- - Monday, December 1, 2014


Thanksgiving in Texas was subdued last week because of Mother Theresa’s recent death. Not the Albanian nun ministering to the poorest of India’s poor but the Church of Christ missionary from Runge (rung-gee) Texas, population 1031. Because Washingtonians are such sticklers for details, you should probably know that this saint’s real name wasn’t Theresa but Mary Beth Morgan. Two women from different cultures, countries and churches: passionately serving the same God while reaching out to help His humblest creatures.

Over two hundred of those people showed up for her funeral last week. They crowded every seat, aisle, and doorway of the austere church where barely two dozen worshippers gather most Sundays. The mourners wore black business suits, western wear and even jeans with work-belts. Runge is that kind of place and Mary Beth seemed to have touched people from every walk of life. The opening hymn, Number 496 and sung acapella in the Church of Christ tradition, perfectly captured her life-message. “This World is Not my Home, I’m just a-passing through…”

That carefully chosen under-statement underscored deeper contrasts. From Texas small towns to Washington’s National Cathedral, crowded funerals normally honor political leaders, the wealthy or the prominent. Mary Beth was none of those things, so what had she done that brought an entire town together in sorrowful tribute? The answer you heard over and over, while people shook their heads in respect and regret, was that “Mary-Beth was an angel who helped people, you know, no matter who they were.” And just as often, “She sure was there for me and my family when we needed her most.”

That was something even an outsider could understand because I had only recently come to know her. When a member of our Runge extended family came down with chest pains and needed a quadruple by-pass, an ambulance rushed him to a San Antonio hospital. As we waited outside the Intensive Care Unit, Mary-Beth and her husband walked in, “How’s he doing? We’ve been praying for him…” Their 160 mile round-trip: Only a minor detail. From ICU through a difficult recovery, the Morgans were there as well, even organizing an open house so the community could give thanks, welcoming back a brother who had nearly been lost.

Because our story was so typical, the minister didn’t even try to preach a funeral sermon. Instead, he highlighted what made Mary Beth a saint: wife and mother, well-educated teacher, pillar of the church, the go-to stalwart of the local community. Almost as an after-thought, he casually mentioned that Mary-Beth and her husband had for years been Church of Christ missionaries in Medellin, Colombia. Really? Ever heard of the Medellin Cartel? How about the Colombian civil war, a nasty, take-no-prisoners conflict fought between narco-traficantes and marxist revolutionaries? What would a gentle Christian missionary lady be doing in such a violent, uncertain place? To judge from the hand-sewn quilt given her when she left: To tell Colombians that God loved them – and what could she do to help you?

The lessons she learned there would be needed later, much closer to home. As Michelle, one of her 30-something protégés recalled through tears, “She never preached, she shared. And she never looked down her nose at anyone.” Hardly more than a village, Runge, Texas isn’t easy to find and is even easier to overlook. Drought and recession have meant empty storefronts, hard times hitting an already tough place. At least until five years ago, when the oil-fracking revolution suddenly turned life upside down as the Beverly Hillbillies re-located to South Texas. If you somehow endured poverty’s privations, then how will you handle the temptations of comfort, affluence and the slow seductions of self-sufficiency? Hard questions, especially when 18-wheelers of every description were suddenly overwhelming two-lane country roads, Mad Max putting the hammer down. Tight delivery schedules and 24-hour drilling operations meant that posted speed limits were becoming little more than suggestions, casualties just part of the cost of doing business.

Until Mary Beth stepped off a curb in Runge and was killed by a speeding semi, dead before she hit the ground. Or else, as every person in that rural Church of Christ believed, she was instantly re-united with her Savior. The difference between those physical and spiritual perspectives is what Christians understand as faith, “the evidence of things not seen.” Even no-nonsense secularists uphold the civic virtue of helping one’s neighbors. But before forgetting the real meaning of Thanksgiving and plunging into the Christmas shopping season, common sense suggests something more: Gratitude and praise for an uncommon life lived mostly for others and therefore lived very well indeed.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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