Tribute: Lesson from Lois: Be part of the struggle

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I was a small paragraph in one chapter of the very rich life of Lois M. Dauway, who died Feb. 4 after a life of commitment to the Christian mandate of social justice.

For a decade (1996-2006), I worked as the communications director for the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries when Lois led the section on Christian social responsibility and then became the interim top executive for the division.

To me, she was a fascinating book of stories and lessons that taught me, a 20-something, to think bigger than myself. If you took my relationship and multiplied it by thousands, I’m sure you’d discover a small percent of people she touched. She moved among circles of United Methodist Women, denominational and ecumenical leaders, nongovernmental and political organizations, nonprofits and for-profits.

Her impressive professional resume included working as a community organizer in Boston, as staff at the National Council of Churches and as a member of the World Council of Churches Central Committee. Personally, many of us also recognized her as friend, advocate, mentor, and for me, godmother of my youngest child.

Lois appeared to work endlessly for Christ’s justice, even when it was exhausting, mundane and seemed hard on her health. I was different, part of a generation that wanted instant gratification and to flit from one social justice issue to another, especially when an issue couldn’t be solved with immediacy.

Part of the struggle

But Lois taught us differently. We were a piece of the struggle. Just resolutions could take generations, she reminded us, and changing unfair institutions could take decades. Staying focused on eradication of racism, poverty and other injustices could mean baby steps to accomplish great things.

With a swooping movement of her hands or a look over her glasses, she nudged me and others toward critical thinking and a realization that most of life’s decisions have a justice angle and affect our brothers and sisters.

Personally, I can’t read Dr. Seuss to my children without realizing that much of the world’s wealth is built upon the breaking backs of the “Yertles the Turtles.”

I can’t shop for fruits or vegetables without thinking of the conditions of farmworkers; the scarcity and inflated expense of produce in urban areas; or the organic and sustainable harvests that make it possible for future generations to live well.

In my children’s public schools, I am aware of their privilege and that inequities and segregation separate our children from each other. At the mall with my daughter, I look at clothing labels, remembering sweatshops scattered along the streets of Chinatown in New York.

During the adoption of my son, I kept questions at the forefront about child trafficking, my son’s culture, and interracial dynamics of parenting. At night’s end, when I watch the news, I count the stories that disproportionately place persons of color or other religions in a negative light.

I do this because of Lois Dauway’s tutelage. Awareness and education were the first steps. Action could then follow.

‘Speaking truth to power’

Lois demonstrated courage in “speaking truth to power.” It meant you were open to attack, whether in your own church or in front of a corporation’s board of directors. People didn’t always want to hear it but despite that fact, you were called to do so with God’s love.

More than 10 years ago, I placed Lois on a live, call-in morning television show in Nashville to discuss the need for hate crime laws. Matthew Shepard, 21, had recently been murdered in Wyoming because he was gay. James Byrd Jr., an African American, had been dragged alive behind the truck of three white men, then dumped in front of a black cemetery.

As a young adult, I was quick to judge the rightness or wrongness of how people acted. Lois saw people as God’s children. Educating others kindly expanded their perspectives, helped them make connections to their own lives, and could bring transformation.

As she spoke about United Methodist Women members tracking hate crime data, hate group members and loud opponents to legislation called in. Composed, Lois responded with facts and courage that came from her favorite Old Testament prophet: Do justice, love kindness and humbly walk with God.

Her personality made it easy to join her in advocacy. As a young adult, I was quick to judge the rightness or wrongness of how people acted. Lois saw people as God’s children. Educating others kindly expanded their perspectives, helped them make connections to their own lives, and could bring transformation. With my own growth, her formula worked, too.

In stormy situations, her calmness gave her power. On Sept. 11, 2001, staff of the Women’s Division, the majority of whom were from New York and Washington, attended our autumn meeting in South Carolina. At breakfast, we knew one plane hit the World Trade Center, but left for a United Methodist community center thinking it was a bizarre accident.

An hour later, I called our media placement person whose first words were, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know we’re under attack?” Two planes had hit the World Trade Center, another, the Pentagon, and the fourth plane was still in the air.

Lois took the phone when I became visibly confused and overwhelmed. With an equable grounding, she listened and questioned. Facts unfolded and staff persons contacted loved ones. We went to our next event previously coordinated by Lois. African-American pastors, whose churches had been vandalized and burned, shared their stories and prayed with us. We were beginning to understand fear and shock did not happen in a vacuum. Terror occurred to other people and communities regularly.

Empowering others to act

Lois would tell you she did none of her work alone. That may be true. But she did listen to voices of injustice and boldly declared what she discerned, experienced and saw. She empowered staff persons to do the same as they focused on the needs of women and children, racial, economic and environmental justice, public policy and spiritual growth.

Her passion was rooted in Christ’s peace and justice encircling all people. This is her legacy as she joins great foremothers.

Standing before 800 United Methodist Women leaders in St. Louis, co-facilitating a racial justice plenary and Bible study, Lois once lovingly teased me, “You’ve gone from preachin‘ to meddlin‘ now.”

It was a compliment. Lois spent her life meddlin’ in church and society; maybe I could someday emulate her.

Her passion was rooted in Christ’s peace and justice encircling all people. This is her legacy as she joins great foremothers. With others, I pray the justice journey has great rewards sooner rather than later. If it doesn’t, we will continue anyway, energized by memories of how Lois Dauway represented Christ’s teachings.

*Martini, a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa., is a former communications director of the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

News Media contact: Linda Bloom, (646) 369-3759 or[email protected]

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