- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

"We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us."
Romans 5:3-5 (NIV)

Mary Lyman Jackson, it can be said, leads an existance similar to Job. First, her husband, Logan, died in June 1993 from Lou Gehrig's disease at the age of 43.
At the same time, her daughter, Kemper, then 11, was suffering from lupus.
On Feb. 14, 1995, the young widow saw her oldest son, Mercer, then 14, nearly die after a serious car accident. He suffered multiple fractures, including a broken jaw, and was on crutches for a year.
Then her youngest son, Walter, then 15, got a head injury two years ago after a basketball game and was in a coma for two weeks. A year later, he was injured again.
Then Mrs. Jackson's nonprofit inner-city ministry, Exodus Youth Services, nearly went belly-up last fall. The reason: Corporate donors view them as too conservative, too Catholic, too Christian or a combination of all three.
This past spring, Mrs. Jackson started getting unusually bad abdominal pains, chronic fatigue and vertigo. Doctors have spotted suspicious masses in a kidney and a left ovary. She awaits surgery, hoping it is not cancer. Her sister, Roberta Warth of Danville, Va., who has similar symptoms, struggles with caring for two young children.
Not to mention the Jacksons' chocolate Labrador retriever, Barron, who has liver cancer, and the two other family dogs, who have Lyme disease.
Mrs. Jackson, who is pretty much confined to her home these days, waxes philosophical.
"We've had a lot of hard luck, you might say," she deadpans. "People call my house and ask who's sick now."
They also call to ask what happened to the haunting music she composed during her husband's sickness. She has recorded a CD, "Joyful Mysteries," on spiritual themes, which she markets off a Web site (www.mercyproductions.com ).
The CD, which was released earlier this year, originated eight years ago when her husband lay dying at home. Because health insurance would not pay for a nurse, she filled in.
The two had had a passionate marriage that began when he met her as a 22-year-old in her home town of Savannah, Ga. When they married in 1980, he gave her a Civil War-era Steinway grand piano as a wedding present. He extracted from her a promise, that no matter what life dealt her, she would continue to play.
Having been a concert pianist since she was young, Mary Jackson could not imagine a reason why she would cease playing. That was before life began dealing her tragedy after tragedy, beginning in 1990, when the family was informed that Logan had three years to live. An active Episcopal priest who did part-time work at The Falls Episcopal Church in Northern Virginia, he was the driving energy behind Exodus Youth Ministries.
In 1992, the family became Catholics, visiting a shrine in Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia to seek healing. Busy with raising a family and getting Exodus started, she had stopped playing piano in 1988. In the winter of 1991, her husband asked her to start again.
"I was heartbroken," she says. "God had not healed Logan, and his death seemed imminent. I was sitting at the piano, Logan nearby in his wheelchair, and I started to play. The music flowed and flowed — a full orchestral poem on the Annunciation. I heard the angel Gabriel speak to Mary, the Blessed Mother. I heard Mary say, 'May it be done to me according to Your word.' And I heard hope."
Hope is what has sustained the 44-year-old pianist in the intervening years. She now lives far from the madding crowds, on a farm 70 miles southwest of Washington and just north of Culpeper. She composed several pieces for her husband, who taped the music. He played it continuously until he died, even extracting a promise from his wife to play the music at his wake.
She has since played at various outlets, including a reception last winter at the new Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in the District. The five pieces, which are 45 minutes of shimmering melodies centered on themes such as the Nativity, the Visitation and the Annunciation, are designed as a spiritual salve to ease mental anguish and pain.
Besides the mishaps suffered by her family, Mrs. Jackson is in touch with many suffering souls through Exodus, whose clients have heart-rending needs. A 6-year-old who recently called her, she says, had a father who had died of a heart attack. There still is no money for the burial.
Exodus, which has at least 8,000 clients a year, has four full-time staffers based in nearby Vienna. Over the years, it has accrued a stack of press clippings and citations. Based on a yearly budget of $320,000, its outreaches include a community center on wheels, a network of children helping other children, a Peace Corps-style program for volunteers wishing to work with the poor and "Grans' in the Hood," a drop-in center for the elderly in Northeast.
Mrs. Jackson looks somewhat askance at efforts by the Bush administration to find government funding for groups such as hers.
"We're too Christian for them because we evangelize," she says. "People have said to me, 'If you stop evangelizing, we'll give you $1 million.'
"You mean," she says she replied, "you want us to sell out?"
As pro-lifers, they had to turn down other donors who said the ministry had to give out condoms and abortion referrals.
"If we're a Christian ministry, we need to act like one," she says.
There are days, she admits, when even her almost endless sense of humor runs dry — when pain foils the painkillers, robbing her of sleep. She avoids morphine, which makes her delusional. Her son Mercer, now 21, has moved back home to take care of her, working construction jobs to support himself. Kemper, now 19, takes time out from her studies at Boston University for frequent visits.
"Last night, in the middle of the night, I thought I was dying," their mother says, moving about her home in obvious discomfort. "Suffering can be terribly lonely, but it can be a privilege. For the first time in our life, you have a union with your creator in a new way. If you say you love somebody and it's never tested, what use is it?
"I've had the privilege of having my love for God refined. If I didn't believe that, I'd be popping pills and depressed." Such an attitude does not come naturally, but daily prayer in a living room full of icons and a 6-foot-high crucifix keeps her valiant in the face of suffering.
"What also got us through it all was laughter," she says. "We had a dog in a wheelchair the same time Logan was in a wheelchair. To see us all together, it was the wackiest thing you ever saw."

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