At the urging of their rector, Brother Dallas Wilson and his wife, Sister Janie, of St. John’s Chapel, Charleston, and the encouragement of Bishop Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of S.C. to follow God’s lead, the 40-something Rivers were soon on their way to Ambridge, Pa. for their first of three years at Trinity School for Ministry. The whole adventure was both overwhelming and exciting as they packed their household and headed to their new assignment in ministry.
As a former dean of Trinity, I was able to encourage them a bit when we talked a year ago. But it all still sounded like a trip to Mars. I plied them with questions and simply let them talk.
Though both Matthew and Henrietta believed they had the necessary faith to endure the life-changing call to Trinity, new challenges quickly had them second-guessing their decision to pack up their lives and move. Challenges came from all sides all at once — financial challenges, housing challenges, theological challenges and even illness. Matthew initially sunk into depression as he contemplated the year they were just beginning. The couple strayed from seeking God together.
It was in this space that they realized walking by faith is easy when the challenges are few, familiar or happen rarely. But would they really trust God in a place where every day brings on new challenges? This question turned the couple to prayer, first individually then collectively. Henrietta challenged her husband to go deeper in his faith. Matthew sought the Lord and the answer to their problems came to him in the form of a question: “Do you trust your hands more than you trust Me?” His honest answer to the Lord’s question was, “Lord, I have trusted in my hands more than You.” With this new revelation came greater understanding that they could do nothing on their own and that they needed God in all things. Healing followed repentance and together Matthew and Henrietta learned to step out in faith into the unknown.
Feeling that God had definitely called them to Trinity — situated in an abandoned steel mill town close to Pittsburgh — they discovered that their new blue-collar multi-ethnic neighbors were warmly welcoming. And Western Pa. turned out to be rich in ambiance. For recreation they explored downtown Pittsburgh on Saturdays to encounter its famous “strip district” where they could savor an array of lattes, biscotti and other delicacies.
Then the community of other students opened their eyes to the richness and diversity of the Body of Christ. Soon Matthew and Henrietta, though a generation older than most fellow students, became mentors and prayer partners of their younger colleagues. Matthew was elected president of his class and Henrietta’s kitchen table became the location of many a heart-to-heart talk with students. Younger couples were watching them negotiate their relatively-recent marriage and this helped solidify the call to a marriage ministry already confirmed while God was deepening their own relationship. The church they found to worship in, Christ Church at Grove Farm, with John Guest as one of its founders, has offered them the position as marriage coordinators to begin a marriage ministry in the fall.
Burning the Midnight Oil
Both Henrietta and Matthew chose to become full-time students, thanks to full scholarships awarded them by Trinity. The seminary, they learned, wants no student to leave with school-related debt. However, despite this welcome financial help, they found they did have to borrow to cover living expenses. This made them instantly very budget conscious.
“So, what was it like to study together,” I asked them? They smiled. “We rarely study together.” Each has their unique study styles. Matthew devoured his books till late at night, but struggled with writing papers. Henrietta wrote with ease, but enjoyed her sleep and was not as absorbed in books as Matthew. So they studied separately unless they were together with a group of students at their kitchen table. Both, however, loved the lectures and found themselves drawn to particular professors who they saw as very genuine and helpful. Greek and Hebrew proved to be the big challenges, as they had been to me. This is why, they explained, they are heading back to Trinity for part of the summer to finish the language requirements for their degree program.
Mission to the Muslim World
But after that they are off to Indonesia with a team of others from Trinity to do first-hand mission work in a Muslim country. A grant from the SAMS (the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders) made the trip possible. They shared that one of the greatest discoveries of their year away was gaining a global view of God’s Kingdom.
Both feel called to do inter-racial ministry in the future — Matthew as an ordained Anglican, Henrietta in a full-time capacity alongside her husband. I then asked what they felt was the greatest need of the African-American church? They thought for a moment and said, the need they see is for all of God’s churches to have an educated, Spirit-filled pulpit that embodies the commission of Jesus Christ to go out and make disciples of all nations.
The couple has only warm feelings for their home church that originally encouraged them to step out into the unfamiliar saying, “Our congregation is our family. We are away but not disconnected.” Thankful for that nudge, they now long for others to experience what they have. In their sights are other couples like themselves who they hope will join them at Trinity, or even attend some other seminary.
As they left our home, my wife and I waved them off. We could tell that this attractive couple was headed for a dynamic ministry wherever God ultimately leads them. It warmed our hearts just to share a cup of coffee with them.
This article first appeared in the Carolina Compass. It is reprinted with permission.