Christmas Joy

Where the Heart is

December 5, 2023 by by Emily Enders Odom

Christmas Joy Offering helps retired mission worker find home

LOUISVILLE – If home is where the heart is, then Sue Anne Fairman’s heart is blessed to call several places home.

For the Presbyterian ruling elder and deacon, for whom a call to mission has defined her entire life, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania — is home.

Not only is the small town home to Fairman’s alma mater, Westminster College — site of the New Wilmington Mission Conference, where she also served for 10 years as office manager — but it’s also home to the New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, which supported her and her former husband during their years as international mission workers.

But home, too, will always be Kenya, where they lived and worked among the Maasai people in southwestern Kenya. It was there that Fairman cultivated a love for literacy, raised and homeschooled two daughters, and spent 14 of her nearly 25 years in mission service volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Orphanage in Nairobi. 

And home, since December 2020, is also Shenango on the Green, a Presbyterian continuing care community, where Fairman is an active volunteer. It’s also where she said goodbye to her own mother, who lived and died there.

Yet Fairman might not have been able to call Shenango on the Green home had it not been for the intervention of her longtime friend and college schoolmate, the Rev. David Dawson, former executive presbyter of Shenango Presbytery.

When initially faced with the financial realities of moving into a senior living community, Fairman said she was feeling “more than a bit stressed.”

“I was very concerned about living in this new place with the monthly rent going up, and my savings going down,” she said. “Then I had lunch with my friend, Dave, who said, ‘Why don’t you apply to the Board of Pensions for income and housing assistance,’ which I had never heard of before. He explained it was there for retired pastors and mission workers if they were in financial need. When I made the call and they investigated my situation, they felt I qualified.”

Fairman said that the day she received her acceptance letter from the Board of Pensions, she felt validated.

“Most of my years of service as a pastor’s wife and missionary in Kenya were not covered by the Board of Pensions, because [my ex-husband] was the one who was called into ministry,” she said. “When I got that letter that said I was accepted, I just cried. It meant that much to me. I cannot tell you how much this income assistance has validated me and my years of ministry!”

The support that Fairman receives is made possible, in part, by the PC(USA)’s annual Christmas Joy Offering, a cherished Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s, which distributes gifts equally to the BOP’s Assistance Program and to Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color.

The Assistance Program provides need-based grants to help active and retired plan members and their families. Income Supplements help eligible retirees and surviving spouses in need by raising to certain levels the monthly income for those who had earned modest wages.

“The Board’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion includes dismantling structures which had previously only served the few,” said Ruth Adams, director of the Assistance Program. “The Assistance Program has taken this mission to heart by expanding access to existing programs and creating new ones during the past two years. Changing pension plan participation for Housing and Income supplements has meant that pensioners who served the church for many years without full benefits may now be eligible to receive support from the Board of Pensions in their retirement.”

Such changes have directly benefited faithful church workers like Fairman, whose challenging yet deeply gratifying service was not always accompanied by the corresponding pension credits.

“Our family’s years in southwestern Kenya were the most difficult because I do not like to camp,” she recalled. “We lived in a house with no electricity, a bathtub behind the house, an outdoor latrine and a water shortage. After I took a bath, then the girls took a bath, and then we soaked our laundry overnight.”

Fairman’s two daughters, Julie Fairman Ward and Joy Fairman Huston, remember well those years of both hardship and joy.

Today Ward lives in Medford, Oregon, where her husband, Chris, serves as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, while Huston and her husband, Bryan, live in Youngstown, Ohio, where she is a nurse educator for the Mercy Healthcare System in the United States.

Ward said that her mother’s life in Kenya “was like something that people only read about in books,” including living through scorpion bites and making sure that no snakes were slithering into the house every time she opened the door.

“God really gave me the strength to do all of that,” Fairman acknowledged. “I think except for the years when I was serving Mother Teresa’s Orphanages in Nairobi, this was the most formative time of my life.”

And her work at Mother Teresa’s Orphanages proved formative in perhaps an even more life changing — and even incarnational — sense.

“One day a little girl was born in the clinic into the hands of some of the sisters on a morning when I just happened to be there to volunteer,” Fairman recalled. “The sisters told me, ‘Let us wash her up and put clean clothes on her, and you can be her mother for the day. I held that little girl, and eventually my daughter, Julie, and her husband, Chris, adopted her. I had no idea that morning that I was holding my own granddaughter, Imani, who is now 23 years old, living in Oregon with her parents, working at a veterinary clinic, and making a way for herself.”

Remembering the precious child who was given into her hands and then into her arms — how she once upon a time had the privilege of choosing her own future granddaughter — fills Fairman with gratitude for her life in mission and for the role that Presbyterian generosity plays in making such service possible.

“Former church workers who have served long and well deserve to be recognized for their efforts over their lifetime,” she said. “Because there are so many today who are struggling financially because of inflation and other challenges, they need help. Your gifts to the Christmas Joy Offering serve to validate their life and their ministry.”

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For those supported through the Christmas Joy Offering, this help is truly a gift from above. May our gifts, and the leaders who receive them, point us always to the truth of the one whose birth we celebrate, Jesus Christ — the truly perfect gift.