used to be that all the women missionaries were under the Woman’s Society of Christian Service. They did not want to be under the Board of Missions. The women made their budget based on what they had received. The couples went out under the Board of Missions. The board made its budget based on what it hoped to get.”
Ms. Owen was born in St. Louis, Mo., but grew up in North Carolina as the daughter of a Woman’s Society of Christian Service mother and Methodist District Superintendent father who was an ardent feminist — which was quite unpopular at the time. He insisted on placing the area’s lone ordained woman in his district, she said. Likewise, Ms. Owen’s mother carried her to the polls in 1920 when women got the franchise, and she was finally able to vote. “She thought it was important,” Ms. Owen said.
Through word and deed, her parents and extended family members instilled in her the importance of mission.
“Mission runs deep in our family,” she said, adding that now her granddaughter continues that tradition as a volunteer with the Barnabus Foundation in Houston, Texas, while Ms. Owen herself still volunteers weekly at a local hospital. “We believed in mission. If there was a missionary itinerating anywhere in the area, they stayed at our house.”
This hospitality extended to Eleanor Roosevelt once.
“She had come to speak at Livingston, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’s college in Salisbury, N.C.,” she said. “The president of the college called the mayor and said, ‘What are you doing to entertain the wife of the president?’ and he said, ‘Nothing: she’s coming to speak to you all.’ So they called mother.”
Known for her strong views and support for social justice, Ms. Roosevelt wasn’t a particularly popular woman in those days, Ms. Owen said, but the family began organizing a fitting reception. They got the local YWCA to prepare a luncheon and figured Ms. Roosevelt would need to rest from the train ride. They were wrong.
“She came to the train station, no secret service, carrying her own luggage,” Ms. Owen recalled. “They asked her, ‘Would you like to rest first?’ She said, ‘Oh, no, I’m at your disposal: I rested on the train.’ It would take a hot 20 minutes to drive her around Salisbury, so Daddy went to Kannapolis and spoke to Mr. Cannon of Cannon Mills. He had the high school let out, and the school band played for her.”
When Ms. Owen married in 1940, her mother invited her to joined WSCS. Her husband went off to World War II, and she moved into mission. The women supported work with women and children in coalminer families in West Virginia. They sent a deaconess to the area to organize the women into groups and start schools for the children.
Ms. Owen served as a delegate to the 1968 and 1970 General Conferences that brought the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren together to create the United Methodist Church. “They had General Conference within two years because of the unification,” she said. She was part of the women’s effort to make their voices heard by insisting on representation on key committees — particularly the conference committee — and that that woman be the president of United Methodist Women. She wrote down everything she wanted to say, even her name, and went to the mike to speak to this issue at General Conference. Supporters yelled to help her get the presider’s attention. “And I wore a pale blue crepe dress. I figured I would stand out against all those black suits,” she said.
Ms. Owen is still committed to the voices and concerns of women being heard in the world and United Methodist Women’s Christian mission focus on the needs of women, children and youth.
“I think its so important to know the world and to carry God’s mission to that world, and I know of no other organization that offers that opportunity to women other than United Methodist Women,” she said. “It’s important to make a place for it in your life.”
Yvette Moore is editor of response.