By Rev. Dave Allen Grady
By the time I gained the privilege of knowing her, Mary “Lib” Lowery was the diaconal minister for children’s ministry at my home church, First United Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham, AL. When we joined the church I was in youth group. I never got the opportunity to be in a children’s program she directed. But I was amazed by her. Every Sunday, as she was making her way from the education building to the sanctuary, she would get mobbed by the children for the singular purpose of exchanging a hug. From time to time, you even saw a middle schooler hover around the periphery. When they’d make eye contact, they would share a brief embrace, too. The fact that this liturgy happened each and every week—sometimes making her almost late for the opening procession—mesmerized me. What was it about her? No one else on staff had people almost inhibiting their forward movement minutes before worship began. It was her gracious, loving demeanor. It was reflected not only in the time she gave to recognize each child but the way she taught Sunday School, the way she patiently led the children’s choir, and how she went about leading a life of ministry imbued with a deep wisdom.
When I was in college at the University of Alabama, she made a habit of driving to Tuscaloosa and taking each of the “Birmingham First Church” students to lunch. It was a check-in from home. It was during one of those visits that I learned she was an Alabama alumna and that her husband had been director of the Alabama Wesley Foundation. On a subsequent visit, I learned about her life in ministry that took her to Florida before returning to Camp Sumatanga and the North Alabama Conference’s Council on Ministries. I was impressed by the scope of ways someone could be in ministry. This was new to me. It was also over a lunch visit—to The City Cafe, of course—that I first began talking with her about a call to ministry. With the same graceful, wise way she led children’s ministry there was a fruitful place for me to ask questions about a life in service to the church. She was a great conversation partner and a dear friend. She exposed me to books like Westerhoff’s Will Our Children Have Faith as well as encouraged me to listen to Bernstein’s Mass for the first time.
All too soon, she retired. I remembered protesting her decision. I told her, “we need you.” The truth was, I needed her. She was the first woman I had experienced in a pastoral role. She was such a wise and loving presence. Little did I know that, soon, cancer would attack her body, sapping her physical strength but never robbing her of her gracious spirit.
Scripture tells of the change to Moses’ countenance after having been in God’s presence. I have no idea what Moses’ face looked like. But I have definitely been in the presence of one whose countenance reflected the love and light of Christ. I am under no illusion that I am the only one who could lift Mary Lib up as a woman who inspired them—I know many who make the same claim as I. But for all of us who knew her and loved her, our lives are better. Whenever the neverending to-do list of ministry wears on me, I remember the image of her patiently and graciously greeting the children, even if it did make her late for church.
Rev. Dave Allen Grady was raised in rural Alabama by Southern Baptist parents but had United Methodist grandparents. In college at The University of Alabama he spent much time with the Episcopal Campus Ministry but by time he graduated, he was in leadership with the Bama Wesley Foundation. He earned a certificate in Christian Education and a Master of Divinity degree from The Candler School of Theology. Grady is the pastor of Druid Hills United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.