By Sylvester Brown Jr. Of The St. Louis American
“It appeared that my life was going along rather well.”
In her letter to the American, Ella Owens expressed appreciation for her life. At 76, Ella and her husband, Phillip, 77, are retired empty nesters. With their three children all grown and living in different parts of the country, the couple lives comfortably in their home in Pasadena Park in Normandy.
Ella wrote of how God is using her in the ministry:
“God is working through me. All of us have been created with a purpose and I feel like this is my purpose. I enjoy my positions in the church and gathering with fellow parishioners. It’s all very important to me.”
On any day, the diminutive senior citizen climbs into her miniature, 2014 forest green, white-topped Mini Cooper, and heads to church. The modern, red brick building, Greater Leonard Missionary Baptist Church (GLMBC) is on 11th Street in the Old North neighborhood. Ella serves as the administrative assistant and missionary president for the church. Cherishing her roles, Ella is at the church constantly. She attends to its business, collecting offerings, worshiping, doing missionary work in the neighborhood, and overseeing the once-a-week food and clothing give-a-ways.
Then, Ella’s fulfilled life was interrupted. The first jolt came on her birthday, March 22nd, as she prepared to attend the last GLMBC worship service for a while. At the time, the federal government strongly urged Americans to limit gathers to no more than ten people. Mayor Lyda Krewson had even hosted a teleconference with 300 clergy members, including black ministers, to encourage them not to hold services.
It was a smart move. By July, more than 650 coronavirus cases nationwide had been linked to religious facilities. Millions of churchgoers, like Ella, suddenly found themselves without the sanctuary of safety, solace and fellowship during an unsafe and chaotic time.
Just as Ella was adjusting to the thought of missing her church and serving its community, another wave crashed into her world. She contracted the virus.
On March 29, Ella was at home listening to GLMBC’s first video worship service. The sermon that day, “Discovery in Darkness,” delivered by Rev. Ralph E. Irving, hit her like a thunderbolt. She had been feeling fatigued and was experiencing aches and pain for days. Anxiety was setting in, she said:
“I was in a dark place. I’d never had that kind of pain before. That was darkness to me.”
She remembers Rev. Irving saying, ‘even in your darkness, you can come out in the light.’”
Ella said she felt a strong need to journal her efforts to discover the source of her darkness. She wrote how her doctor prescribed her acid reflux medicine on March 31st and how on April 3rd, doctors at BJC’s emergency room also diagnosed her lack of appetite, heartburn, and fatigue to acid Issues. She was given more medicine. Ella said she felt better and went back to her church duties which included dropping off supplies to a church member suffering from cancer.
The next day, Sunday, April 4th, Ella was once again moved by Pastor Irving’s virtual sermon: “Conviction in Crisis.” Her problems had returned, this time more severe. She instinctively felt something other than acid reflux was ailing her. Her doctor suggested she immediately go back to the emergency room for a full screening and further treatment. She was told she had viral pneumonia even though she had no cough, no fever. She was also tested for the coronavirus.
The day before Easter, Ella got the call with the news she already expected:
“God told me ‘Ella, it’s going to be positive,'” she recalled.
Even though she had her suspicions, the call rocked her:
“That’s when the fear set in,” Ella confessed.
She was not so much concerned about her own health as she was about the wellbeing of the people she’d been in contact with the past few days: her husband Phillip, church members and the cancer patient she recently visited.
“I feared I might have spread it to them,” Ella admitted. “I began to blame myself. I felt like everything was my fault. It was at that moment that I cried out to God.”
Ella said Irving’s Easter Sunday video sermon, “The Hope of the Resurrection,” was the answer to her heavenly plea:
“I knew then that I would rise up as Jesus did on that Sunday morning. I rested in the knowledge of knowing that even if I were to leave here, I would be with Him.”
Ella changed her outlook about the illness. The Biblical story described in Daniel 3:12-30, about God’s servants walking into a blazing fire unscathed, empowered her. Ella, convinced she wasn’t going to die, saw herself instead as a vehicle to inspire others:
“God told me, ‘Ella, you’re going to be a testimony to me and it’s going to bring me glory as you continue to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ He wanted me to be a witness and let others know there is hope during these times of crisis.”
The journal Ella shared with this newspaper is titled: “God Got my Attention.” Although she was serving His will, Ella said God wanted more:
“With all the things I was doing, God wanted my attention on a personal level. A lot of times as we’re going here and about, sometimes God will say, ‘wait a minute…I want you to really get to know me personally and who I really am.’”
Ella survived COVID. Neither Phillip nor any church member she contacted contracted the disease. On a lovely sunny day last week, Ella sat in her forest green mini Cooper in front of her beloved church. There was a message she wanted to share:
“I want people to know that-not only during this coronavirus crisis-but the crisis’s we go through every day…that there is hope. Don’t give up!”
She wants those consumed with fear during these perilous times to rely on the words found in Hebrews 11:1:
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.