As he trimmed bits of grass and weeds around the concrete foundation of his southeast Texas home, he asked God, “If you want me to do this, God, to pursue the ministry, then you need to let me know.”

What is Deryl Fleming’s “call to the ministry” story?

Pastor Meg wondered this aloud in a sermon recently, as she described a Bible “B-side” character named Nathan who gets a passing mention in 2 Samuel.

“I know Deryl’s a foodie,” Meg said. “I know he’s witty and reads good books … Maybe he has told me his call story before, and I just can’t remember it. But my guess is, it’s more likely that Deryl has learned to be like Nathan … He just does the work that God sets before him because God told him to do it.”

If you ask Deryl about his call story, he will say that growing up, the church in southeast Texas was his second mother. Adults all around him, over fried chicken at potlucks and Wednesday evening prayer meetings, encouraged him to pursue the ministry. His call, then, was gradual, and he doesn’t remember a time when ministry wasn’t part of his plan.

Still, there is one moment that sticks in his head, a time when he sort of confronted God on the subject.

He was about 15, on his hands and knees with a pair of gardening clippers. As he trimmed stray bits of grass and weeds around the concrete foundation of his home, he remembers stopping and saying: “If you want me to do this, God, to pursue the ministry, then you need to let me know,” Deryl said.

“And then I lived my life. And I didn’t get any negative messages, so I kept going.”

Deryl’s mother was the one who took him to a Southern Baptist church in town. “She was always at church,” Deryl said, when she wasn’t cutting and setting hair or teaching classes at the local beauty school.

Deryl’s father was a boilermaker in a nearby oil refinery. It was a hot and dirty job. He never came home with black, oil-stained hands or clothes, though; he always showered at work first before heading home for supper. Deryl wonders sometimes whether his own concern for cleanliness came from his dad.

Deryl’s father wasn’t a regular churchgoer; something about the place upset or offended him at some point and he didn’t go back. Deryl doesn’t know what happened.

But for Deryl, “I had to go. Something inside of me drew me there.”

Deryl usually came home from school to an empty house because his parents worked. “If we locked our doors in those days, I would have been a latchkey kid, but we didn’t,” he said.

He wasn’t lonely. He had his books—in those days, things like Hardy Boys adventures.

And he had his “people,” from church. Many of his neighbors were fellow youth group friends, so he could play with them in his sandy, swampy coastal community.

The church and the library: That’s where Deryl felt at home.

And at age 79, not much has changed.

That’s why Deryl’s plan to retire in a few weeks stirs up complicated feelings for him. He has been pastoring for more than 50 years, first in churches—both Southern and American Baptist congregations in Texas and Virginia— and later in a Mennonite psychiatric hospital in Maryland.

There, he ministered both to patients and local pastors. He ran seminars and training sessions designed to help local clergy take care of themselves by addressing their own feelings of such things as sadness, anger and envy.

Deryl worked there for 17 years, and he shifted to part-time before he left.

So not unlike Deryl’s call to ministry, his retirement from ministry has been gradual as well.

He came to BPC because of his wife, Kathy, who had joined this community in 1995 after going through a divorce. She was looking for a church home both for herself and her son. After Kathy and Deryl married, BPC was where Deryl worshipped, too.

At first, he preached an occasional Sunday when then-Pastor Beth (pictured above, center) asked him for his help. Then he started making some pastoral calls and agreed to help coach the deacons. He was on staff as a parish associate by the time Pastors Meg and Jarrett were hired in 2013.

Lately, a voice has been rising inside him. It’s time, he said.

“I have seen pastors who die spiritually and emotionally because they don’t know when to stop,” he said.

But he does.

So he will travel. He and Kathy plan to take one big trip every year and lots of smaller ones.

He will try out new restaurants in new cities and revisit old favorites, because Pastor Meg was right: Deryl Fleming enjoys good food.

He will get reacquainted with Washington, visiting museums and landmarks.

And he will read books.

“I’m never bored unless I’m somewhere without a book,” he said.

She changed her whole life at age 59. And what happened next opened her heart in ways she never expected.

Donna Gross’s whole life was in Kansas City, Missouri.

It’s where, as the “baby” of the family, she watched her mom answer phones for her dad’s washer/dryer repair business.

It’s where she started her collections of dolls, butterflies, Santas, and Dickens Village houses and shops.

It’s where she met her husband, Allen, raised their two sons, and spent a career as a reading specialist.

It’s where she helped hang balloons for her nieces’ and nephews’ birthday parties, and whipped up Tex-Mex buffets for dinner parties with friends.

It was home.

Then one day, the Grosses received a phone call. Their son and his wife, living here in the Washington area, were pregnant.

Something told Donna that she needed to go.

“I always said I would never leave my mom,” Donna said. Her mother at this point was in her 90s, and had moved to a condo just minutes from Donna and Allen. “And everyone we knew was there.”

But the voice in her head was loud.

She spoke with her other son, who also lived in Kansas City, and her brother and sister-in-law. And then she went to see her mom, who was in her favorite cozy camel-colored recliner, her beloved sewing machine just a few feet away.

“I said, ‘Mom, we’re thinking about moving to be close to this baby, but we won’t do it if you don’t want us to.’ And she said, ‘You’re right. Those first 10 years, that’s when you bond with your grandchildren. After that, they get busy with their own friends and interests. I understand.’

“It still brings tears to my eyes,” Donna said. “My mom had a special bond with all six of her grandchildren and her eight great-grandchildren. She and my dad were always there for all of us, and she understood we wanted to do the same for our son’s family.”

So Donna started packing up. She and Allen spent more than a year downsizing, sorting through the lifetime of memories packed in boxes and displayed on shelves. She gave her Dickens Village to a friend, who still has it resting on her piano. She gave her grandmother’s antique music chest to one of her nieces. And her son and daughter-in-law made plans for Donna to be their baby’s caregiver while the couple worked and attended school.

Baby Juliet was born on October 4, 2012.

Donna turned 59. She retired on a Friday and was in the car the next morning, headed for Washington.

Moving here brought a whole series of new beginnings.

Sticker shock, for one thing.

Donna, who never much liked traffic, girded herself for a commute between her new home in Woodbridge and Juliet’s home in Alexandria.

And being grandparents to Juliet and her little brother, Lincoln, has brought more moments of pure joy than Donna can express.

But something else changed along with Donna’s zip code.

“Suddenly, we were seeing people who were very different from us, and that’s not something we had much of in Kansas City,” she said.

Donna’s first job was in a cafeteria making crab delight sandwiches when she was 15. That’s the first place she encountered black people; two of the chefs were black.

“Even as an adult, I had one teacher friend who was black, but that was about it,” Donna said. “You really had to go out of your way there to see people who weren’t white.”

In Woodbridge, the Grosses found a home in a very diverse neighborhood. So many of their neighbors not only look different from them, they have very different life stories.

Earlier this summer, the Grosses attended the Ramadan fast-breaking meal at BPC that the church shared with friends from the Ezher Bloom mosque.

“We walked in, and I thought, I have never been to anything like this. This is an opportunity we would never have had if we had not made this move.”

Donna was a little nervous about the food, which the Muslim guests brought. “I’m a super picky eater,” she said.

But she enjoyed it. And more than that, she found her table companions delightful. The Grosses happened to sit with members of the Culha family; Evren and Meryem have three kids. (The two families are pictured below, at the dinner.) “My granddaughter [Juliet] is really shy, but after about 30 minutes, she was sharing the same chair [with one of the Culha kids]. I think kids help to break the ice.”

At the end of the evening, the couple asked the Grosses if they would like to join them in their home for an Iftar (fast-breaking) dinner.

“I was so touched and honored,” Donna said.

They all gathered a few weeks later in the Culha’s Fairfax apartment, Donna sitting on the floor, playing with the kids, Allen and her son Justin talking with Evren about politics.

A few weeks later, the Grosses returned the favor and included the Culha family at Lincoln’s birthday party, where they shared fried rice and chocolate cake.

It’s an unexpected, beautiful friendship.

“This change in our lives, at this stage in our lives, it has opened us up more,” Donna said. “I am so grateful.”

Her story is partly about abuse and addiction. But mostly, it’s about forgiveness.

Mara Ashby’s smile is wide and white.

She’s a hugger.

She has trouble crossing a crowded room without starting up a conversation.

Her light is bright.

So when she tells her story, which is full of abuse and addiction, it’s clear that something turned around inside her, helped her shake the darkness she had lived within.

“I can’t say when it happened exactly,” Mara said. “God just worked on my heart.”

Mara spent most of her childhood in Tacoma, Washington; her Mexican-American parents left El Paso, Texas, when Mara was 3 in search of a better life.

One of her earliest memories is of hiding under her bed, trying to protect her baby sister from the violence around them.

Their father was an angry alcoholic. Mara’s mom was routinely beaten, badly.

Mara found solace at a local Baptist church her older brother David took her to when she was about 6. When her Sunday school teachers told her to invite friends to church, she did, going door to door in her neighborhood. And when David joined the Navy and was deployed, he made sure a bus would come every week to pick up Mara and her sister for church.

“He knew my father wouldn’t take me. He was taking care of me. He had God in his life, and so I see now that because of that he looked at everything in our family in a different way.”

Mara tried running away from the chaos once, when she was a teenager. She and her boyfriend used money Mara had saved up from babysitting, took the boy’s father’s gold Honda, and drove to California. But after two weeks on a friend’s couch, they decided they’d better head back.
It was her father who kicked her out the second and final time she left home, because she was pregnant. She was 17.

Her church friends told her to keep coming to worship; she was loved no matter what, they told her.
But Mara felt ashamed. In hindsight she wishes she had listened to them.

Mara married the baby’s father, “in an ugly peach tent dress” at the local courthouse. “I think I knew even then that I could do it myself, but I let too many people talk me into getting married.”
Baby Danica was named after a floral French fragrance that Mara’s beloved mother sold as a cosmetologist.

And “the day she was born was the best day of my life.”

The teen newlyweds made a go of it, getting jobs and moving into a small house together. But when Mara learned her husband had been cheating on her, the marriage ended.

She slipped into a dangerous spiral, partying and doing drugs. She met her second husband, an Army special forces sergeant, in a bar.

“The first time he hit me we were in temporary housing on a base in Clarksville, Tennessee,” she said.

“I had gone to the Walmart and I was late getting back. He said he thought I was out cheating on him. He was coming at me, but all I could see was my dad’s face.

“And my baby had to see it all,” she said.

Mara was held at knifepoint during her marriage. She was dragged around by her hair. She couldn’t believe she was reliving the abusive life her mom had lived. And she was ashamed. She developed an addiction to Vicodin, and found herself trying to numb her misery.

The last time she was hurt by her husband, he threw her against a wall. It was little Danica who had to call 911.

At this point Mara began a long journey of recovery—from drugs, from depression, from guilt. She had met a friend on the base where she was living toward the end of her marriage: Jason. He, too, was going through a painful divorce. They felt sparks, but Mara knew she needed to work on herself before committing to anyone new.

She went to rehab and counseling, and she moved to Arizona to get a fresh start.

Her connection with Jason lasted despite the distance, and six years after his first proposal, the two married. “It was nice to find calm after having so much chaos in my life.”

And then Mara received a phone call. Her father was showing signs of dementia. Mara flew out to see him.

“This was a man who had always taken care of himself. He manicured his nails. He was very careful about how he looked. And now he looked like a homeless person.”

What happened next was an exercise in forgiveness.

Mara moved her father to her home with Jason here in Virginia. She helped him receive medical care, including proper diagnoses for his ailments. They learned that he had both leukemia and Lewy Body dementia, a debilitating form of both dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Mara changed her father’s clothes for him. She helped him eat.

And in one lucid moment before his death in 2014, he told her: “I was so awful to you. To your mommy.”

And Mara said, “I forgive you.”

She credits her brother David—the one who first took her to that Baptist church in Tacoma when she was a little girl—with helping her heal. David died several years ago, of a brain tumor, but he was a model of faith for her throughout his life. Before his death, he said, “If you don’t learn to forgive, it’s going to fester.”

And he was right, she said.

“If there is one thing I want people to understand, it’s the power of forgiveness. It took me a long time and I did a lot of work. But I learned to forgive people in my family and I learned to forgive myself.”

And now: “I love differently. I let go of anger faster. My faith is my number one priority. And that has made all the difference.”

Her license plate reads: “2D CHNCE.” That’s because on one fateful day, when the odds were against her surviving, she did.

Marie Grassman’s license plate reads: “2D CHNCE.”

It’s a perfect message for her silver Chevy cruiser, because in a dramatic turn of events more than a decade ago, Marie nearly died. It’s frankly a miracle that she didn’t. And so now, “I see life as a gift,” she said. “Every day.”

Here was Marie’s life before her second chance: A happy childhood in Houston, Texas, the daughter of a furniture store credit manager who also moonlighted as a lay Methodist preacher. Long family road trips: “Daddy’s idea of vacation was to see how many miles he could put on the car.”

Big Sunday dinners featuring her mother’s specialty, roast leg of lamb. College days in Austin at the University of Texas. Marriage to a future Air Force officer named Mike, a fellow from the neighborhood she met through friends. The birth of a son and two daughters before she was 27, and a life spent packing and unpacking as the family moved from state to state for Mike’s various assignments.

And then the life she knew started to unravel. Her marriage fell apart. Her children were grown, and she was alone.

She took a job in a flower shop. She licked her wounds and tried to figure out her next steps. And one day, she offered to house- and dog-sit for a friend. It was a stucco house with a metal roof in the hill country of central Texas.

Marie was getting ready to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom. The Old English Mastiff named Boomer, whom Marie was charged with caring for, nudged his way into the bathroom. “I thought, this is odd,” Marie said. “He usually just sleeps under the kitchen table downstairs.” Marie poked her head out of the door.

What happened next took place over a matter of seconds.

The ceiling erupted in flames. It was white hot and a “crinkly” sounding fire, Marie said—electrical in origin. From the top of the stairs, Marie could see that thick, black smoke had already filled the first floor. She could feel poisonous air filling her lungs, the result of burning insulation, paint and wiring.
The dog tried the stairs, and his body was discovered later.

Something told Marie not to bother.

“I knew there was no way out. And I also knew I couldn’t panic. I suddenly felt so calm and peaceful and so loved. I truly was not alone. I was taken into the bathroom.”

She closed the door to this windowless interior room and stuffed a towel under the door. She wet a washcloth, put it over her face, and fell to the floor. She happened to have a cordless telephone with her, and she called 911.

A neighbor, an off-duty firefighter, heard the call over his radio. He broke the door down before the trucks even arrived. He said later that no flames were visible from the street; it wasn’t until he entered the house that it was obvious the place was engulfed.

The next thing Marie remembers, it was two months later, and she was lying in a bed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

When she regained consciousness, she thought her limbs were being restrained because they were so weak; she couldn’t move them at all. In truth, the injuries and treatments she’d received during that period seems endless.

She’d sustained burns on her shoulders, leg and face. She had had four surgeries on her left leg, and came very close to losing it. She’d had a golf ball-sized clot in her arm and another in her lung. Her kidneys quit twice.

Her heart stopped beating several times, once for three minutes. So really, she did die, she says, for a few moments. And while she doesn’t remember anything about that 2-month stretch she lost, she does remember something about that near-death time. She saw a forest. A clearing. A welcoming tree surrounded by the brightest light she’d ever experienced.

And then, her son’s voice: “Welcome back, Mom.’”

It took many days and painful therapies before Marie could return home. And life hasn’t been easy since. Marie was extremely active and physically fit before the fire—running, swimming and dancing routinely. Now, she gets pneumonia at least once a year, and her energy isn’t what it used to be.
But: “I really have a different way of looking at my life,” she said. “Before, I think I felt entitled. I think we all have a little bit of that in us. We feel like of course we should have this life.

“Not me. I don’t worry about the little stuff the way I used to. It’s people that are important. I’m not going to stay home and clean my house and do laundry if I can go somewhere and be with people.”

That translates into her ministry at BPC, a place she joined soon after moving to Virginia to be closer to her daughter. She helped create and operates the “tea ministry,” which means she makes high tea—complete with china cups, finger sandwiches and cream-topped scones—for dozens of church members each year. It’s a way to bring light into their lives, Marie said, something she feels called to do in a renewed way.

“Sometimes God speaks to us through a disaster,” she said. “So in a way, I don’t think of the fire as a bad thing. It got my attention. I have a different way of looking at my life.”

“I decided that rather than have them kill me, I’d rather have it kill me,” he said. “And I went about my life.”

State College, Pennsylvania, may be home to the Nittany Lions and a big, bustling university.

But what Ross Venett remembers about his hometown is the smallness of it, the fact that many of the farms surrounding the green valley were owned by families that never left. It was their kids Ross knew through marching band, Boy Scouts and church youth group, and for many years, Ross thought he would be a State College “lifer” as well.

“It was idyllic and sheltering,” he said, the kind of place where, when Ross suffered one of his debilitating migraines, the family doctor would swing by their house to administer a shot to help him sleep off the pain.

Then there was the day when not even a shot would help.

Ross was 19. He was attending Penn State, as well as working and volunteering as an emergency medical technician for the local ambulance service.

When Ross began clutching his head and screaming, his coworkers called his friends at the ambulance company to come help.

MRIs and CTs scans weren’t standard in those days, but Ross said: “I got lucky, because the hospital had just hired the doctor who saw me. He held up his finger, and I couldn’t see it when it was near the side of my head. He said, ‘Did you know your visual field is cut in both eyes?’”

That doctor was smart enough to know that Ross needed more attention than he could provide, and Ross was rushed 80 miles east to Geisinger Medical Center.

Ross was diagnosed there with a brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM). An AVM is a tangle of abnormal connections between arteries and veins. Normally the arteries carry blood away from the heart to other organs, and veins carry blood back to the heart. Capillaries connect the arteries and veins. An AVM is a snarled tangle of arteries and veins with no capillaries, which interferes with the entire blood circulation process.

Brain AVMs are very rare; they affect less than 1 percent of the population. No one knows exactly what causes them, but they are typically congenital.

Many AVMs are discovered during a brain scan for another health issue or after the blood vessels rupture and cause bleeding in the brain.

Ross now understood why he had been plagued by migraines, and why school had sometimes been so difficult. “People would say, ‘You’re just not working hard enough,’” Ross said. “And I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t remembering things … Now I knew.”

Ross’s doctors wanted to operate, but even at 19, Ross knew how be an advocate for himself. Perhaps it was his emergency medical training for the ambulance company, or the fact that his parents were research librarians.

“I said, ‘Can you tell me what I will be like after this surgery?’ They couldn’t tell me. They didn’t know. So I decided that rather than have them kill me, I’d rather have it kill me. And I went about my life.”

Some things changed because of Ross’s new diagnosis. He spent a lot of time locating and visiting AVM specialists: He learned there were only five in the world. One in particular, based in Boston, used proton radiation on Ross to increase the size of his cell walls to prevent the AVM from expanding.
It took eight years for Ross to finish college instead of four. He learned that he couldn’t hike or dive or do anything involving a change of altitude, which might put pressure on his brain.

But on balance: “I was not going to let this stop me from doing what I wanted to do.”

Ross started working for the Kmart retail store, and he was quickly promoted to manager. The store moved him around the country to help fix problem stores, and it was at the Burke Kmart where he met his wife, Wilma.

When he grew weary of retail, he took what he thought would be a temporary job with the technology firm SAIC, based in Tyson’s Corner. Seventeen years later, he was working as a procurement manager, handling multi-billion dollar contracts.

But something wasn’t right.

“I would be driving home and I would forget how to get there,” he said.

An MRI revealed that the AVM had grown, and Ross went back to researching neurologists. He underwent several procedures to help him stabilize, but in the meantime, his work was suffering. His personality was changing. He was demoted. And last summer, his petition to receive long-term disability was denied by SAIC.

Every day Ross bears head pain, but he said he’s “tolerant of the headaches because I know how much worse they can be.” Nothing so far has been as bad as those early days in State College.
He has filled his days since August volunteering with countless office projects at BPC, and working with his doctors and an attorney to appeal his former employer’s decision.

“It’s been so hard, wondering whether we have the money to pay next week’s bills or not.”
Last month, the call he’d been waiting for came: He won his appeal. Some light in the midst of what have been pretty dark days.

“How do you answer the ‘Why me?’” he said. “You can’t. You just have to say, ‘I’m not going to let it stop me.’”