How a mother and lingust in the Air Force found her way to ministry and to the Covenant
One my favorite things about being from Maine is our tradition of Down East, or Yankee, humor. We Mainers all think we’re funny. Some of my favorite examples involve the stories of humorists Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan giving directions to an unsuspecting traveler. In the slow and steady rhythm of the Down East dialect, they would describe endless twists and turns, finally concluding, “You can’t get there from here,” or “Come to think of it, you don’t have to go an inch.”
My journey into the Covenant has included its own twists and turns, reminiscent of my childhood road trips around southern Maine where we were never lost, just temporarily misplaced. We usually ended up just where we were supposed to be.
Growing up the oldest of six children in a traditional French Canadian Catholic family, I knew what it meant to be devout. Each of us kids made our first communion, were confirmed, never missed mass, and always went to catechism class. In high school, I was involved with Catholic youth activities and eventually went to a Catholic women’s college where I began discernment to be a nun.
But the sisters advised me to delay that process until after I had graduated. Concerned about my student debt and not sure what to do, I transferred to a university in Maine and commuted from home. While I was there, I heard that a French teacher from my high school had joined the Navy to use her language skills, so I looked into joining the Air Force. I took all the tests and qualified to be a linguist. After I enlisted I was sent to the Defense Language Institute where I studied Arabic.
During this time I stopped attending church. I didn’t care for the services on the base, and I didn’t look for a church off base. I married a man who had grown up in a very conservative church but who had rejected his religious upbringing.
In the Air Force I worked as an Arabic linguist, translating Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Iraqi military communications. My work provided intelligence reports to all levels of our government. I also trained linguists from all the armed services as well as civilians. As one of the first women in the Air Force in my job at Fort Meade in Maryland, I enjoyed my work and the people I worked with.
When I was twenty-four, my husband and I were hoping to start a family. But we struggled to get pregnant and a physician told me it was unlikely that I’d be able to have children. He urged me to begin fertility treatments right away. At the time I was stationed in Athens, Greece, and did not have access to a good hospital, so I was reluctant to start that process.
Then, a few months later, I learned that I was pregnant. I was thrilled. My son Sam was born in 1984.
Before he was six weeks old, Sam became ill. He cried a lot. He could not keep food down. We went back and forth to the doctor, but he dismissed Sam’s symptoms, saying they were probably were due to an allergy.
Yet Sam did not improve. I knew that he wasn’t okay, and I kept bringing him back to the doctor. Finally one day a different doctor saw Sam and immediately sent us in an ambulance to the children’s hospital in Athens. There we learned that Sam had contracted meningitis. We were told he was going to die.
We made arrangements to evacuate Sam to Germany, even though we were warned that he probably wouldn’t survive the flight. He did make it and remained in the intensive care unit for two weeks until he was strong enough to travel. Then we returned to the States so Sam could go to Walter Reed Army Hospital.
In the midst of that terrible season, I learned two things: first, my son’s illness had caused very profound brain damage; and second, my marriage was not going to last.
I was desperate. I began reading a Bible that someone had given me. I tried going to mass, but I felt very alone.
At Walter Reed we saw every kind of specialist. Ultimately Sam was diagnosed as blind and quadriplegic. He would never be able to speak and he had a seizure disorder. The damage to his brain was immense. The doctors were surprised that he had survived and warned me that he would be like a baby for the rest of his life.
The head of pediatric neurology told me Sam likely would not live to be a year old, and he advised me to place him in a facility. But I was determined to give my son the best life he could have, and to keep him with me — which I did.
When Sam was discharged from the hospital we were assigned a team of therapists and teachers. One was an occupational therapist who, I learned later, was also a Young Life leader. She spent our sessions not only working with Sam but also with me. Eventually she invited us to church and we took her up on her invitation. The church welcomed us, the nursery workers welcomed Sam, and I returned to the church and rediscovered my faith.
The nursery workers encouraged me to attend Sunday school, and the experience of being able to participate in worship as well as Sunday school class—knowing that Sam was well cared for—was deeply significant to me.
The first two years of Sam’s life he cried every night for most of the night. Each night I rocked him until one of us fell asleep. I was assigned at Fort Meade again and went to work every day sleep deprived. As I struggled to bear the weight of Sam’s struggles, my family and friends made every effort to encourage me. They reminded me how strong I was. But that support felt like just words, like the song from the musical Annie, where she sings, “The sun will come up tomorrow.” Tomorrow always felt like it was still a day away.
I was a new student of the Bible, but when I read the story of God’s choosing Joshua to lead the people into Canaan after Moses died (Joshua 1:1-9), I noticed that God told Joshua to be strong and courageous, to obey the law, and that he would be with him everywhere he went. Those words offered me encouragement that was far more powerful than the reminders to stand in my own strength.
When I became a single parent, I assumed that I would be alone forever because of Sam’s extensive needs. But God had other plans for me.
John and I had both been assigned to the same unit in Greece, and we shared some mutual friends. Back at Fort Meade he worked down the hall from me. Our work didn’t really overlap — he translated and reported airplane communications and I transcribed and translated ground forces. My office’s air guy left, and even though ground people don’t like to do airplane communications, my boss told me to fill in. John spent a lot of time teaching me how to do that. Eight months later, we were married. John jumped right in to being husband and dad to Sam. Our daughter, Maureen, was born the following year.
Together we attended a Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) congregation near our home. We lived there three years before moving to England, where I was stationed at RAF Menwith Hill Station as an Arabic linguist. Our youngest son, William, was born there in 1992.
Throughout all of these transitions, Sam remained relatively healthy. But when he was six years old he developed respiratory problems that revealed that he was aspirating his food. He ended up with a permanent feeding tube. As he got older he also had to have two hip surgeries and he was diagnosed with scoliosis.
After living in England for four years, we moved to Augusta, Georgia. It was my last year in the Air Force, and I was assigned to teach students from all four services about Iraq and the Iraqi dialect. It was a great opportunity professionally — and it was also a time of growth for John and me as we found a church that nurtured us. While there, we were invited to teach children’s Sunday school. John and I had fun teaching together, and we were mentored and encouraged in that process.
It was in that experience that I began to feel the first tug toward seminary. I took two classes at a Bible school in Augusta and wanted to study more. We learned that I could go to the PCA’s seminary in St. Louis.
My husband’s family was also in St. Louis, and my father-in-law had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer so we were eager to be closer to him. We found good school options for Sam, and we loved the idea that Maureen and Will would have the opportunity to get to know their grandfather.
So we moved to Kirkwood, Missouri, just a few weeks after I retired from the Air Force, and I enrolled in seminary with plans to prepare for children’s ministry. I loved the classes and thrived in this new season of my life.
When I was nearly done with my master of divinity degree, I took a class that required me to take personality and gifts tests to help me evaluate my call to ministry. That process revealed that although I definitely loved kids, I was not especially gifted in teaching. Instead it appeared that I would be well suited to chaplaincy.
At the suggestion of my professor, I began to volunteer with the chaplain at a senior living facility. After graduation, I began my chaplaincy training. There I found work that fit me in ways that children’s ministry never could.
All along, Sam was in and out of hospitals. Because he was blind and could not communicate, John and I took turns staying in the hospital with him. I knew what it was like to sleep in a recliner in a hospital room and eat hospital food. I knew what it was like to hear bad news there. I learned how to put in a feeding tube. In 2010, Sam was hospitalized with a severe respiratory infection and compromised airway. The surgeons performed a tracheotomy because the scoliosis had affected Sam’s breathing. So then I learned how to insert a tracheotomy tube. I knew the language of the hospitals and of special needs children. Being Sam’s mother meant I had been training for nearly thirty years.
From day one, I knew that hospital ministry was what God had called me to do. My Clinical Pastoral Education training showed me how to be a chaplain, but caring for Sam taught me how to care for my patients and their families.
But I needed an endorsement or ecclesiastical documentation in order to complete my chaplain certification. Although the church I was attending encouraged me, they would not endorse me because they do not endorse women in chaplaincy. I began searching online for a denomination— and I found the Covenant.
I studied the denomination on the Internet. I read resource papers and lots of books about the Covenant. When I visited Community Covenant Church in Kirkwood, Missouri, I felt welcomed and at home. I loved the preaching and fellowship. I became a member of the church and began to work on getting licensed.
After writing all the required papers, I went to Chicago to meet the Central Conference ministerium committee. I was very nervous.
When members of the board made their decision to approve my ministry license, they threw me a curve ball: instead of being licensed for ministry, they recommended that I pursue ordination to word and sacrament. That was not at all what I had intended, but I decided to take their advice.
I began to rethink my understanding of God’s call once again. I took Covenant orientation classes. Every time I took a class or went to a retreat or an interview, John took vacation so that he could be home with Sam. Over the course of three years I visited four Covenant camps—in California, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin — where I took classes. Then, last winter, as the final steps toward ordination approached, Sam became very ill.
After the tracheotomy, Sam’s quality of life changed. He no longer could go to his brother and sister’s activities. He was housebound, and members of our family were his only caregivers. He ended up needing oxygen and had frequent respiratory infections.
I wrote my ordination papers while sitting in Sam’s intensive care room. Our family spent a great deal of time together with him in the hospital. Maureen and Will would visit him after work or school. I spent days in his room and alternated nights with my husband. He was not doing well, so I cancelled my registration for my last orientation class. Sam died in early February, the week of the class.
A month later, I was scheduled to have my final ordination interview. I felt unsure—it was too soon after Sam’s death. But my family encouraged me to go anyway. The Board of the Ordered Ministry welcomed me, showed me such kindness and compassion, and approved my application. I was ordained at the Covenant Annual Meeting in June.
When I began my journey into ministry, I imagined my life in the poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.” I had been on an adventure, hoping to get an education. I took a path that was different from my friends’. As I ventured down that road, I encountered many hardships and felt very alone. Looking back, I felt like the Israelites who roamed for forty years in the desert. I was equipped with good morals and I knew right from wrong, but I didn’t know Jesus. I grew professionally, but spiritually I was dead. Then I met Jesus on that road and as Frost says, “that made all the difference.”
It has been a long road home, but contrary to my Maine humorists, you can get there from here. And in my case, Community Covenant Church is in my own backyard so I didn’t “have to go an inch.”
We are encouraged in Joshua 1:9 to “be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Through my journey to faith, through marriage, raising children, the death of my child, ordination, and my ministry God has indeed been with me. Sometimes the journey was hard, but I learned that “because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. For they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). God is indeed faithful.
Bethann Samuell Rohlfing serves as a chaplain at Saint Louis University Hospital in Saint Louis, and Mercy Hospital in Creve Coeur, Missouri. She is a member of Community Covenant Church in Kirkwood, Missouri. She was ordained to word and sacrament at the Annual Meeting in June.