It’s one of my favorite memories of my mother, Marilyn. She’s standing on the platform in the sanctuary of Wayzata Evangelical Free Church, where she’s been a member for over six decades. She’s a vibrant eighty-something (who you’d assume was a decade younger) surrounded by an exuberant, dancing throng of developmentally disabled adults as they all sing praises to Jesus together, some at the top of their lungs. Perhaps it’s not musically beautiful, but it’s all beautiful, nonetheless.
A half-century of loving labor has led up to this wonderful, mildly wild platform moment. And as I sit in the audience that evening, I think to myself, “That is a great woman.” She, of course, isn’t thinking about her greatness; she’s just enjoying the beautiful chaos enveloping her. Besides that, she doesn’t think she’s great and would dismiss such praise with a wave and an “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” But she’s great, nonetheless.
And it should be said, since the Bible tells us, “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). So, I trust you’ll indulge me for a few minutes as I unapologetically obey this text.
Mom grew up in a quiet, modest, depression-era Minnesota home, the only child of her Swedish father and Pennsylvania Dutch mother. Her mother was a devout evangelical Christian who made sure Mom attended a solid church, where her own devout evangelical faith was born.
She and my dad, Marlin, were high-school sweethearts, voted “cutest couple” by their senior class (I mean, “Marilyn and Marlin” — how cute is that?). After graduation, Dad joined the Navy and Mom went off to teacher’s college, where she studied elementary education. A few years later, they married and started having children.
Having children was what really began to draw out greatness in my mother. Though this was due not only, or even mainly, to the biological children she had (of which I am the youngest of four), but to the additional children she had. And one in particular uniquely altered the course of Mom’s life. This child is the reason she found herself on the platform that evening.
My folks began fostering children from troubled homes years before I was born (in 1965) and did so for decades. Which is how Mom came to “have” Annie in 1963.
Annie was only a year old when her parents’ severe alcoholism forced the State of Minnesota to intervene. My mother got a call asking if they’d take in a little girl in great need of a safe, stable home. Mom said yes. It’s amazing how consequential a phone call can be.
But it soon became clear that something wasn’t right with Annie. She was rapidly falling behind the timeline of typical child development. Mom immediately became her advocate, having her evaluated by doctors and psychologists, and working with her to try to improve her cognitive and physical capacities. In 1963, the term Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) didn’t exist (and wouldn’t for another decade), so no one could diagnose exactly what was wrong. But as the extent of her disabilities became clear, so did the sad reality that no one in Annie’s birth family network would be able to care for her. And Mom could not imagine sending this vulnerable, disabled little girl to an almost certain future of institutionalization. So, Annie became a permanent member of the Bloom family.
And my mother became Annie’s lifelong advocate. She educated herself, informally and formally, on early childhood development and disabilities in order to meet Annie’s needs, later becoming a self-taught expert on FAS. She made sure Annie received good medical care and the best special educational and recreational opportunities she could find and afford.
World of Annies
The more Mom learned, the more aware she became that there existed a world of Annies in need. And in those days, the world most developmentally disabled people lived in largely neglected them — and their parents. Very few therapeutic, educational, occupational, and caregiving support options existed. So, Mom joined a growing movement of people who advocated for these precious, defenseless lives. And their collective labors over time resulted in significant changes at almost every level of society that drastically improved the lives of millions.
“In those days, most developmentally disabled people lived in a world that largely neglected them — and their parents.”
For Mom, this began in 1967, when she saw a local newspaper ad calling for a volunteer to work with a handful of disabled children at a church’s nursery school. She answered the call. It’s amazing how consequential an ad can be.
Her volunteer position grew into a part-time paid position, which grew into a full-time paid position, which grew into a professional vocation as St. David’s nursery school, inhabiting a few rooms in a small church’s basement, grew into the multi-campus St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development. All because my mother and others like her put their love for developmentally disabled children and parents into strategic action.
So, what started as a volunteer gig became a career spanning thirty years. And Mom became known not merely as an expert in her field, but as a woman whose love for disabled children and their parents was simply remarkable. Literally, remarkable. Mom retired 25 years ago, and veteran St. David’s staff still talk about her impact.
But as important and fruitful as all this was, there’s another dimension to the story. For Mom’s concern for the developmentally disabled extended further than their physical and educational well-being. She also cared deeply for their spiritual well-being.
Reaching the Overlooked Unreached
Annie’s responsible for this too. It started when Mom, a longtime Sunday school teacher, realized as Annie grew older that she had no Sunday school option. And our church wasn’t unique; no church she knew of offered biblical instruction for people with Annie’s limitations.
My mother’s realization quickly broadened in scope. There existed almost no evangelical outreach to the developmentally disabled anywhere. Annie was part of a people group largely unreached with the gospel.
So, in the mid-70s, Mom decided to start a Sunday school class for Annie and a few others. It turned out to be one of the first of its kind in the nation. Word spread and the class grew. A major Twin Cities newspaper ran a story about it, and so did our denomination’s magazine. Mom found herself consulting and training others on how to start similar programs in their churches. And this led to the birth of something else.
In 1979, after teaching a workshop at a church, Mom was approached by a young man with a desire to help developmentally disabled people know Christ, and they started sharing ideas. Out of that conversation emerged an outreach ministry now called Christ For People (with Developmental Disabilities), which for four decades has provided these precious, long-overlooked unreached people opportunities for weekly worship events, fellowship, Bible studies, and evangelism — all designed especially for them. Mom was a core volunteer with Christ For People for many years.
This leads us to that moment on the platform, with Mom surrounded by that beautiful singing throng. Because that took place at a special Christ For People celebration a few years ago.
As I watched Mom enjoy that moment of worship, it hit me: I was looking at a priceless sample of the fruit of my mother’s life. It had happened. She had faithfully, lovingly labored for fifty years, and God had “established the work of [her] hands” (Psalm 90:17). Mom had truly loved her neighbor as herself (Luke 10:27), she had received many children in Jesus’s name (Luke 9:48), and she had given herself to serve the least of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40). Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). As I watched her, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s a great woman.”
“She had faithfully, lovingly labored for fifty years, and God had ‘established the work of [her] hands.’”
And this great story is just a part of a greater story. If I only had time and space, I’d tell you how well she loved a husband who struggled with mental illness, and how well she loved her children — all the children she “had” — and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren, despite our collective sinfulness, foolishness, prodigality, addictions, and mental illnesses. I marvel that we didn’t break her heart.
My mother is a great woman, though she’ll deny it. She’ll likely wish I hadn’t said it so publicly. But “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). I’m just obeying the Bible, Mom. And I’m a big fan.
Mom’s Biggest Fan
But Mom’s biggest fan is undisputedly Annie.
Annie just turned 60. She lives in a beautiful home, lovingly designed to serve the needs of all its developmentally disabled residents. She lives with friends she’s known for years and has wonderful, attentive caregivers around the clock. She has a job and earns money. She goes on vacations and dines out at restaurants. She goes to parks, sporting events, and movies. She is provided transportation to church or to Christ For People anytime she wishes to go. And she owes her amazing quality of life in no small part to her remarkable mother, though she’s blissfully unaware of this.
What Annie is aware of is how much her mom loves her and how much she loves her mom. The highlight of Annie’s life is still to spend the night at Mom’s place. And Mom, who’s about to turn 90, still loves to drive across town, pick her up, and bring Annie home.