Evelyn was my friend, my mentor and a second mother. She was born and grew up in the Los Angeles area in the early 1900s. Her father was a concert organist who had immigrated from England. Her mother was an evangelist and the daughter of Welsh immigrants who left behind their family and friends in Wales to follow the directions they believed they’d heard from God to share their faith with others around the world.
I was 16 when I met Evelyn. She was the main speaker at a summer camp I attended in Texas. I was intrigued by her speech with it’s traces of English and Welsh accents. She was only a little over five feet tall, and yet she carried herself with an almost regal grace that commanded respect and an attention to what she had to say. We were an unlikely pair from the start….this Victorian woman nearing 70 who refused to wear pants, even when making her way through the mountains of Mindanao on foot, because it wasn’t proper for a woman, and me with tom boy tendencies and a constant chafing against the rules.
Evelyn was the first person I’d heard talk about the way she wrestled with God in her relationship with him. I was more accustomed to descriptions of relationship with God sounding like a marionette relating to its puppet master. Her description of relationship with God was vivid and passionate and alive. I grew up in a pastor’s home. I’d been in more church services and heard more sermons that I wanted to think about and yet this was the first time I’d heard someone talk about God without suggesting you had to feel guilty before God would listen to you. My view of God was upended.
Evelyn lived an unlikely life, full of drama and adventure. She was a female pastor in an era that saw few women accepted in positions of influence and leadership. She built schools out of her great love of education and learning. She and her husband lived on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines for more than 15 years, building churches and schools. They traveled frequently in the mountains, interacting with the hill tribes, risking their health and their lives. They adopted several Filipino children during their time there and, even though they also spent many years in Korea before finally returning to the United States, Evelyn’s connection to the Filipino people and culture continued to be a primary force in her life until she died.
I have fond memories of sitting with Evelyn at the table in the breakfast room of her house overlooking Echo Park in Los Angeles, sharing tea and conversation for hours. She taught me the proper way to make tea, as she’d learned it from her mother. Only freshly boiled water was used or else the tea would become too bitter. The tea was set to steep for just so long, then the pot was swirled seven times before being replaced on the table to rest. Then, and only then, was the tea poured into the cups, to enjoy along with a bit of something savoury and something sweet. Like a true British woman, Evelyn had taken her love of a hot cup of tea into the tropical climate of the Philippines, declaring unabashedly that a hot cup of tea was the best thing in the world to cool one off on a hot, humid day. I loved her dearly, but she never convinced me on that one.
For a girl who had been raised without the benefit of exposure to the “proper” way to do things, Evelyn was a wealth of new knowledge. Whether it was showing me the correct way to hold a fork and knife, or providing the opportunity to hone my speaking skills, or ensuring I had the opportunity to meet influential leaders who could further my career, Evelyn was generous with her knowledge. She loved me and she wanted me to succeed, in ministry and in life.
More than any other lesson I learned from Evelyn, I think the one I value the most is the way she taught me about purpose. She believed with all her heart that every individual was born for a reason. She was resolute in her belief that we are each capable of achieving the purpose we were created for, in one way or another, and she instilled that in me. Whether in my secular career or my ministry experiences, I have found time and again a deep-seated certainty in my own heart that people are capable of amazing things. I believe we can continue to become better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we were today. I know without a doubt that this belief is a result of Evelyn’s influence on my life.
As Women’s History Month ends this week, I’m looking at the lives of several women who have influenced who I am and how I live my life, a series I’m calling “These Women.” The other posts in the series will tell you more about why I’m focusing on these women, about the woman who taught me what it means to be a survivor, about the woman who showed me how men and women can partner together, and about the woman who challenges me to live a well-examined life. I’m writing about a different woman each day this week and hope these stories inspire you to look for the influential women in your own life and celebrate the gifts they’ve given you.