‘Mother Mary’ called to min­is­ter to women

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - JULIE ZAUZMER

The sub­ject was the Bib­li­cal book of Joshua, but the Rev. Mary Fowler sounded like she was dol­ing out dat­ing ad­vice. “You can have a boyfriend. That boyfriend, af­ter a while, if he gets tired of you, he’ll leave you. Same thing with a woman, a woman gets tired of a man,” she preached at Bi­ble study. “Now, isn’t it good to know that you al­ways have some­one, some­body in your cor­ner?”

She was re­fer­ring, of course, to God. But for many of the women of her con­gre­ga­tion, who know all too well that boyfriends and hus­bands and lovers are li­able to leave un­ex­pect­edly, that stead­fast help also comes from Mary Fowler.

A ready baby sit­ter, some di­a­pers or for­mula, help pay­ing the rent, a lis­ten­ing ear — Fowler knows the many needs of sin­gle moth­ers. For the past 20 years, she has con­sid­ered it her call­ing as a pas­tor to min­is­ter specif­i­cally to un­mar­ried women rais­ing chil­dren alone.

Her 150-mem­ber con­gre­ga­tion now has a new home: a gleam­ing ren­o­vated church build­ing in Washington. It’s the rare re­li­gious space that has all the grandeur of a church and is also built to be fe­male-ori­ented, from the mo­ment you step in the foyer and see the rhine­stone-han­dled sil­ver ta­ble with its mas­sive vase of plas­tic flow­ers. The car­pet, the pews and the al­tar are in­tensely red; bold pink flow­ers dot the so­cial hall. And pre­sid­ing over it all, from a por­trait on the foyer wall and from the pul­pit in per­son, is the 83-yearold Fowler, whom some church­go­ers af­fec­tion­ately call “Mother Mary.”

Fowler re­ally is a mother, to three daugh­ters, and a grand­mother and even a great-grand­mother five times over. Her role as a min­is­ter to strug­gling young moth­ers might seem in­con­gru­ous. She reared her chil­dren dur­ing a happy mar­riage, and spent most of her ca­reer work­ing in stock mar­ket reg­u­la­tion, not min­istry. Then her hus­band died, and Fowler de­cided, at age 60, to go to divin­ity school.

When she grad­u­ated from Howard Univer­sity, she thought about work­ing in a large Bap­tist church like the one where she was a mem­ber. But she re­al­ized she was see­ing preg­nant teenagers hang­ing out near her church, but never go­ing in­side.

“I’d see a lot of ba­bies hav­ing ba­bies, ba­bies hav­ing ba­bies. They were hav­ing them so young,” she said. She de­cided her place was out­side too.

First, at 63, Fowler started drop­ping by teen hang­outs, ask­ing the girls in the park what their ba­bies’ names were and help­ing them out here and there. Then she started host­ing church ser­vices in her house for the young moms she be­friended, and then in a park pavil­ion that she rented, where the ba­bies could run around dur­ing the ser­vice. Then her min­istry moved to the neigh­bor­hood of Brook­land, where her fledg­ling con­gre­ga­tion bought the small build­ing that it slowly paid off, and then re­built, fin­ish­ing the ren­o­va­tion in time to cel­e­brate Fowler’s 20-year an­niver­sary as a pas­tor this sum­mer.

Over those years, she has coun­seled many women who sud­denly be­come sin­gle par­ents when their boyfriends or hus­bands go to prison — and she has coun­seled the men when they come back. She has min­is­tered to many fa­thers ad­dicted to drugs, try­ing to help them get clean and get back to sup­port­ing their chil­dren. She has learned to al­ways have cook­ies and juice at church for the chil­dren who don’t have any­thing to eat at home be­fore Sun­day ser­vices.

“It’s good to al­ways tell peo­ple about spir­i­tu­al­ity. But some­times, spir­i­tu­al­ity with­out help is not help­ing,” she said. “If I’m read­ing the Bi­ble to you, and you’re hun­gry, you’re not go­ing to think about the Bi­ble.”

Fowler tries to help ma­te­ri­ally when she can. Many times, so of­ten that her chil­dren chide her about it, she has given a mother the rent money she needs to avoid evic­tion. Once, when a mother showed up with her young daugh­ter, hav­ing

been kicked out of her fa­ther’s apart­ment, Fowler went to Home De­pot to buy them a re­frig­er­a­tor for their new place.

Many of these women have felt os­tra­cized in other churches be­cause they had chil­dren out of wed­lock, Fowler said. In her church, she be­lieves in the same sex­ual ethics, but it’s never the first topic of con­ver­sa­tion.

“When you push peo­ple, you push them away from you … I don’t push re­li­gion on them when they first come in. I don’t even talk about re­li­gion,” she said. Her first topic is of­ten the Red­skins, she says with a gig­gle. “I’ll have a lit­tle fun with them and then, you know what? I’ll in­vite them to a meet­ing. Lit­tle by lit­tle, I’ll start telling them about the Bi­ble. I learn to like them, and they learn to like me.”

That’s how she first ap­proached her neigh­bor, whose four young nieces from Malawi came to live with her in Amer­ica. The

im­mi­grant woman, whose hus­band was mur­dered in her home coun­try, was sud­denly re­spon­si­ble for four chil­dren, and Fowler wanted to help.

Khadija Mtewa, the youngest of those nieces, was 10 years old at the time. She re­mem­bers her aunt ex­plain­ing that the fam­ily was Mus­lim, but Fowler didn’t seem to care whether they were church­go­ers. “She was al­ways nice, and al­ways around, and al­ways will­ing to an­swer ques­tions,” Mtewa, now 30, said. “That’s how gen­uine she was with us. It wasn’t push­ing us into one thing. It was al­ways just wel­com­ing us, the doors open re­gard­less of what you be­lieve in.”

She grew up at­tend­ing mosque faith­fully and also spent much of her youth hang­ing out around Fowler, ask­ing her ques­tions about the ori­gins of hu­man­ity. Only when she went away to Ball State Univer­sity in In­di­ana did she de­cide she wanted to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity. Fowler bap­tized

her on Christ­mas when she came home for win­ter break.

“If she sees some­body else strug­gling, she’s al­ways there,” Mtewa said.

The 150-mem­ber con­gre­ga­tion is called Mary’s Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church, but that’s a mis­nomer on a few lev­els. First, the “Mary’s” part. When Fowler founded a church with the in­ten­tion of fo­cus­ing on the needs of sin­gle moth­ers, she wanted to name it St. Mary’s, for the most revered mother in Chris­tian­ity. But a Washington reg­u­la­tor told her the name was taken. Now, she wor­ries that peo­ple think the name “Mary’s” refers to the pas­tor. Sec­ond, the “Bap­tist” part — while orig­i­nally a Bap­tist church, Mary’s Mis­sion­ary went non­de­nom­i­na­tional years ago as the con­gre­ga­tion grew more di­verse. It’s just too ex­pen­sive to re­place the sign out front.

When you build your church for peo­ple who are strug­gling, you some­times don’t end up with much in the col­lec­tion plate. Fowler said that when the con­gre­ga­tion de­cided to ren­o­vate the build­ing, at a cost sev­eral times more than the $75,000 they paid for the small church, the sin­gle moth­ers chipped in a dol­lar or two each Sun­day that they could. A small group of more fi­nan­cially sta­ble con­gre­gants, just 25 peo­ple, fi­nanced most of the project, she said.

But when­ever she wor­ried it would never get done, she told her­self some­thing that she of­ten tells the moth­ers she coun­sels, the verse now writ­ten in stained glass above her bold red al­tar: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Stand­ing be­low that win­dow, Fowler says, “We as women must feel that if God calls you and gives you a job to do, he’s go­ing to equip you to do the job. This is what I strongly be­lieve,” she said. That’s true of be­ing a mother, and of be­ing a pas­tor. “He called me into min­istry late in life. He equipped me to do the job.”

The Washington Post/KATHER­INE FREY

The Rev. Mary Fowler (left) talks with mem­bers of the youth choir be­fore ser­vices at Mary’s Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church in Washington. Choir mem­bers in­clude (from left) choir di­rec­tor Mario Wil­son; Rikia Wil­son, 14; Da­nia Wil­son, 9; An­tia Wil­son, 16; and Mia Wil­son, 11; and Linda Williams.

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