Somewhere along the way, the volunteers in our food ministry started to get close to each other. We started to love each other.
I remember realizing, perhaps a year ago, that we were not only going to celebrate with each other, we were also going to grieve together. With a group of about 40 helpers ranging from ages 10 to 92, I could see something was bound to happen to one of us, eventually, to break our hearts. That’s what happens when you love each other.
I couldn’t have guessed it would be Leigh Ann.
My husband Michael met Leigh Ann during the early pandemic months at the farmers market located at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. She noticed his bumper stickers and struck up a conversation. When Leigh Ann lost her wallet in the parking lot, Mike found it and realized she was the person he had just talked to. He found her address and delivered the wallet to her. A new friendship was born.
Mike didn’t waste time in asking Leigh Ann and her husband, Bruce, to join our team as we prepared and served free drive-thru meals at Norwood United Methodist Church in Knoxville. Leigh Ann and Bruce jumped right in and quickly became part of our core group. We depended on them. We looked forward to seeing them.
It makes me smile to think about the little things that made Leigh Ann, Leigh Ann. She insisted on warming up the buns for hot dogs, when I would have just served them cold. When she asked me where to find something and I instinctively moved to get it, she insisted I let her do it. I began to see how important the ministry was to her and the lengths she would go to help, even though she and Bruce had a busy, active life.
If my phone dinged with a text message at 5:30 a.m., I knew it was Leigh Ann – asking me how many corn muffins I wanted her to bake or what time she and Bruce needed to arrive for the next meal. I guess she was an early riser for her job as a nurse. I’m just guessing, because we didn’t have enough time to find out all those things about each other.
I remember looking around at our volunteers sitting down to enjoy leftovers together after serving some 200 meals in the rush of an hour – and beaming to see that Leigh Ann was drawing out people in conversation in ways that affirmed and included them.
Last December, Leigh Ann called and asked if I was sitting down. She told me about a brain tumor that had been diagnosed, but the prognosis was good. She and Bruce brought a friend to help us serve our free drive-thru meal at Christmas.
After that, she kept baking for us for a while, even though she couldn’t come to any more meals. To keep her safe from COVID, she and I talked through the glass on her front door or on the phone. We are the same age and shared some of the same life experiences, so we had a lot to talk about.
She gave me great advice.
Last summer, United Methodist Communications made a video about our meal ministry at Norwood. My favorite part of the video is Leigh Ann wearing a shark hat, because we were all wearing funny hats that day for a fish fry. As Rev. Bill Rimmer shares a prayer and everyone bows their heads in the video, Leigh Ann is looking around at everyone, smiling. Her eyes are open and the shark on her head is bobbing.
I just assumed that Leigh Ann wasn’t into some of our church rituals, and I relate to that. She was curious about spirituality. She always had good questions about why we do what we do.
Last Sunday, when Mike and I visited Leigh Ann the day before she passed away at home, Bruce told us a different story. He said a pastor had once told Leigh Ann she didn’t have to bow her head or close her eyes during prayer. Instead, she could just look around and focus on the blessings that surrounded her.
I am shocked to realize I only knew Leigh Ann about a year and a half. She already had an important place in my life, and I was looking forward to more time with her.
I’ll be watching that video with new eyes now, seeing Leigh Ann look around at the blessings surrounding her, reminding me to do the same.
The Call is Holston Conference's weekly newsletter for 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Sign up for a free weekly email subscription.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.