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David Cook

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Contact Widows Harvest Ministries at 423-266-0260 or www.widows.org. Andy Mendonsa’s book is available on Amazon.com.

"We are called to love God," Andy Mendonsa says over salad and pizza. "What does that look like?"

Usually, I'm asking the questions, but here, 60-year-old Mendonsa turns the tables. Our interview lasts over an hour, and Mendonsa, the earringed and bearded executive director of Widows Harvest Ministries, says many things, but it's this question — posed to me and perhaps you, too — that echoes long after lunch ends.

What does loving God look like?

Going to church?

Or something else?

Here's how Mendonsa found his answer:

In 1986, he was working for Inner City Ministries, going block to block, offering help, when a widow approached him, needing her house painted. Gladly, Mendonsa said. Days later, his phone rang. It was another widow, asking for help. Then, another widow called. And another.

"Prior to that, we never got a call for help," he said. "Ever."

Was it a sign? Mendonsa began to pray two questions:

Is there a need for a widows' ministry in this city?

"And should I be the one to start it?" he said.

Enter Gertrude Gaston. Were we to somehow measure spiritual influence in this city, Gaston, a devout First Presbyterian now deceased, would be at the top of the list. She mentored. Prayed. Believed in widows. And community.

And in Mendonsa.

She organized a prayer meeting in her home for Mendonsa and all the widows he'd been helping. That meeting led to another, then another.

It made 1987 a watershed year. Since then, widows in this city have been meeting regularly for prayer, Bible study and fellowship — an unbroken meeting of widow-prayer that's lasted 30 years.

Gaston's meeting also answered Mendonsa's question. He left his job to start Widows Harvest Ministries, which celebrates its 30th year of loving and caring for widows in Chattanooga.

"James 1:27 says visiting the widows and fatherless is pure and undefiled religion," he said.

The ministry has four full-time staff members. They coordinate with dozens of service and mission groups. In 2016, the ministry met needs for 125 widows. Cleaning gutters. Painting houses. Cutting down trees. In 30 years, with the help of 30,000 volunteers, Mendonsa estimates they've cared for 5,000 widows.

"Everything around them says they have no more value or worth anymore," he said. "But they haven't been abandoned by God."

To lose your spouse — through death, divorce, prison, infidelity, neglect — is to suffer one of the deepest heartaches; the way a city cares for its widows is a litmus test of faith, a sort of mirror to which we can judge our own outreach, our own service.

Which brings us back to the Mendonsa question: how do we best love God?

Mendonsa believes worship happens outside church walls. To him, loving God looks like boots and work gloves.

"Unless widows and fatherless in their distress come to church on Sunday morning," he said, "it means we go to them."

It is a growing renegade theology: one local church I heard about moved its Sunday school classes from the church to the neighborhood, where members helped those in need. What if all the money we spend on church infrastructure and programming were to somehow shift into the infrastructure of the needy?

"If Jesus came back today, he would ask, why are there all these buildings?" Mendonsa said.

To celebrate 30 years, Widows Harvest Ministries recently cut the ribbon on Home Harvest House, a once-crumbling home in St. Elmo that's been beautifully, stunningly restored and repaired. It is the Saul-to-St. Paul of St. Elmo homes. (Arch Willingham and Laney Carter, take a bow.) Proceeds from the sale of the home — see it at livechattanooga.com — will go to continued repairs for widows.

Also, Mendonsa published "Spiritual Widowhood," a rich theological book on Christianity and widowhood that also urgently doubles down on a call to serve.

"I make a final plea for widows," he writes at the end.

The number of widows in Chattanooga will continue to grow as the baby boomer generation ages; those widows often rely on Social Security as their only income.

"The number of older widows needing care will soon reach catastrophic proportions," he writes.

We love God by loving them.

Thank you, Andy Mendonsa, for 30 faithful years of teaching us that.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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