Alumna of the Year 2001: Marilyn Metzler

Marilyn MetzlerShe knew, even at age eight. Her quick young mind had already counted the cost. Perhaps the lesson is more obvious when your grandparents move from their Pennsylvania farm in the 1940s to help start a mission church in the deep south. When missionary letters from your aunts and uncles arrive in your mailbox from Honduras, from Somalia, from Vietnam, from the Philippines. When you grow up gathering eggs on your family’s poultry farm, your father a self-supported Mennonite pastor in the Appalachian hill country of Alabama.

Marilyn Metzler ‘92 knew at an early age that if she decided to follow Christ, it would mean a life o f service, perhaps far from home. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a Christian. I fought the idea. I didn’t want to go to Africa.”

Fast forward to 1993. The place was Mogadishu, Somalia. Helicopter gunships roamed the skies low overhead, their menacing wind blast powerful enough to tear makeshift homes to shreds. Famine ruled the countryside and warring clans ruled the capital city. Marilyn’s sleep was often interrupted by distant gunfire.

One evening after a long day at the clinic, Marilyn and two American co-workers were enjoying the cool night air on their rooftop porch. An anti-tank rocket shattered the calm, blasting a giant hole through their compound wall, sending glass like shrapnel, ripping doors from their hinges and leaving Marilyn sprawled flat on the rooftop, praying softly, “God be our shield.” From the street, the marauders poured gunfire through the rubble into the heart of the walled compound, home to a half-dozen relief workers, a Somali family and their guards. Miraculously, no one was injured or killed.

Don’t let Marilyn’s soft voice, her ready smile, her gracious ways, fool you. In one short decade she has experienced enough of this world’s pain to last a life­time.

Marilyn once owned a comfortable, safe life. She had earned a two-year registered-nurse degree from the local community college and was working at a large hospital in Birmingham, Ala. Nurses were in short supply and pay raises came at a rapid clip. “I was climbing the ladder but something was missing. This was not why I chose nursing. I was called to serve the poor, to help whose on the mar­gins of society.”

So Marilyn contacted Eastern Mennonite Missions for a possible assignment. Get your bachelor’s degree and we can place you with more options, she was told.

That led her to EMU in the fall of 1990 at age 29. In two and a half years, she had her degree in nursing. As well as a cross-cultural semester in Central America “that increased my passion to work for justice.”

Her group started in Costa Rica, traveling north to Nicaragua, to war-torn El Salvador, ending in Guatemala. In each country they listened to ordinary people tell their stories, “gut-wrenching stories o f pain and loss, yet their faith was so strong.”

At her nurse pinning ceremony in 1992, Ann Hershberger, one of her nursing teachers, a close friend and mentor, hugged Marilyn. Tears welled up in Ann’s eyes as she gave a blessing and a warning that Marilyn would remember often in the years ahead. “She told me her tears were both for the pain and the joy that I was going to encounter. She warned me that I was embark­ing on a journey that would leave me changed forever.”

Soon after arriving in Somalia in the spring o f 1993, an African friend gave Marilyn some advice — you can’t help us unless you listen to us. “It was so freeing for me to realize that I didn’t have to have all the answers.”

What she experienced in the next three years (first in Somalia and then in neighboring Djibouti when the Somali war intensified), left her with stories of pain and suffering beyond the scope o f simple answers.

In Somalia, Marilyn worked at a clinic that treated 200 patients daily. Some days she traveled around the city to camps o f refugees who had emptied the country­side in search o f food and the relative safety of the city. She helped manage a United Nations feeding station that twice daily served high-protein porridge to 300 children and nursing mothers.

In Djibouti, she worked at a small public maternal/child hospital serving an impoverished Somali community o f 150,000. Most o f the patients in her 30- bed ward were malnourished children, fighting respira­tory infections and pneumonia.

In both countries, Marilyn enjoyed the warm hospi­tality o f her Muslim neighbors and co-workers. “They have so much to teach us — their commitment to their faith, their daily prayers, giving alms to the poor.”

Marilyn was the first Christian some o f them had ever known. “I was often told I’m so good, I must be a Muslim. When I said, ‘No, I’m a Christian,’ one woman gasped and held her hand over her mouth. She soon gained composure and expressed concern for my wel­fare. For these women I was considered to be in a shameful state — single and a Christian.”

As her three years in Africa drew to a close in January 1996, Marilyn prayed about her return to the United States. Her desire to work among under-served people was stronger than ever, especially educating and empowering people to make choices that lead to pre­vention of illnesses.

From Africa she placed an ad in the journal of Christian Community Health Fellowship, outlining the position she was seeking. Cross-Over Ministry of Richmond, Va., called days later to place an ad for coordinator of the Lay Health Promoter Program. “The edi­tor read them my ad before it was even published.”

To hear her tell it, it all fell into place so neatly.

Marilyn is blessed with a wide network of family and friends who prayed her through Africa, who pro­vided healing space as she returned to the U.S., “to work through anger, hurt and pain, to learn to trust again.” She is part of a nurturing Christian fellowship, Community of Grace, which meets at the downtown campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the last five years, Marilyn has found a therapeu­tic haven and a welcoming home in Richmond. She chooses to Walk alongside the “least o f these” who live in the shadows of our world — “so Lean both learn from their insight on life as well as empower them with tools to make positive changes in their lives. I have made a deliberate choice to stay closely connected to the suffer­ing, hurting, poor, neglected, voiceless ones in our world so that I can be challenged and moved with com­passion by the things that moved Jesus to compassion. As I walk alongside them, I discover, more often than not, that Jesus has arrived on the scene long before I. Those most bruised and battered by life seem to under­stand Jesus best.”

Behind the Lay Health Promoter Program is this simple idea: train community volunteers to teach their neighbors about healthy living and disease prevention. The free 10-week course of 20 classes covers topics such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, pre-natal care and high blood pressure. The average group size is eight, most are women, most have not completed high school, most are African-American or Hispanic. The classes meet in church basements, in public housing, in the city jail, at a trailer park — wherever it’s convenient for a cluster to gather.

Each student is encouraged to tell three friends what they’ve learned before the next class meets. “They are the first line o f health-care defense in their commu­nity, as valuable as the medical staff at the Cross-Over Ministry Health Center.”

At their graduation ceremony, each health promoter receives a certificate of course completion, a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope. “They want to be empowered, to have the tools and resources to help their neighbors. I have seen a deep change in some graduates — their sense of accomplishment, their feel­ing o f self-esteem and worth. For many, this is their first graduation. They value their certificate like gold.”

In its first seven years, the program has graduated 38 class-groups, more than 300 community health vol­unteer promoters to serve their neighbors. What will be the long-term positive health benefits on the Richmond community? The metrics are hard to calculate. But the program is getting statewide and regional attention as a model for other communities to emulate. Marilyn fields calls weekly from groups interested in the core curricu­lum and methodology of the Health Promoter Program.

The seed began with a grant from the Virginia Health Care Foundation. That group recently recog­nized Cross-Over’s Lay Health Promoter Program (and Marilyn’s leadership) with its “unsung hero” award.

All this recent attention, including being named “alum of the year” by EMU, leaves Marilyn feeling a bit overwhelmed. “I’m just trying to be faithful to the opportunities God has opened for me. I was taught ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ Some days I pray, ‘God, you can stop blessing me now. My cup is already overflowing.’

Published in Crossroads, Spring 2001