Courtney Allen (in the white stole) on the day of her ordination.

It was a holy encounter . . . one I did not expect and almost did not show up for. I suppose that is how such holy encounters usually happen, unexpectedly and nearly missed. With her cheeks near my ear I heard, “I don’t know if you remember me, but . . . ” As soon as she spoke those words, I immediately sensed the connection and reason for this great embrace. “I was a friend of Barbara’s, and I remember you when you were this tall,” she said motioning with her hand.

This unexpected and nearly missed holy encounter with Grace Powell Freeman at the Baptist Women in Ministry Meeting of Georgia gathering in April brought tears to my eyes. Grace had been a dear friend to the first female minister I ever knew, and one of the most important holy women in the early years of my faith, Reverend Barbara Oliver. Like many others, I called her the “holy woman.” As she led me in worship, taught me in Bible Drill, and nurtured the Jesus into me as a young person, Barbara was, indeed, a holy woman, and I loved her with my whole heart.

My world and that of our congregation turned upside down when Barbara was diagnosed with leukemia. If we just prayed enough, God would help Barbara survive, and if everyone believed in God enough, everything would be okay. At least, this is what my young self and faith believed about the situation at hand. But, it was not okay, and Barbara’s bone marrow transplant was not successful in curing her disease.

I vaguely recall Grace coming to visit Barbara those many years ago in her final days with us, and knew that she was a special friend to this holy woman, who meant so much to me. And, unexpectedly a few months ago, I had a holy encounter with that sacred soul friend of the Holy Woman. The embrace Grace and I shared was in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses of other women in ministry, and in some ways it felt as if things had come full circle. I was now also an ordained minister of the Gospel, serving in the an area close to Grace, and we had embraced each other as two women bound together by our love for a dear, holy, and influential friend, whose life and death, had a significant impact upon our lives. Barbara’s death caused me to ask hard questions about God, and to a young girl her life was an example of what it means to be a woman in ministry and a witness to the wide embrace of God for all people, especially children.

Grace Powell Freeman (in the red stole) on the day she received her Church Woman of the Year Award.

To make this encounter even more remarkable was the fact that Grace Powell Freeman was honored that day by Baptist Women in Ministry of Georgia as the “Church Woman of the Year” for her work and ministry with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel. Tears ran down my face as I watched her receive this award and listened as her colleagues witnessed to her gifts. I wished Barbara had been there with the two of us, and the whole host of us women that day. I suppose she was present with us in the way that her life, ministry, and death shaped me and Grace. In fact, I am certain of it.

This nearly missed holy encounter reminded me of several things. One, showing up and participating in the fellowship of groups like Baptist Women in Ministry of Georgia is important for me both as a minister and as a child of God. You never know who or what you might encounter by choosing to be present with these women. Two, the lives of those who have influenced me continue to live on and be important way beyond the years of those well-lived and influential lives. And three, the relationships among women in ministry and their ability to impact and shape future generations of ministers is rich and essential, holy and more important than any of us might ever imagine.

I hope somewhere near the right hand of God, Barbara has gotten word that I am a Baptist woman in ministry now and that her old friend Grace continues to do remarkable ministry with missionaries all over the globe. And if for some reason heaven doesn’t work like that and messages do not get delivered that way, I am certain that this holy encounter made the heart of God smile as two sisters in Christ embraced and recalled the life of one of God’s servants, our holy sister, Barbara, whom we loved deeply.

Courtney Allen is minister of community ministries and missions at First Baptist Church, Dalton, Georgia. Courtney blogs at On Seeing the Sacred and this post is from her blog!