Delivered: May 12, 2013 (Mother’s Day); Scripture: Proverbs 31:10-12, 25-31
It was 1843 when Josiah Reeves, a Methodist minister in Culpeper, Virginia, was told he was going to be transferred to the remote area in the mountains of Western Virginia.
These Appalachian mountains were yet to be tamed in the mid 1800s–transportation was still difficult, roadways were often treacherous, and the towns lacked the infrastructure we enjoy these days. There were no highways, no interstates, no sewage systems, no water systems back then!
But for Josiah’s 11-year-old daughter, Ann Maria, this would be a transition that would change not only her life, but the world around her.
Ann Maria’s father valued education as much as he valued faith and encouraged his daughter to endeavor hard at her studies. As a result, she grew, smart and confident, and married the son of local Baptist preacher… and together they would have 11 children.
It seemed a pretty normal life for a woman of the mid 1800’s… except that Ann Maria was anything but a normal woman.
As was the case of many mothers for the time and region, many of Ann Maria’s children fell ill early in life. The tragedy of burying a child was too well-known at the time–it was rare that a woman would be spared the heart-wrenching reality of watching a child die.
And Ann Maria was no different.
Of her eleven children, only four would live to see adulthood.
While many mothers accepted the loss of their children as the hard lot they must suffer in this world, Ann Maria couldn’t help but think there had to be something that could be done.
She had always been a woman of action–and her dedication to making the world a better place had driven her to assume the role of teacher at her local church and to guide and mold the young minds entrusted to her to achieve all that they could.
Her own young daughter, one of the four of her children that would outlive her, was already demonstrating the characteristics of a strong and independent young person. Ann Maria knew she owed it to that young daughter to guarantee she had a future to which to look forward.
So, with her kids in tow, Ann Maria decided to do something about all the deaths that seemed to be plaguing the towns in the area in which she lived.
She took a long hard look around and she saw things that needed to be changed.
The poor sections of towns did not have adequate living conditions–their homes were rickety little shacks with wide gaps between the boards that let the cold wind blow in.
When a mother became ill, she had no choice but to continue working–continue caring for her own kids, and so diseases like tuberculosis were spreading like wildfire throughout town.
On top of that, many of the houses in those areas did not have proper latrines–for many they had a privy that opened directly above the river… others had outhouses that stood too close to their water sources.
And the local cattle grazed near these insanitary places–ingesting the diseased waste and the milk from these cows was bought and sold daily.
Although Ann Maria’s own brother was a doctor, medical assistance was very short-handed. Doctors needed help to provide the care to all the patients that needed it.
The difficult roadways meant goods were difficult to get–and what could get to them was expensive. This meant medications cost too much for many people.
So, Ann Maria, knowing that she could not possibly be the only mother who wanted things to change organized the local women into a series of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. She began at her own church and spread to the nearby towns until there were clubs all throughout the area.
These Mothers’ Day Work Clubs came together to raise money so that people could be hired to work in the homes of the sick, relieving the pressure on the doctors.
They raised money to buy much-needed medicines.
They lobbied for better sanitation practices.
Long before the government even considered the need to inspect food, they launched programs that would inspect milk, guaranteeing contaminated and diseased milk would not find its way into people’s homes.
Ann Maria’s brother offered advice to the work clubs and trained the women so that they were better equipped to handle the needs of their communities.
It was a slow and laboring movement–but it was a movement in the right direction.
In the face of death, Ann Maria and her band of rowdy mothers were advocating for life.
And then came the war.
Whatever movement had begun came to a screeching halt right alongside the rest of the nation as musket fire and cannons shook the earth and rattled the bones of every mother of battle-aged sons.
We all know that West Virginia was a border state–home to many Civil War battles and home to sympathizers of the both the North and the South.
Division was sharp in every town and threatened the future of the Work Clubs as women kissed their sons goodbye and sent them in two different directions.
But Ann Maria knew that the women had a job to do that was bigger than any civil war.
Just as she had found the tragedy of death had united the poor and rich alike and motivated them to work for change, she could see that the tragedy of war should united the mothers of the North and the South to advocate the young men wounded and suffering.
So Ann Maria stressed neutrality within her clubs.
The men would fight the war, and women would heal the wounds… to do that, they needed to be united.
And so, regardless of politics or sympathies, the women of the Ann Maria’s work clubs went into terrible places to tend to the wounds of the suffering young men.
When typhoid fever and measles ripped through the troops, it was the Mothers Work Day Clubs that were requested to nurse the sick back to health.
General Grant and General Lee both recognized the work of these brave women–and both opened their hospital tents up to the mother’s who came not wearing blue or gray, but wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
When the war ended, Ann Maria knew it would never really end, not in the hearts of the people, unless they learned to love their neighbors again.
And in the small towns of West Virginia, neighbors had become enemies.
They had fought against one another.
They had sent their sons to fight one another.
They had all suffered very deep and very personal losses…
and no treaty was going to fix that.
So… as men still wore their blue and grey uniforms in defiance and still carried their weapons in town, as though they were ready for a battle to erupt, Ann Maria organized the first Mother’s Friendship Day.
Dressed in grey and marching in from the South to the tune of Dixie came Ann Maria–a stern look upon her face, and defiance written on her brow.
But from the North came marching a woman in a blue dress to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner, her look equally stern, her brow creased in defiance as well…
They marched to the very center of town until they stood, facing one another before the gathered crowd right in front of the Taylor County Courthouse.
Nose-to-nose they stood, until a little girl–that bright symbol of a hopeful future, stepped forward and took both women’s hands, and the two began to sing Auld Lang Syne.
With teary eyes, the crowd joined in.
With hearts swelling with memories of peace and love, enemies suddenly remembered friendships and joined their voices to the chorus.
Even a war can’t stop a determined mother.
And when that mother has the love of Christ in her heart as did Ann Maria, there is nothing in this world that can scare her away from doing what is right and good.
From the very beginning, the importance of a woman to her family has been known–as is the case of the good wife portrayed in Proverbs… But a good woman is important to more than just her own family…
She is important to the world.
It is the loving heart of a mother who doesn’t want to see her children suffer that drives women to see the world change for the better.
It is the loving heart of a mother who doesn’t want to watch her sons fight that drives women to see peace come.
Ann Maria’s daughter, Anna watched her mother struggle and suffer and demand a better world… and in demanding that better world, the world became better.
Anna sat at her mother’s feet in Sunday School classes and in the family home and listened to her mother teach all about the reasons why she thought the world could be a better place: It was all rooted firmly in her belief and her love of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had set the example.
Jesus had sacrificed everything and had changed the world for the better–
and all the people who Anna’s mother was helping were the very same people that Jesus Christ had come to save.
Anna learned a lot at her mother’s side… and as Anna grew, she too became the same sort of activist that her mother had been.
But one thing, one prayer of her mother’s had always stuck in her head–her mother had always hoped and prayed that the day would come when the mothers who worked so hard for our communities and our families would finally be recognized.
So, recalling her mother’s prayer, Anna vowed at her mother’s graveside that she would see that it happened.
And so, Anna Jarvis launched a campaign to see Mother’s Day become a nationally recognized holiday in honor of her mother who had organized so many other mothers to take their faith and make it a reality–to begin building the kingdom, right here, right now.
Today, we honor the mothers amongst us–but I would caution us not to get so hung-up on that title “mother” that we forget the ways all women are mothers to us all–whether they are own flesh blood or not.
Remember the mothers that influenced you–not just the ones who gave birth to you, but all of them– the ones who taught you in Sunday School,
who encouraged you,
who watched out for you,
who worked to make this world better for you,
who pushed you to be better,
who told your own mother when you were acting a fool,
who gave you love in moments of need,
and who gave you security
Remember them today, in whatever form or role they came to you, and honor them. Honor them by being the same laborers in the Kingdom that they have been. Honor them by working as relentlessly as they have to improve the lives of others and to make the world a better place.
Resources that helped me plan for this message: