Earlier this week I discovered that I live about five miles from a Sisters of Visitation monastery. The monastery is located in Snellville, Georgia–not too far from the Target where I do most of my shopping. On Tuesday, I set off to find this monastery, hoping to spend some time praying in their chapel and walking on their grounds. But I discovered that it not a monastery that is open to the public. They are a cloistered community with only a handful of nuns living and working together.

Although I was greatly disappointed to find the gate locked, I was amazed by the serenity and quietness of the small campus. Mostly, however, I was intrigued by the name “Sisters of Visitation” and by the inspiring statue that stands on the front lawn–a statue of two women reaching out to one another. The two women have to be Mary and Elizabeth, embracing as they share the good news of their pregnancies.

I sat in my car on Tuesday, thinking about the relationships of Mary and Elizabeth. While they were cousins, I sense that they were also “sisters of the heart.”  And I read between the lines in Luke’s gospel and imagine their conversations. In my mind, I can see the two women, sitting in silence, holding hands, sharing a knowing smile. I love the sisterhood shared by Mary and Elizabeth.

I have my own “sisters of the heart,” and I recently had opportunity to gather with some of my favorite women. I gave myself a birthday party–to celebrate turning fifty! Women from various segments of my life came together, and I had the honor of introducing them–not by their job titles or by their roles in life. Instead I shared briefly their importance to me–how they have touched my life.

In planning the party and in experiencing that night of celebration, I have given much thought to the significant role that women friends have in my life, and I have been reminded again of how blessed I am. I have deep friendships, spread wide across age, geography, and life experience.

One of my friends who attended is actually my sister, Kenda. She is one of my younger sisters. We have shared memories of growing up in a family of four sisters—no brothers.  What I have learned from Kenda is that sisters can be close friends, and having a sister, who is also my friend, means that I have someone with whom I share memories of the past but can also share struggles of the present and dreams for the future.  My friendship with Kenda adds richness to my life, and I was pretty amazed that she flew from Dallas to Atlanta to be at my birthday party!

But Kenda was not the only one who flew in for the party. My friend, Julie, also came from Dallas to celebrate with me. I wish, oh how I wish, that I journaled. Because if I did, I would have written down all the wonderful, crazy, funny things that Julie has said to me. She has made me laugh harder than most anyone I know. And because she makes me laugh, she also makes me cry. She has pulled stories out of me—and I have found myself telling her my deep, dark secrets. Laughter and tears are somehow intimately connected—and I am thankful for a friend who laughs with me and cries with me and is willing to travel all the way from Texas just to come to my party!

My good friend, Devita, also attended my party. One of my all-time favorite things to do in life is have lunch or breakfast or coffee with Devita. I always take my notebook and pen—because I have to take notes. Our lunches end up not being not so much about food but about solving all the problems of the world, organizing everyone and everything—and I like to write down all our ideas. But what I love most about lunches with Devita is that we don’t just plot and plan, we get to work and make things happen. My time with Devita gives me energy, brings out my creative side. She inspires me, pushes me to think and to do more, dream bigger. Everyone should have a friend like Devita!

My birthday buddy, Suzanah, drove from Florida to be present for my birthday. Suzanah and I share November 30 birthdays. We don’t, however, share birth years. Suzanah is still far, far away from fifty. I am the “older” friend, but she looks past my ancientness and loves me anyway! For the past five years, Suzanah and I have celebrated our birthdays together–not always on November 30, but we have always managed to be together near the date of our births. Over the years, Suzanah has taught me many, many things—including to love traveling. She marched me to the top of Diamond Head in Honolulu in the summer of 2010, and one day she drove me around the entire island. And we vowed that someday we would move to Hawaii! Suzanah is the only reason I ended up in Prague and Germany in 2009. I was convinced that I could not go, but she promised to go with me! And she did! And while we were there, I made her take a long, long train trip all the way to Wittenberg, and on a very cold January afternoon, we sat in Martin Luther’s church on a beautiful wooden pew and talked about courage and prophetic preaching and living fully. And I carry a snapshot of that day in my heart—and am thankful that Suzanah has taught me so much about courage and convictions and friendship.

LeAnn also came to celebrate my birthday. I met LeAnn back in 2005. She was a recent seminary graduate, serving on church staff in Atlanta. She was single—and frankly, she seemed so very young to me. But I watched and soon discovered that she was already such a strong leader, a passionate minister.  And then life changed for LeAnn—she got married, moved to California, then moved back to Georgia. She had a sweet baby boy—and in the midst of all those changes, LeAnn walked me along with me and dreamed with me. Hers was the voice of discernment that I listened to when I pondered the crazy idea of leaving a known job and venturing into the full-time world of Baptist Women in Ministry. Hers was the voice of reason—she asked me the hard questions, walked me through proper procedure and organizational structuring, and best of all, hers was the voice of love and encouragement—she told me to follow my heart, and I did. And I am thankful beyond words for LeAnn’s voice, her love, and her never-ending encouragement.

These are but a few of the women who attended. Grace, Sarah, Jessica, Emily, Gwen, Robin, Vicki, Libby, Carol, Renee, Aimee, and Alex all were there at the party too. I was pretty overwhelmed that so many came! And blessed, very blessed!

While I am not cloistered together with my “Sisters of Visitation,” I am bound to them by love and friendship! They are my “sisters of the heart.”

Pam Durso is the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.