KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Nov. 20, 2018) – The Rev. Sharon Bowers and her husband did not spend many of their married holidays cooking over a hot stove or recovering from a huge dinner.
“One Thanksgiving, we went to Mississippi and ate at the Waffle House,” says Bowers. “We weren’t locked into getting out the china. A lot of times we just traveled.”
As she approaches this Thanksgiving and the holiday season, Bowers will not be on the road with her husband. Seven months ago, the Rev. Carl T. Marshall Sr. died at the age of 68. He was two months away from being ordained in The United Methodist Church.
Bowers anticipates sharing a Thanksgiving meal with her relatives, who will swap stories about the “fun, radical, intentional, bold and brazen” man she married more than seven years ago. Bowers and Marshall wedded in May 2011, on the same day they both graduated from Gammon Theological Seminary.
Sitting in her office at the University of Tennessee Wesley Foundation, with a fall-scented candle warming up the chilly afternoon, Bowers now seems equipped to embrace the season without her partner.
“My strength really does come from the Lord,” says Bowers. “No amount of wishing, praying or anything else will bring my husband back. That’s the reality. It doesn’t mean I don’t miss him or have my moments.”
Marshall died on April 25 from glucose deprivation related to paraganglioma, or cancer of the adrenal glands. His death was a surprise because in October 2017, Marshall had undergone what physicians said was a successful "whipple" surgery to overcome pancreatic cancer.
“We thought he had five to 15 years left,” says Bowers, age 58. “We were banking on that.”
Marshall didn’t fear death, his wife says. Shortly before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a close friend died of cancer. Marshall admired his friend’s faith-based response to his future when he said, “Either way, I win.”
When Marshall became ill, he adopted the same outlook: “If I live, I win. If I die, I win.”
“He seized that -- without knowing it would be his testimony, become his own mantra,” Bowers said.
Bowers believes she and her husband may have been more prepared to be separated because they often talked about death. At the time, she was pastor at Stanley United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Marshall was pastor at Washington Hills United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.
“As Christians we don’t talk about death, but as clergy, Carl and I had a lot of opportunities to talk about death,” she said. “We experienced death with our parishioners a lot. If somebody wasn’t dying in his church, they were dying in mine.”
She also believes they were blessed by not knowing he would die sooner than expected. “The difference is that Carl and I had hope. We thought we had time. That allowed us not to be downtrodden. We had hope for the years to come, and we had witnessed the miracle of God in that process.”
Marshall was a Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Air Force who had worked with other post-traumatic stress disorder survivors to gain healing and hope, according to his obituary. He was also a former geological engineer. He was excited about his second career as a pastor and his upcoming ordination at Annual Conference in June 2018. He was chair of the African American Ministries Team.
During the ordination service at Lake Junaluska on June 13, the Board of Ordained Ministry recognized Marshall by draping his clergy robe on an empty chair and giving his stole to his wife.
“I had thought about asking to honor him posthumously,” she said. “That was a major testimony, that I didn’t have to ask for my husband to be honored.”
The couple had plans to retire on the Mississippi gulf; Bowers was already projected for an appointment in the Mississippi Annual Conference. After Marshall died, Bowers stayed in Holston Conference and was appointed as director of the Wesley Foundation in Knoxville. “This looked like where I spiritually needed to be,” she says.
Less than two months after her husband died, Bowers was packing to leave the Stanley United Methodist parsonage. On July 1, she started her new ministry with college students in Knoxville.
A native of Greeneville, Tennessee, Bowers has served other Holston Conference appointments from Pulaski, Virginia, to Jasper, Tennessee. She serves on numerous committees and teams, including Holston’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women, which she chairs.
This Thanksgiving, the busy pastor is thankful that she's “still standing.”
“Some things that happen in your life are designed to take you out,” she says. “Grief is really cruel to a lot of people, and they’re unable to move on. I’m so grateful that I didn’t fall apart like everyone expected me to.”
Psalm 34 gives her strength. “'I will bless the Lord at all times,'" she cited. "I try to do that no matter what I’m going through.”
She’s also comforted by a set of lyrics that often weaves through her mind, from the Michael W. Smith song, “Friends”:
We'll keep you close as always
It won't even seem you've gone
'Cause our hearts in big and small ways
Will keep the love that keeps us strong
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.