In this sanctuary fourteen years ago, when Anne was eighty years old, we affirmed the call that propelled her all of her days. We confirmed her life and ministry with a service of ordination. She never sought ordination. She never thought she needed it. She was right. She didn’t need it, but we did. We needed to rise up as one body and call her “Blessed.” We needed to be the church, to go public with our experience of knowing Anne, to bear witness to her life shimmering with the courage to speak, the power to love, and the imagination to dream. In a glorious moment we were united as the church of Jesus Christ, doing what we can do best…bless, bless one who blessed us.
It was a community of deep appreciation who gathered that day. We recognized that the Holy Stirrer-Upper of Hearts had ordained her call when she was a child. Certainly there was the life-long unfolding of what that call meant, as with anyone who keeps their ear close to the Divine Whisperer of Unfurling Revelation. Whether the call took her across the ocean to far-off Africa, or whether it took her to close-in places like this one, Anne never wavered or retired from her holy work of being pastor, teacher, mentor, and friend.
Anne’s life was luminous with what the Psalmist called the intersection of God-good life, where “steadfast love and faithfulness embraced, and righteousness and peace kissed.” (Psalm 85: 10) On her ordination day I called it the day of the Great Heart Opening. And so it is again. Our hearts are open to the full measure of our sadness for the loss of our beloved Anne. Our hearts are also stretched to their maximum capacity to speak our love and gratitude for the gift of such a breathtaking life. It is good to gather to be the church once again, to be the church who bears witness to a faithful life that challenged us, changed us, deepened us, and emboldened us.
There is really no easy explaining how a young girl from a Southern Baptist church in South Carolina got a fire lit in her for justice, love, and mercy. That fire flamed within her all her days. Her global understanding of the world began in that church, encouraged by missionaries and a community who prayed for people in every part of the world. Her sense of justice and fairness and “gospel-good-news-ness” took root from the rich soil of her family and church. Her sensitivities were heightened by living in a segregated South. Anne knew Jesus and followed him, the one whose mission was to bring good news to the poor, to offer release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus’ mission became Anne’s mission.
When Anne went to the mission field with her husband, life-long partner, and champion, Lloyd, she discovered within her “a terrible superiority complex” as a missionary. She was humbled by her experience. “I thank God that I was permitted to have my pride crushed. The African people became my teachers.”
Anne became one of the early proponents of the idea that people from under-developed countries should send us missionaries. She said, “There are religious conferences in our own country with the theme “Lift High the Cross” but then complain about lacking cushions for the church pews.”
Anne had a great love for the church and as with many great loves, it can be accompanied with disappointments. She was an unwavering voice for the transformation of the soul of the church. She took us to the ancient story, the story of Christ crucified—and called us to be in solidarity and hope with the crucified people of the world, the ones she called “the harassed and helpless”.
After twenty-seven years on the mission field, Anne returned to the United States. An ever-expanding call emerged. She became a relentless advocate for economic justice, social justice, ecological justice, and justice for women worldwide.
Our Divine Master of Disguise has a fun sense of humor to have chosen Anne for so many daring missions. She was disguised as the ultimate sacrificial missionary with grey hair, a high voice, and modest dress. In Southern Baptist life, who could be more revered?
She was camouflaged as tame and reasonable. But then she would stand regally in a pulpit and say something wild. When Anne called for equity in pay for women missionaries, the air was sucked out of the room, and her camouflage was revealed. She suffered ostracism and ridicule from the very same community that had embraced her.
Then she got mixed up with the rowdy bunch of Southern Baptist women in ministry. Oh, heck, she didn’t just get mixed up with us. She was our leader!
Anne was convinced that women could be God’s agents in bringing new life to the church. She steadfastly refused to be banished to the roped-off land of “women’s concerns.” Anne was heard to say, “If you are a woman, or if you love a woman, or if you are born of a woman—what concerns women is your concern.”
As the first president of the newly formed group called Southern Baptist Women in Ministry, Anne was a wise counselor to us as well as a fierce advocate. But I can tell you that she expected a lot of us. She called women in ministry to task for any sign of our acquiescing to religious institutions that would try to name us and define us. She warned us that our longing for affirmation from the church could entangle us in the snares of accommodation and appeasement—to our peril and the church’s loss.
She insisted that we never forget that our efforts for parity in the church was crucial, but not the end of the work. With a position in leadership, the deep transformative work commenced. Anne wanted us to use our gifts, voice, positions, and authority to call the church to its true mission of living the radical love and justice of Christ for the damned of the earth.
Some days quite a few of us got tired. We were ready to give up any hope of equality for women in the church. Anne and several of us women found ourselves in meeting after meeting with men who were baffled by our insistence…good men, supportive men, clueless men. Sometimes we were called “shrill” or “strident.” But most of the time we were simply ignored and dismissed. Some would ask, “Don’t you women have anything else to talk about?” Sure we did. “If you’ll step aside, we can take it from here.”
I can remember one frustrating meeting in particular. Susan Lockwood said, “Come on, women, let’s go talk.” Lynda Weaver-Williams and I flanked Anne and headed to the women’s room. Over the restroom sinks, we did sink in despair. “Anne, they are never going to get it. Let’s just forget about this mess. We’re tired of trying.”
Anne acknowledged that we had every good reason to move on. But then she said something close to this, “But wait. Don’t leave yet. Yes, it is hard, but this is how history changes. We have to go through this trouble. It is not going to be a smooth process. We are adding our voices to the new growth of a fig tree that looks barren right now. But God will do something with it. So, we must keep on….not because it will be perfect, but because this tree has our name on it. And it needs our voices to help it bear fruit for future generations. The church is already forever changed by our voices. There is no going back now. When are we going to understand what this is all about? This is about the gospel. The story has been forgotten. Faith is not a comfort station. It is a radical re-envisioning of our lives together. It is claiming our God-given power to use our gifts for gospel. It will take us through the cross before we ever know resurrection.”
Some of Anne’s best sermons were begun in passionate proclamations in women’s rooms. And those of us who heard her were saved again…saved from despair…saved for hope.
When I had another sinking spell, I wrote to Anne. I told her that I was ready to leave the church. Anne responded in a letter with these words: “I could never have been about the concerns to which I’ve given my life these past years had I not had the time, space, and opportunity to come home to my true self—to find the hope, the courage, and strength to live out of my own center. So we don’t need to fret about words and recognition. We just need to celebrate that in spite of many choking restrictions we have found enough space to lift our voices. That’s much more than I had ever had before. It is not enough, but the Spirit is moving, and life situations in and outside the church will never be the same again. I live by that hope with faith believing.” (Letter dated March 27, 1992)
Anne’s great heart opens to us still—with a love without end—and an encouragement to live fully by that moving Spirit, in and outside the church, to live by that hope with faith believing. Thanks be to God for our beloved Anne.
Nancy Hastings Sehested, one of the founding mothers of Baptist Women in Ministry along with Anne Thomas Neil, spoke these words of tribute during Anne’s memorial service on June 21, 2014, at Millbrook Baptist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina.
(Note from Nancy: For these memories, I relied on my notes, letters, and published material that I kept in my “Anne” file over these years of our friendship. I also gleaned from the wonderful book co-authored with Anne and Karen L. Caldwell and Karen S. Moore. In 2007 Journey Without a Map: Words of Hope for Changing Times was published by Trafford Publishing. Karen and Karen have given us a sustaining gift of many of Anne’s articles, sermons, addresses and reflections. Included in the book is Anne’s story in her own words. This book is an enduring treasure for us all.)