She must have asked several times why God didn't make the world a little more just. Like when Yale Divinity School shut the door because she was a woman. Or when she lost a two-year-old to diphtheria on the mission field, then saw her marriage crumble after six years of faithful service overseas.
But Disciple missionary, social justice advocate, and educator Mae Yoho Ward (1900-1983) never gave up. And her deep, life-long sense of God's presence probably explains why.
Born to a West Virginia Disciple pastor two decades before women could vote, Ward studied at Bethany College, where she graduated in 1923. Going on to serve as director of religious education for the Christian Church in West Virginia and Ohio, she longed to follow in her father's footsteps and study at Yale Divinity School. When the Divinity School refused her admission because of gender, she instead entered a Yale graduate program in education.
After graduate school, Ward went to Argentina as a missionary with her husband Normal, whom she had met at Yale. But when the couple returned from Latin America to serve a church in Ohio, their marriage broke up. Having lost one child and now all alone with a young son, the Ivy League missionary and single mom worked any job she could, including cleaning hotel rooms and peddling biscuit samples in grocery stores. "It was a time of humiliation, hopelessness, and near poverty," her son later wrote.
In those dark days a miracle occurred, to borrow the son's term. Robert M. Hopkins (1878-1955), president of the United Christian Missionary Society, invited Ward in 1941 to serve as the organization's executive secretary for Latin America. She would later become chair of the UCMS World Mission Division – predecessor to today's Division of Overseas Ministries – and finally UCMS vice president, a post she held until retiring in 1967.
In addition to executive leadership, Ward also expressed her faith by speaking out on civil rights and farmworker justice. And retirement never seemed to stick. In 1969, the Board of Higher Education – now Higher Education Leadership Ministries (HELM) – called Ward back into service. Even after retiring a second time in 1976, Ward became a volunteer grounds keeper for Disciples headquarters in Indianapolis.
Despite obstacles in her life – a broken marriage at a time divorce was stigmatized, doors shut simply because she was a woman – Ward "continued to pursue what she understood to be God's call," says Scott Seay, assistant professor of the history of global Christianity at Christian Theological Seminary. He adds that Ward "understood that God calls and equips all people for ministry.”
T.J Liggett, former CTS president, believes that there was “no doubt that she held a very vital and strong sense of God's presence. But that sense was more than just a sentiment or a feeling. It was a fundamental, operational principle. ... In the midst of plans, budgets, boards, committees, Mae saw the presence and activity of God."
During a long life spanning most of the 20th century, Mae Yoho Ward was an exemplary Disciple – persevering in hardship, committed to service, passionate about justice, and constant in prayer.
Written by Ted Parks
for the Disciples of Christ Historical Society
This article was provided by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and used here by permission.
To learn more about your faith story, please visit the Disciples of Christ Historical Society's website at: www.discipleshistory.org
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