3:30 P.M. EST April 8, 2011
Sitting in a church pew one day, Laura Draughon Kirby realized she wanted to merge her work-related passions and talents for social justice with her religious commitment.
On April 7, the 42-year-old Asheville, N.C., resident and nine other deaconess candidates, along with one home missioner, were commissioned in the chapel of the Interchurch Center, home of the offices of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Shown in a live webcast, the event was part of the spring meeting of United Methodist Women.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline defines deaconesses, who are laywomen, and home missioners, who are laymen, as “professionally trained persons who have been led by the Holy Spirit to devote their lives to Christlike service under the authority of the Church.”
A native of Atlanta and former Presbyterian, Kirby joined the denomination in 1993 when she married Lem Kirby, whose father was a clergy member of the denomination’s North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference. She and her husband, a physician, have three boys, ages 9, 12 and 14.
About four years ago, the same time she started work as development director for the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, Kirby attended a “discernment weekend” to learn more about the deaconess movement.
Participating in such an event is the first step toward commissioning, explained Becky Dodson Louter, the executive in charge of the board’s Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner Program.
An applicant “must demonstrate they are in a ministry of love, justice and service,” she said. “They may serve in a church-related vocation … or they may serve in a helping profession.” Once an application is reviewed, “if it seems like it might be the right match, we invite them for interviews.”
Other requirements include the completion of several courses of study and a consultation with the bishop of the annual (regional) conference where the applicant resides.
The April 7 service marked the first time a married couple — Michael Scott Vickery and Mollie James Vickery of Hattiesburg, Miss. — was commissioned together. Having Mississippi Area Bishop Hope Morgan Ward lead the candidates in their vows was “a special joy for them and for her, I believe,” Louter said.
For the Vickerys, both working as special-education teachers, the decision to pursue such vows originated in a call that both had felt much earlier in their lives. “We really struggled finding our place as a couple … and the calling that we left behind,” Mollie Vickery, 36, explained. “It was kind of a critical moment in the life of our family.”
She attended a January 2009 discernment weekend and immediately felt drawn to the deaconess movement. Her husband, 35, felt the same pull after his discernment the following October, especially after realizing he could continue teaching his severe and profoundly disabled students.
He also has started a recovery ministry at their church, Parkway Heights in Hattiesburg, which now has 130 enrolled. “For me, it’s not just an internal commitment; it’s an external commitment,” he said.
The Vickerys are now linked to a covenant community called to a vocation of service. About 350 active and retired people are home missioners, home missionaries and deaconesses through The United Methodist Church, and those still active range in age from their 20s to 80s. The movement is part of more than 10 other denominations, including Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, all members of the Diakonia World Federation.
The United Methodist Church in the Philippines has had an active deaconess tradition, which Omega Lee S. Ramos, 43, became a part of after graduating from Harris Memorial College in 1988.
The pastor’s daughter and former kindergarten teacher came to the United States in 2001 with her husband, the Rev. Ephriam Ramos, through the Bishop W. T. Handy Young Adult Missioners Program with the Board of Global Ministries. After that program ended, they decided to work as volunteers in their Dallas church.
Since 2004, Ramos has served as children’s ministry coordinator at Umphress Road United Methodist Church, increasing attendance at Sunday school — called Bible explorers — from three to 50 children. But she also yearned for the support she had felt from her fellow deaconesses while in the Philippines. “I want to continue my connection,” she said.
For the Vickerys, married nine years, the commissioning continues what has become a family affair as both are involved in each other’s work, with input from their 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
The family also took a financial leap of faith when Mollie Vickery decided to leave a tenured teaching position to become executive director of the Edwards Street Fellowship Center, a food pantry in Hattiesburg, last June.
Edwards Street was her first exposure to mission while growing up, and, as a teacher, she saw hungry children coming to school every day. Just as with the deaconess program, “from the moment I went in, it was the right fit,” she said.
Kirby — who organized an anti-stigma campaign to raise awareness in the Asheville area about those with HIV/AIDS in her current job — also feels the importance of being connected with a community of other people who apply their commitment to social justice in the name of God.
For her, being a deaconess is a guidepost for her life, “the focal point of staying true to what I view as my path.”
Other deaconesses commissioned on April 7 included Colleen M. Caldwell, a counselor at Crossroad House in Cabot, Ark.; Gertrude Grace Oden Daily, a YWCA therapist in the Baltimore-Washington Conference; Pamela J. Domer, director of special education for the Dalton, Ohio, school system; and Lucie J. Fortier, an outreach specialist at the Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center in Vermont.
Also commissioned were Majorie Hrabe, a community organizer for the Pima County Interfaith Council in Tucson, Ariz.; Denise Krenke Walling, an educator for mission outreach and evangelism in the Upper New York Conference, and Cheryl L. Yerkes, a wellness consultant and hospice volunteer in Lancaster, Pa.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.