I have been surrounded by very kind and generous people my whole life. Culturally, we are warmed by great fanfare and charity, honorable spotlight and the bliss of giving good gifts to others. But Jan’s generosity and kindness, I believe, came from the deep places of what she considered most sacred: God’s love and care for all people. As a group of church women of all ages squeezed into the space at Jan’s bedside two weeks before her death, Jan reminded us that her desire to love and care for others could not be separated from the life and mission of the church that she was a part of: Mountainside Communion. Since its birth 7 and a ½ years ago, Jan had been an active participant and leader in our church in Monrovia. She deeply identified with the mission of the church, taken from the prophet Micah, in chapter 6 verse 8: What is it that the Lord requires of us? To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. She believed that the church should embody this, and over the past eight years I have been blessed to see in Jan, nothing but love for our community.
Jan’s passion to participate in the gathering of our church body on Sundays has always been clear in the liturgies she wrote, the prayers she uttered, and by her sharing of the Scriptures. While Jan personally depended on the promises of God and the good news of his kingdom, she did not show up to church on Sunday mornings to take her fill and then go home. Jan showed up to the gathering of our church to serve and to listen and to know and to connect with as many people as she was capable. She was active each Sunday, in her attempts to reach out and break barriers—physical barriers, economic barriers, generational barriers and even religious ones. She said to me once,
“This is a place where we carry the burdens of one another… we suffer with those who suffer, and we rejoice with those who rejoice.”
At leadership meetings Jan was always pretty clear about her hope that we would remain authentic and consistent in the welcoming of new people; regardless of where they come from and why they are there. Once she got to know somebody she would soon ask, how is that person being empowered to use their gifts and abilities to contribute to the life and work of the church?
Other members of our church were blessed by Jan’s consistent support alongside them in their own unique journeys—whether it be a chronic illness, the journey of infertility, struggles with addiction, adventures in new employment or travels abroad, ongoing turmoil within family structures, or the season of a new engagement or marriage covenant—in all things Jan was persistently, unwaveringly, boldly faithful to Micah 6.8 in a thousand small ways in our little church. And her care for the sustainability of the church was always evident when Jan would boldly encourage its members to give as they were able, to support the church financially and prayerfully.
Since Jan had a consistent presence on Sundays, it wasn’t uncommon to see some of our youngest babies at Mountainside Communion take some of their first steps while holding onto her wheelchair during the church service. Both my son and daughter did this and when it would happen, Jan would turn her head as far as she could to catch a glimpse of the child hanging onto her wheels. Her great big smile told me that she was enjoying the moment warmly and hospitably. My daughter knew Jan’s name at the age of one and something, and to make it fair to Warren, we also taught her to point to her corpus callosom.
To celebrate Jan’s 65th birthday, together with Warren, the church threw her a surprise party. We were enthusiastic about it because Jan would never expect such a thing– she doesn’t stop celebrating other people long enough to imagine that people would do that for her. Indeed, she was surprised. It was a happy birthday and a memorable time together for Jan and for all who attended. Soon after, Jan said in an email to the church: What I have experienced by knowing each of you, is how God’s love finds expression at Mountainside Communion through the willing, giving, caring acts of his people. Jan’s beliefs and practices had been reciprocated naturally. In such things, Jan had always led the way.
What I have just described is clearly how our church knew Jan. That was how most of Mountainside Communion connected with her in our congregation. But this isn’t even close to the full story. You see, there was this whole other side that some of us were lucky to see more of. Jan’s ecclesiology, the way she viewed the work of the church, went way beyond the church walls and way beyond the Sunday mornings and afternoons. It was throughout the week that her fervor for justice revealed itself most. In one of the first emails I ever exchanged with Jan she was asking the question, how do we determine the real needs in our neighborhoods? How is God asking our church to care for the poor and the sick and the marginalized? In the early months of Mountainside Communion the church created a way for us to continually give away a percentage of the money that came to the church from the offerings. We established a fund called Compassionate Action. The hope was that this money would find its way back to those in the community who had the greatest need, whether they attended church or not. We believe that if the mission of God in Christ compels us to “love God and love our neighbors” then surely, our little church body could begin to know our neighbors and to act on their behalf if a financial need should show itself. Throughout the last seven years Jan and I have shared responsibilities with these funds, along with other leaders and committee members. We would all agree that Jan had a special gift of listening to the world around her and of hearing that world through the ears of others, not just her own. And when a need presented itself, Jan was on it. It amazed me to see how connected she was to the lives of the people who worked in her home, to those who she met out in public, and to those who the rest of us identified as people who could benefit from the Compassionate Action fund in our own neighborhoods. What made this committee unique was the work it required us to do together because of Jan’s own physical limitations. For many of Jan’s acts of mercy toward others (and there were many) she needed the use of our hands and our feet. This required all of us to participate more, in the compassionate work of the church. And in all honesty, this was really hard work!
When I would pick up my ringing cell phone and look down to see that Jan was calling, I would need to take a deep breath and ask myself, am I ready for this call? In other words, did I have 20 minutes to hear a story about somebody she was trying to help and was I ready to go visit somebody in a hospital or buy a bag of groceries or get cash out of the bank for somebody facing an urgent need? My husband Kurt could always tell by the serious and concerned look on my face when I was talking to Jan on the phone. Before taking such a call, the image of Lady Justice herself would come to my mind—the balancing of her scales; and that sword in her hand! You can’t say no to Jan Brown! Over the last two years of my life it became harder and harder to take Jan’s calls because of the demands of my own two young children. Still, I found myself doing what I could with the time I had. My favorite story was when Jan was helping a woman who had just tragically lost her husband. It was my job to track her down at her place of employment, my two babies in tow, and give the gift from the fund. I trusted that Jan’s relationship with the woman was deep enough so that I wasn’t acting in a way that could be somewhat offensive. Surely, Jan did have a relationship with the woman. I could tell when I met her. Sometimes human need interrupts our normal lives. Jan taught me this. It is usually the right thing to do, to step out of our normal rhythms of life to help somebody in need. My sister Heidi who is a registered nurse also often got swept up in Jan’s compassion. As somebody who possessed the mobility that Jan did not have, Heidi would be called upon to do visitation, some basic care and make some phone calls on the behalf of those Jan wanted the church to be helping. Some days all she would need to tell me was that Jan called that morning. We both knew all that that entailed. Acts of mercy. Compassion. Justice. You cannot have the body of Christ without people participating in this work together. For our young, small church—Jan led the way.
Compassion is contagious; and God’s idea of it is that we do it together. It would be easier to send our CAF money off to far away lands, to aid in crises all over. And sometimes we do that. But charity is easy. Charity can be disconnected. But to do justice takes time and work and participation together. God’s justice draws us into knowing our neighbors. I came across an ongoing list of those people in our communities that Jan wanted to keep close to, in our giving. When I re-read this list I can hear Jan’s voice in my head, asking about each of these, urgently wanting to check in on our friends: the disabled, the sick, kids who have lost a mother, those in need of psychological support, the women and children at Elizabeth House, the Monrovia Youth Alliance, women who have lost their husbands, our migrant communities, the unemployed, those who teach or work in our public schools, The Foothill Unity Center, our bi-vocational ministers, our homeless communities, people in recovery, those living in extreme poverty around the world—the list would go on, in a variety of directions; because Jan genuinely cared for all people. Participating in the hands-and-feet details of the compassion of Jan Brown was an honor. I hope that in her absence, we will continue in this good work that God calls His church to do.