There are many different categories of missionaries, but Marion Clark fits into a category all her own.
Marion lost her husband, a pastor at Eastside Bible Church in the Chicago area, in 1977. After a lifetime of service as a pastor’s wife and mother to six children, Marion saw no reason why she couldn’t begin a new chapter in her own personal ministry. She could sew, she could play most brass instruments, she had sufficient retirement income, and she enjoyed good health. Most importantly, she truly desired to serve God.
When I first met Marion, she reminded me of a stereotypical grandmother…slightly plump, gray hair, and perpetually smiling. As principal of Christiansen Academy, a TEAM boarding school for the children of missionaries in Venezuela, Colombia, and islands in the southern Caribbean, I was accustomed to welcoming short-term missionaries. Having a retiree come, however, was a new experience.
Marion assured me she didn’t need any special treatment…just a bed and a place to put the few things she had brought with her in her suitcase. I found out later that she already had one year of experience at another school in eastern Venezuela…Orinoco Academy. Before that, she had hoped to go to Saudi Arabia, but that particular possibility evaporated before she could actually go. She asked me about a sewing machine, something she would need to complete the project she came to accomplish: new curtains and bed spreads for the dorm rooms occupied by high school girls. She told me she couldn’t speak Spanish, so she’d need some help buying the material for the project.
Marion’s project began with great purpose as she selected a wide variety of patterns rather than making all rooms look alike. Unknown to all of us, she had also found the material to make latch-hook rugs, and her goal was to have a rug for each room in a color that matched the curtains and spreads. The finished product took our breath away! The spreads and curtains were beautifully done, professionally finished, and lovingly placed on each bed to welcome the girls that fall.
After the project was finished, Marion came again to my office and asked if there was anything else she might do. She didn’t want to be a “burden” so if there was no other assignment, she would return to the US and find other ways to serve. The curtains in our auditorium were quite worn, so we asked if she could make new ones. She smiled and assured us she could.
Just a few weeks later, that project had also been completed. Again, it was of the highest quality and carefully and lovingly done to the last detail. I knew that I’d get another visit from Marion, but this time I was prepared. I asked her if she might be interested in staying on to help us oversee the girls who set the tables in the dining room and the boys who washed the dishes. She merely smiled and said she thought she could do that. Later we needed someone who might oversee some of the logistics of the large laundry housed in the building. Marion not only helped the laundry run smoothly, but she personally inspected the kids’ clothing and took on the task of mending them when necessary. Eventually, she began teaching home economics classes to students. After a short while, she added one-on-one lessons in trumpet.
One day after school, I followed several kids who dropped by the dining hall for an afternoon snack. As I walked along with the kids, I came across Marion who had positioned her chair on an outdoor patio right in the stream of children coming from school. She was surrounded by kids, old and young alike, simply talking with her, showing her their school work, and giving her hugs. It was then that I realized that God had given us a gift in Marion Clark. Our school didn’t even know we needed a “Grandma” until she came. She took on a new name for all of us…”Grandma Clark.” Now we knew we couldn’t get along without her.
After that first year, I began to go to Grandma Clark at the end of each school year to simply check to see what her plans were for the future. She always assured me, with a twinkle in her eye that she would stay only as long as she was needed. I quickly assured her that she was, indeed, needed and appreciated.
Marion had her own family…we saw their pictures in her room. She looked forward to returning to see them at least once a year, but she always came back to “our” family, and we gratefully received her each time. One Christmas she decided to return to the US to celebrate with her kids and grandkids, but she gave me a large envelope before she left. She told me she knew I could take care of what was inside. When I opened it, there were individual envelopes for each child of each staff member who would spend Christmas there in Venezuela. I had no idea what was inside until our staff Christmas party when I gave out the envelopes. Each child received a quaint homemade card with a single bill in the currency of Venezuela. Marion hadn’t signed her name, but the children solved the mystery before the night was over. Marion’s generous heart had once more spilled out and blessed people.
Summers provided an opportunity for her to travel. She and her husband had visited the Holy Land, but Marion’s personal trips included Peru, Papua New Guinea, and Germany. One staff member at Christiansen Academy, Glenn Irwin, took her for a three-week visit to tribal areas in the Orinoco River basin. Marion reveled in this “adventure.”
It was in 1986 when my wife and I left the ministry of Christiansen Academy, and we were no longer part of Marion’s overseas ministry. She herself “retired” for the second time in 1996 and returned to the US. Dave Schlonecker, one of the leaders at the school, told Marion about a retirement facility for missionaries in Bradenton, FL. To enjoy living there she needed to be “retired” from long-term ministry, and the accumulation of those “short-term” stints truly qualified her.
I would occasionally get phone calls from Marion during her stay in Bradenton. Inevitably she wanted me to tell her about a missionary or appointee who had some financial need. She never told me how much she gave to the people whose names I gave her, but my suspicions were that she was generous. I once asked her if she thought it was a good idea to give away her money like that, and she reprimanded me, “God’s leading me to do this. If you won’t give me names, I’m sure someone else can do the job!”
It was at Bradenton Missionary Village where I saw her the last time. My wife and I had been invited to come for a visit, and in our honor, all TEAM missionaries joined together for a pot-luck dinner and prayer time. Marion was there…her smile and hug were still welcomed gifts. At the end of the event I asked her if she still drove, and she smiled and said, “Yes…but not a car!” She then took me outside to show me her golf cart. I watched as she deftly guided her little vehicle away from the site of our luncheon and toward her duplex.
During her retirement years, Marion continued to serve others with her sewing talents. Many of the retired missionaries in Bradenton selected clothing from the local “boutique” or from other resale shops, and Marion volunteered to tailor the clothing to fit perfectly. Her daughter (also named Marion) was with her on a March day in 2006 when she went to heaven at age 93. One of the last conversations they had was whether all of the sewing projects were completed! Grandma Clark was a servant to the end.
-Written by Bob Wright
-Photos provided by the family
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, September 2011]