Editor’s note: We are excited to welcome Wade Bibb to Foundling House. Wade is the Senior Pastor at Central Baptist Bearden in Knoxville and a one-time professor of religion at Carson-Newman University. He is also an avid runner and is in such great shape that the rest of us wonder about our own efforts at exercise. Furthermore, he does not drink coffee, yet still manages to get things accomplished.
I am not a mother.
I have a mother. I’m married to a mother, but I am not a mother. I have seen the job and the responsibilities, and I don’t want to be a mother. Actually, I’m a little a bit afraid of most mothers. It’s as if, once they have raised children, they know there’s nothing else that can ever really scare them.
I’m not a mother, and it isn’t just a biological issue—I know I can’t do the job. One Sunday morning, while we were getting ready for church, my wife told our daughter Emily, five-years-old at the time, to go pick out what she wanted to take to church. Emily picked out four little horses to keep herself quiet and pacified. I told her that was a lot and that she might just need to take two of them. Not sure about the instructions here mother had given, I said, “Let’s go ask mommy what she thinks.” Emily said, “Yeah, you don’t know anything do you.” I looked into those blue eyes; there was no guile, no accusation, no sarcasm. It’s as if she looked up and remembered, Yeah, the sky is blue, or, Yes, today is Sunday, or, Yes, you don’t know anything. Sorry I forgot. Didn’t mean to put you on the spot.
In many churches, Mother’s Day gets far more attention than any of the historic festival days in our Christian tradition—days like Pentecost, Epiphany, or All Saints’ Day. It really isn’t a “holy day” set aside and recognized by early Christians, but maybe it should be. Long before Woodrow Wilson and Congress established a national day of observance (1914), the church celebrated giving birth, adopting a child, foster parenting, and the sacred vocation of nurturing and rearing a child. But, since the powers that instituted the church calendar centuries ago had never given birth and shared too little in the vocation of nurturing and rearing children, we will just have to be more intentional about how we celebrate this day.
There are two competing stories about how we’ve come to have a Mother’s Day observance: those of Julia Ward Howe and Anna Marie Jarvis. Each of these women is credited with the founding of Mother’s Day, but I wish to reflect on Anna Marie.
The tale of Anna Marie Jarvis is actually one of two women who had the same name—a mother and her daughter. The elder Anna was born Anna Reeves in Appalachia, in the western mountain country of what was then the State of Virginia. She was of very modest means. Her father was a Methodist minister, and she in turn married a Methodist minister named Granville Jarvis.
While she had no formal education in matters of health and medicine, Mrs. Jarvis became very concerned about the health and sanitary conditions of the small Appalachian towns in which she and her husband lived, as he was moved from one church to another. Anna Jarvis organized what she called Mother’s Day Work Clubs in those towns. Among other services, these clubs raised money for medicine, hired women to work for families in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis, and inspected bottled milk and food—efforts that saved lives. Anna and Granville lost four of their own young ones to childhood diseases, and this fueled Anna’s passion to do what she could to save other mothers and fathers from the agony and distress she and her husband had experienced.
When the Civil War ended, she and her husband were living in the town of Grafton, West Virginia. Since that part of the country had changed sides during the Civil War, there were soldiers returning who had fought against one another, generating tension and conflict in their communities. Anna Jarvis decided to take action. In the summer of 1865, one year after the war ended, she organized a Mother’s Friendship Day in her town to bring the soldiers together in the hopes of finding reconciliation. Despite some fears of fights and violence, the event was a success, and Mother’s Friendship Day became an annual event in that part of West Virginia.
Anna’s husband died in 1902, and she moved from Grafton to stay with one of her daughters, also named Anna Jarvis, who was by then living near Philadelphia. The elder Anna died there in May of 1905. Two years later, daughter Anna went back to Grafton to lead a tribute to her mother at the Methodist church where her father had been minister. Following that service Anna Jarvis the daughter—who had never married or had any children of her own—began a crusade to have a national Mother’s Day recognized. And since her mother’s favorite flower was the white carnation, she asked the women who were observing Mothers’ Day each to wear one.
After six years of the younger Anna Jarvis’ work, President Woodrow Wilson signed a Congressional Proclamation designating Mother’s Day as an official holiday to be celebrated on the Second Sunday of May. There’s a plaque on the Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, proclaiming that the first Mother’s Day was celebrated there on May 12, 1907.
In her final years, the younger Anna Jarvis felt frustrated and disillusioned with what happened to the holiday she’d work so hard to bring about. Her objective had been not just to honor her mother for being a mother—critically important as that was to her—but also to honor her for her reconciliation efforts in the little West Virginia communities where she had lived. These women, based upon the principles of their faith, worked for meaningful peace in their communities, and that is a cause still worthy of our efforts.
Mother Teresa reminds us of how Jesus did it. She said:
I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one … So you begin—I begin. I picked up one person—maybe if I didn’t pick up the one person I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand. The whole work is only a drop in the ocean. But if I didn’t put the drop in, the ocean would be one drop less. Same thing for you, same thing in your family, same thing in the church where you are. Just begin… one, one, one.
I’m not sure why, but I think we have a better chance of experiencing real reconciliation, God’s dream of reconciliation, through the work and struggle of women than through men. Maybe it’s a compassion thing. Maybe it’s a mother thing. I know it’s a God thing.
What happens when you encounter the real Jesus? From Mother Jarvis to Mother Teresa, lives are changed. From Mount Sinai to the Appalachian Mountains, lives are changed. It’s a journey that usually takes a whole lifetime to get right. Ask a mother—she’ll explain it better.