By Debra Minor Wilson
FAIRMONT — No matter where she goes, Stephanie White is never alone.
“I always have a part of church with me,” she says.
Now 22, since she was 6, she has been active in her church. By helping her mother with dinners and Ladies Aid meetings, she became a member of the United Methodist Women at a very early age.
Church has always been important to her, she says.
She first realized this one rainy summer day about 16 years ago. Her mom was cooking for Marketplace A.D., a conglomeration of hundreds of children from many denominations held at Baptist Temple to recreate a biblical marketplace.
“We had so many kids coming, from so many churches, they couldn’t eat inside. There wasn’t enough room.
“Then we had one of the worst rainstorms of the ... well, ever,” she says, laughing. She laughs a lot. “I prayed, ‘God, don’t rain on my church.’
“As we drove to the church, trees were falling down around us. But there wasn’t a drop of rain on the church. There was this light shining on the church.
“That was a sign ... most definitely.”
She and her mom had started attending church when White was just a little girl.
“Mom worked all the time, so I stayed at another church’s preschool. I could go there, and still have some kind of church involvement.
“I’ve always active in church ... the children’s choir, the praise team. With all the experiences I’ve had in life, I had to be active.”
Several years ago, on their way to a horse show, she, a friend and her mom were spared from an accident that could easily have been fatal.
“We were on I-79, on the stretch of road called the wind tunnel. Mom was driving a Blazer and had a camper on the back. A paper truck hit us and we started in a tailspin. She got that under control and then a tractor-trailer passed and nicked her, and we went into another tailspin. We hit the guardrail for the third time and Mom just let go of the wheel and said, ‘God, I can’t do it.’
“Only Mom could have done this, but she rolled the Blazer and the camper in a way that she was off the road. Thank goodness nobody was in the camper. It would have killed them instantly.”
Everybody was OK, but they went to the hospital just to be checked out.
“I remember my friend and I crying, ‘We’re not going to the horse show now, are we?’ But we actually got to go.”
Something special happened one summer night in 1999, at an event appropriately called Creation that she was attending with her mother and some high school friends.
“I’m a very strong Christian. The very first night I stood up with a friend of mine. I was resaved, reborn. My faith was renewed that night.
“A lot of friends didn’t understand what it meant to be in church. I was friends with everybody, from the poorest to the richest kids. And I always knew I was safe. I had friends with the weapons and had friends who knew the people who had the weapons.” She laughs again.
“I’ve always had a part of church in me. I knew probably that with everything that was going on, I could always have somebody to turn to.”
Her laughter stops as she wipes away some unexpected tears.
Her mom and dad divorced when she was 2, and she has been more or less estranged from her dad and brother.
“My brother is 16 years older than I am and we never related real well. With my father especially I always had to be tough. I knew that I could always turn to my mom but I could never turn to my brother or my father.
“In 1999, Mom had surgery for fluid around her heart. When she was going in for surgery, she looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it.’ I always knew that if I had God in my life, everything could go to hell and back, that there was somebody I could turn to.”
In church she’s found a family that she wouldn’t have otherwise.
“With the church, it never mattered what you looked like or how much money you had or where you came from or who you associated with. They always loved you.
“I know my brother had been in a lot of trouble. When I started high school, I had an instructor look at me and say, ‘I hope you’re not like what your brother was.’
“I never realized how people can judge you like that. I’d never been compared with him until that time.”
White is now president of the United Methodist Women at her church, the youngest president in the state. She’s making some changes in the organization, small ones, nothing too radical.
“Our first program was a covered-dish dinner. We always had dinners, but not covered dish. There were only 20-some people, but we had enough food to feed 50.”
The group is working on producing a church cookbook. She also wants to set up a church book club. She’s also working on writing two novels.
This year’s Mother’s Day dinner was a change from the norm, too.
“It’s usually a mother-daughter thing. But I invited everybody. That meant mother-daughter, mother-son ... everybody. I didn’t care. A couple of people thought it only should be for mothers and daughters. I don’t care who came in the door. It was food and it was just a time for gathering.
“I love the interaction of the younger generation and the older generation.”
When she first joined the church, she didn’t really know what the organization was all about.
“I knew we cooked and we raised money.” She laughs.
“We always have fund-raisers for something. A lot of the ladies, when we went to Anaheim, they said, ‘We’ll just have another bake sale.’” She laughs more.
The UMW helps missions in the area, such as Scott’s Run Settlement House in Morgantown, Heart and Hand in Philippi, and HOPE Inc. in Fairmont. UMW also helps missions in China, Cuba, Africa and Austria.
She’s also active as a board member of the Wesley Foundation at Fairmont State.
“The Wesley Foundation is a good organization. We help with spaghetti dinners (to raise money to help students). There’s that food and fund-raising again!”
The foundation is also offering free soup and sandwiches for lunch on Thursdays.
She returned last week from the Assembly of United Methodist Women held May 4-7 in Anaheim, Calif. The three-day meeting is held every four years, with the next in St. Louis.
With the theme “Rise! Shine! Glorify God!” the event brought together thousands of women from all areas of the church and society to confront them with areas of critical need and concern, to challenge them to responsible action and to help achieve a sense of unity in worship and in mission.
White had a scholarship to go. But to get there, she had to fly. Not something she likes to do ... or had even done before.
“It was very nerve-wracking. I’d never flown. A friend had never flown before, either, but she was cool with it. She just looked out the window and was fine.
“We get in the air and I started praying. ‘Just let us land OK, at the right spot, at the right time.’ Then we had a layover in Missouri. Once I got in the air, I was OK.
“I was more worried to leave my mom than anything. She had (a medical condition) and just had surgery on her teeth for infection.”
Not all Christians are understanding, she says. Some are downright hypocritical, as she found out at the assembly.
When she got a wash-off tattoo or bought some, she was greeted with icy stares and Bible quotes.
“I’ve got a close friend who knows somebody in what’s called the biker church ... a biker who preaches. He has more tattoos.
“And I wanted to ring home a bottle of California wine, whether I drank it or not. The ladies I was staying with couldn’t understand.”
She enjoys her life in church, she says.
“I’ve always been able to relate to people. In high school, I had a friend who was Catholic, one who was Protestant, one who was Methodist and one who was atheist. He’d always talk to me. One friend started preaching to him. He said, ‘Can you make her stop?’ I said, ‘I can try.’” She laughs again.
“When we graduated, he actually started going to a church.
“But I never preach to anybody. I try to explain my circumstances or my experiences. They have to make their own choice.”
E-mail Debra Minor Wilson at email@example.com.