Would you scrap your plans if an opportunity presented itself to serve someone God deeply loved? Would you even notice it as an opportunity? In Chattanooga, two men did, and a lot of people have become more like Jesus.
It started with looking at what the Bible says about widows.
There’s a story in the book of Ruth that doesn’t get talked about much, says Andy Mendonsa, Executive Director of Widows Harvest Ministries in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ruth, a widow and a Moabite, refuses to leave her mother-in-law (Naomi) after both of their husbands have died. She travels with Naomi to Israel, where she is an outsider, and the two widows live together in poverty, until a wealthy relative, Boaz, takes notice.
Maybe because of a mutual fondness that develops between Ruth and Boaz, and surely in part because Naomi is working behind the scenes as a matchmaker, Boaz explores the possibility of making Ruth his wife. Most Christians know this part of the story; it’s this next part that we don’t talk about as much.
There is another relative who has right of first refusal. Boaz goes to the city gates (where legal decisions are made) and catches this relative walking by. “Sit down, friend,” Boaz says. He knows the laws about widows and land (which are complicated, but essentially all work together to protect widows and family property).
“Naomi, your relative, whose son has died, has a piece of property,” Boaz explains. “It’s yours if you want to take it.” The relative quickly, and in the presence of the town elders, commits to take the land. Then Boaz springs some news on him.
“The land belongs to our relative, Elimilech, who has died,” Boaz explains. Buying the land requires marrying a widow and taking in a foreigner. Without missing a beat, the relative does a complete 180. The words he uses to back out of the deal are worth noting. In one translation the kinsman says taking care of Ruth would “ruin” his own inheritance. In another translation, he says it would cause him problems. In the International Standard, the relative says it would “complicate” things for him.
In the eyes of this unnamed relative, a widow is just more trouble than her property is worth. But to Boaz (God’s man in this story) the woman is a treasure. He tells her that everyone knows she is a “worthy woman,” and promises her, “As surely as the Lord lives, I will redeem you.”
“As surely as the Lord lives, I will redeem you.”
Game over. Boaz and Ruth are married, and their son, Obed, grows up to be the grandfather of King David, placing him squarely in the middle of the geneaology of Jesus.
Seeing the most invisible people
As someone who has been scouring the Bible for passages about widows for 25 years, Andy can explain what’s happening in the Ruth story with authority: “Taking on a widow means jeopardizing what he already has.” That’s why the kinsman refuses.
Andy could have refused what God was offering him.
He already had a ministry the day a widow he’d never met approached him and asked if he could help get her house painted. It was 1986, and he and his wife had just moved to Chattanooga to do something else. But this woman’s request resonated with Andy. He began to ask God, “Is there a need for widows’ ministry? Should I start something?”
He had never heard of a church or community with a widows’ ministry before, so he sought God and started searching for passages in Scripture. Andy says that when he got to James 1:27, “It hit me like a bolt of lightning. There was proof positive!” Not only was there a need, but widows ministry was “one of the most clearly mandated areas of care in Scripture.”
He was (and, really, still is) “very puzzled” how there could be such a clear mandate while widows remain “the most invisible in the church worldwide.”
What started with 12 women has blossomed into about 50, who pray and support each other and their community.
So, in 1987, with the prayer support of a widow named Gertrude Gaston, he founded his nonprofit, Widows Harvest Ministries.
Andy was thinking of repairing widows’ houses, mowing lawns, painting, and fixing roofs. But Gertrude had something else in mind. She was thinking about prayer and community. So she invited 12 widows to her home for lunch and discovered they also had a deep desire for exactly what she was thinking.
And these women could pray!
“What comes out of losing a spouse,” Andy says, is a “deeply dependent faith.” The widows’ prayers are “powerful, profound, and life-changing.” He is convinced that the prayers of widows are a strong force God has always intended to strengthen the church, yet “the church is just not making use of it.”
“We don’t understand this, which is maybe why widows still remain so invisible,” he says.
The prayers of widows are a strong force God intends to use to strengthen the church, yet the church is just not making use of it.
“Why are widows invisible to the church? Why do we not see widows for what God has set them apart for?” Andy asks. But the question is rhetorical. There is no good answer.
He points out one word in 1 Timothy 5:9-10 (another one we’ve probably missed). Paul talks about a list of widows and qualifies who makes the cut: “A widow is to be put on the list only if she …”
- Is at least 60 years old
- Has been the wife of only one man
- Has a reputation for good works
- Has brought up children
- Has shown hospitality to strangers
- Has assisted those in distress
Paul is describing the office of widow in the church.
In effect, Andy says, Paul is describing the office of widow in the church. We serve widows by meeting their needs. But widows serve churches, in their God-given role, by connecting them to the incredible power of their prayers. This prayer ministry and their ministry of service has become the two-fold mission of Widows Harvest.
It was a slow process in the beginning getting his ministry started. Being new to Chattanooga, Andy didn’t have connections. But the widows never stopped praying, and their numbers increased. Then, a few years in, a connection was made that would change Andy’s ministry forever.
St. Elmo’s, the neighborhood where Andy was working, sat at the foot of Lookout Mountain. But on top of the mountain was a Presbyterian church with a youth pastor named Aaron Tolson who was thinking through what it meant for a person to give his life away.
For some reason (probably because of the widows praying at the bottom of the hill), Aaron couldn’t stop thinking about widows and orphans. It kept coming up when he would talk with the kids in his youth group. “I’m a teaching elder. I focus on the Word and prayer. But I felt like I needed to be serving widows on my own,” Aaron says.
He didn’t have to look far to find Andy. Aaron’s church, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian, was already supporting Widows Harvest. “Andy’s a local legend. His name was always coming up,” Aaron says. So he called Andy, and the rest is history.
“I just started volunteering by myself.” Every Thursday, Aaron would show up to to serve at Andy’s side, learning and building relationships with the widows himself.
They gave up leaving the country for mission trips and began spending their days fixing houses and mowing lawns.
That was about 15 years ago. And not long after that, Aaron was inviting teens to go with him, a couple at a time. They would fix a porch or work on a corner of a house. Then more wanted to join. “As the kids met the widows, they wanted their friends to meet them,” he says. He noticed this “trickle effect,” with more students wanting to volunteer. This service became their ministry too.
And this ministry was better for them than foreign missions, Aaron says, because it was something that could become part of their lives, rather than a one-time event they looked back on. They gave up leaving the country for mission trips and began spending their days fixing houses and mowing lawns so they could “stay connected and build relationships,” Aaron says.
Working and praying
They held “widow work days” one Saturday a month. (In the summer, these happen almost every Saturday.) They’d meet in the morning at church. Aaron would read to them from Scripture. Then they’d head to the shop to pick up the tools they’d need and caravan to a widow’s home. Once there, they’d roof or paint or sometimes do yard work.
“We always send a few students in to meet the widow, talk with her, as much as she’s able or willing,” Aaron says. “The kids connect with her, listen to her … and ask her how they can pray for her. She usually ends up praying for them.”
The work they do is hard, not the fun kind of work, but “they find great satisfaction in finding what they’re capable of,” Aaron says. “We are created to meet the needs of the marginalized and the oppressed, to care for them, to see them flourish, to see the development of their souls restored with God. That is what we’re made for, and as the students do this, their faith becomes more central to who they are, and the Bible comes alive to them,” Aaron says.
In addition to this sense of purpose and satisfaction is an added sense of awe that comes from hearing the widows pray together. This has been the most significant part of the whole ministry, Aaron says. Many of his teens have told him they recall these times as the fondest memory of their high school years in youth ministry.
“Anyone who comes and prays with the widows sees this. It defies explanation. We have this idea of a little old ladies’ prayer group” but these women don’t match the stereotype. “When you sit and pray with them and hear them explode in thanksgiving and gratitude,” the stereotype is destroyed. Some of the women Aaron has met “have walked with the Lord for 85 years, and they have come to such a sweet place of dependence and trust.”
Most of the widows are African American. “They own it,” he says of their role as prayer warriors, and the group brings about interracial, as well as generational, understanding and healing in the community. And “it defies social status, because wealthy widows are praying with poor widows, and there is no concern” about their differences.
Aaron and Andy have been working together so long now that they say a lot of the same things. One of those things they wholeheartedly agree about is that you can’t understand the power of widows praying together until you experience it yourself.
There’s this view people have, Aaron says, that “they’re relationally stricken, poverty stricken, and desperate.” But when he surveyed his youth group about what had had the greatest impact on them during their time in his ministry, almost all of the teens said it was this prayer time with the widows.
“The first year, I started reading [the surveys] and my mouth fell open,” Aaron says. But he understood. Time with the widows was building the kids, and Aaron too, which is exactly what Andy had been saying about widows and ministry all along. They’re not stricken and desperate. They’re powerful, giving, and godly.
Aaron remembers seeing a teenage boy with tears streaming down his cheeks as he listened to a widow speak into his life answers to questions he’d been asking God.
“The teens are overwhelmed by it,” Aaron says. “The gratitude and the worship is not what they expect, and it’s really beautiful.” Aaron and the kids hope their own faith will deepen like these role models, and that they’ll give up some of their own “wantings” and learn to fully depend on Jesus as these widows do.
In a way, we are all widows
Anyone who is “bereft” deserves the kind of care God commands for widows, Andy explains. Women of any age may have lost their husbands – through death, abandonment, to a nursing home or … prison, he says. “This is a large population of our churches. Single mothers are widows, and their children are fatherless.”
But it’s not just them.
After spending a literal quarter century in James 1:27, Andy says he can see the whole gospel in it. “It’s the most challenging passage in Scripture for me.” It’s true religion to serve widows and orphans, because their condition is our condition apart from Jesus, he explains. Since Adam and Eve after the garden, it has been so. Without Jesus, we’re worse than at risk. We are without protection – husbandless and fatherless.
The Widows Harvest ladies understand that this is the human condition apart from Christ. And their dependence on the One who loves them is a model for all of us. That dependence leads them to be powerful and beautiful ministers, praying for the churches in their town, speaking into the lives of teens, and supporting ministries.
But praying, like service to widows, means slowing down, forgoing other plans, giving up what we already have in order to make room for slow processes, like prayers. We like to fix things in a hurry. We don’t like long-term commitment. We’re concerned about best use of resources, especially of our time. But sometimes what God calls us to do takes our time.
And jeopardizing what we already have to come alongside widows or to dedicate ourselves to prayer is imitating Jesus. When we commit to doing it, over time we become more like him. And we may find that, though what we already have is good, what Jesus is offering us is better.
Video courtesy of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church.
Pictured at top, Andy Mendonsa with Mildred Protho, who has been praying with Widows Harvest for almost 30 years.