She was twenty-five years old, sitting in an oak chapel pew, surrounded by her peers. The young wife of a Hillcrest Academy teacher, fresh from college, was about to become part of a movement of women that would influence and gift people on three continents for the next six decades. It was 1953, and she was my mother.
Not long ago, a woman that I highly respect mused: “I’ve never really understood why we have a separate national organization for women. Why not do everything together?” As we visited, I realized that I assumed that more women know this story, simply because it’s familiar to me—but that’s because my Mom was there, and she told it to me…
Back then, the churches of the Lutheran Brethren gathered together for an “Annual Meeting” each June in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, for worship, fellowship, and the business of elections, finances and plans for the half-century-old denomination. “Whole families attended, and often stayed in homes of the Bethel church families or in the Hillcrest dormitories…” It was a different time and culture, and since only men could vote in the business sessions, the women decided to organize themselves nationally as well. “It seemed a good time to have a meeting that women could be involved in.” “It wasn’t just another meeting they felt they must attend, but it was a chance for wider fellowship with like-minded women, an opportunity for service to God and others, in ways uniquely theirs.”
In 1953 Women’s Missionary Fellowship was born. They joined together to support and accomplish bigger projects than their individual women’s groups could do. They raised funds for projects the CLB budget couldn’t include, for which women had a special passion.
Their gifts furnished rooms in the “Home for the Aged,” now known as Lutheran Brethren Homes; furnished and decorated a Mission House apartment for missionaries on home assignment; and furnished the Hillcrest Academy girls’ and boys’ dormitories.
Women’s involvement and influence continued to grow. One of the WMF presidents, Joan Gjerness, was even listed in “Who’s Who in Religion in America.” Women’s gifts sent several single women missionaries overseas, enabled Pastor Kosukegawa’s radio broadcast to reach countless people in Japan, provided a parish worker for Home Mission congregations, enabled publication of missionary Juline Kilen’s book (My Experience with the Bandits), helped in printing the Fulani Bible, and more.
Fifty years later, in 2003, WMF became WMCLB (Women’s Ministries of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren) and added a Director: first Chloe Koslowsky, and currently Ruth Vallevik. For fifty years we had ministry by women and through women, but now ministry to women was needed, focusing on reaching women in our own changing neighborhoods. “Business” meetings are scarce, but weekly Women’s Bible Studies now abound!
Still, the giving continues: Bible study material and retreats for Seminary women; and hospital walls, maternal health needs, blankets and baby clothing for Chad. This year we assist Liz in Asia, providing help for children with special needs.
Thanks to God for women who wanted to give, six decades ago! Their response to the gift of Jesus lives on…
Cheryl Olsen is the Faith & Fellowship correspondent for WMCLB.