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Reflecting on the life of Ruth Alexander McDowell, 1911- 2011 By Mary L. M. Lefaiver, great-granddaughter of the late Rev. Dr. Henry Curtis McDowell and Ruth Alexander McDowell.
Mother’s Day 2010: Mary Lefaiver, her mother Rose McDowell and her “Aunt Ruth”
Note: The McDowells were first sponsored as missionaries by a vibrant group of AfroAmercian Congregational churches. They were sent to open new Angolan mission stations, bringing with them deep faith, innovative instructional techniques, and practical vocational skills. In the colonial context of the early to middle 20th century, they were inspiring models of empowerment and emancipation.
Ka ci vala ka ci nganyala. No pain, no gain. If it is not heavy, there is not much to pay. Things worthwhile have a high price tag. I have learned that this proverb, of Angolans and Americans, was one of my great-grandfather's favorite sayings. And it is true for me, in this time of mourning. It is with a heavy but grateful heart that I reflect on my exceptional great-grandmother, Ruth Alexander McDowell, affectionately called "Aunt Ruth." in deference to my great-grandfather's first wife, Bessie McDowell.
Ruth Mcdowell was a beautiful human being. Ruth’s exceptionality and significance were perhaps best described in my father Rev. Lynn McDowell’s eulogy for her when he quoted the words of the preacher at her commissioning service, "She is an elegant representative of Christian Idealism. Ruth Alexander McDowell was commissioned a missionary to West Central Africa by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, of the then Congregational Church on April 28, 1947.
Together, Aunt Ruth and my great-grandfather worked in Angola for 12 years where she selflessly tended to the humanitarian needs of the local people, including health, nutrition, and educational needs of mothers and children, embracing them as if of her own flesh and blood.
As a dedicated missionary and educator, Aunt Ruth’s commitment was always first to God, then to “her Curtis” and then “The Work.” This “Work” entailed any and all tasks she was commissioned to, both in Angola and stateside. She embodied the spirit of Christian Idealism through her unwavering love, caring, kindness and unconditional acceptance of those who came to know her.
Lessons from Aunt Ruth
“A life isn’t significant without impact on other lives,” so said the great trailblazer Jackie Robinson and I believe this phrase to epitomize the significance of Ruth Alexander McDowell. I believe that the many far and near who loved and admired my Aunt Ruth will remember first and foremost her call to answer whenever and wherever there was need. This was demonstrated through her missionary service in Angola, her commitment locally, nationally, and internationally to the United Church of Christ, and in the numerous civic and social organizations in which she served. We will all remember her for her unconditional love of her family, her friends and, well, anyone in need of a warm smile and compassionate heart. Aunt Ruth also exemplified the highest measure of integrity, dignity and quiet grace
How can we all learn to lead significant lives? We can serve, sacrifice, and commit to others in the footsteps and spirit of the first great Teacher of humankind. And we can also look to those who have gone before us, those individuals who, like Aunt Ruth, who typify the “Christian Ideal” and recognize “that a person’s life does not consist in the things that he possesses, but upon the quality of their soul”.
I would like to thank my father, Rev. H. Lynn McDowell, for the inspiration of his words in composing this reflection.