Post Author: Sarah Carver
I currently sit on the board of a very old organization within The Episcopal Church, aptly named the United Thank Offering. The United Thank Offering exists to fund and promote mission work in the church. It does this through the Blue Box, where folks are invited to prayerfully place their coins as they offer up their thanksgivings to God. It is an actual box with a little slot at the top, just like a mite box. Mine sits on our dining room table. What I try to do each evening as we sit down to dinner is bring out change from the day’s transactions and give it to my husband and my young daughter. With our coins in hand we take turns talking about what we are thankful for, and as we do so, we place the coins in the box. (FYI, this is a hit with toddlers.) Eventually, we count up those coins and send them along to the United Thank Offering with everyone else’s during our church’s ingathering. Millions of dollars get raised this way: through simple coins and lots of gratitude.
When it was created in the late 19th century, the United Thank Offering’s purpose was to enable a young and growing Episcopal Church to spread the Gospel to the furthest boundaries of a similarly young and growing nation—and beyond. At nearly 125 years old, its focus has not changed. When my thirty-one year-old self became involved with this ministry, I had no idea that I would also be getting a crash course in women’s history within the Episcopal Church. For the first time, I heard a narrative emerge that I’d never really encountered in its fullness. It detailed both the disenfranchisement and the indefatigable efforts of women in service of the Gospel. My teachers are the women I’ve been blessed to work with, who themselves embody their own role and history within this greater narrative of women in the church and who have seen great change take place. I have become aware of the fact I am also a receiver of the stories and gifts of women no longer with us, but whose work remains present today. This mission work of the church through the United Thank Offering, and indeed the United Thank Offering itself, is the offering of countless women who served in a boundless mission field yet were so often bound by the cultural expectation and insistence that they could only accomplish “women’s work” in the church.
One woman in particular stands out: Julia Chester Emery. She was Secretary of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions (the women’s work) for forty years. Under her leadership, the Women’s Auxiliary became the driving force behind the mission work of the entire church and grew into a network that emphasized education, addressed social issues, and eventually created the United Thank Offering. Julia traveled all over the world and the church as part of her work. After she retired as Secretary, she wrote a history of The Episcopal Church called A Century of Endeavor, 1821-1921: A Record of the First Hundred Years of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. In short, she was unstoppable.
In looking at her life and reading some of her history of the church, I have a sense of Julia as someone who, being grounded in a boundless Gospel, was boundless herself. She could not be contained by the limits placed on her because of her gender or even by the limited means of communication and travel in her era. Instead of being still and confined, she was expansive. She worked as a woman who had looked out onto the vast mission field and was overcome by the sole desire to fill it with the Gospel.
Julia did all of this knowing that there were barriers. She was acutely aware of the limitations placed on faithful Christian women during her ministry. The Women’s Auxiliary existed because while women were denied a place in leadership in the church, their ability to fund and support mission made them a force that the church had to recognize. But Julia knew that it could do more. When the church considered restructuring, the possibility of women having a voice in the church became more real. It must have been a terrible disappointment to her that the church did not change to include women in its structure as anything more than auxiliary. Julia’s last report to the Board of Missions included her understanding that the Women’s Auxiliary “…was unsatisfied with its past and eager for its future…. the Women’s Auxiliary has been given tasks entirely incommensurate with its strength.” The Women’s Auxiliary had already been a considerable force in carrying out mission, and even then, Julia believed that more could be accomplished.
My response to this is to be grateful for her, and for the women and men who have carried her work forward. I am grateful for her witness and devotion, grateful for the church, and grateful to be a part of it. It is gratitude, I think, that ties all of this history and ourselves and Julia together.
Gratitude is an attitude of abundance, of awe, and of boundlessness. It doesn’t seek to be fulfilled; rather, it prompts us to pour out our gifts into the world. Gratitude is being mindful of the blessings in our lives, and because we are mindful, we are able to see just what it is we can give. It places us in a position of empowerment despite our limitations, real or perceived. We can be grateful in all circumstances for things big or small. And the tiniest of thanksgivings, much like the mustard seed, can grow into something surprisingly large and wonderful, which then blesses those around us.
The Gospel is shared because people are grateful for having received it. God’s mission is carried out because with grateful hearts we participate in that work. Julia Chester Emery understood this. Because of her, the United Thank Offering still seeks to fulfill God’s mission in the world by reminding us all to be thankful and to live out our gratitude one coin and prayer at a time.
Image by: Sarah Lamming
Used with permission