A few years ago, I postponed my sabbatical because Lynnell’s mom fell, broke her femur, and began spiraling down into increasing immobility. She was 94. It wasn’t her first break. She had broken both legs in a horrible car crash 30 years earlier; broke a leg again while traveling in Spain, and now walked with a kind of awkward gait, and yet even after that, she had managed to travel the world, carrying her own luggage, thank you very much.
We thought it likely she would die in those next few months, but the life in her has been surprisingly persistent.
She died last night in her sleep, after years of saying she was ready to return to God, to die and join three siblings, Berkeley, her parents, and so many others.
She’d been living at the Episcopal Church Home in St. Paul. To our sons: if you have to send me to a nursing home, send me to that one. The place is arranged in small residential “houses” with nice kitchen-and-dining areas and courtyards in which I could see myself happily pulling weeds someday. The mostly-African and African-American staff has been unfailingly loving and gracious. Lynnell and Ruth are over there now, collecting personal items to save and putting most things aside to be given away.
Last night, as they did day after day, Lynnell and Ruth told their mom of their love, and the completeness of her life. They told her that everyone is fine and will always be grateful. If tonight is the night you die, they both said, that will be okay, and we will all be together again one day.
Alvera’s been the perfect mother-in-law. Like my own mom, she didn’t meddle or ever act like she knew what was best for me (ok, my mom tried that a couple of times, but I got mad and pouted, thus proving the childishness that I think she was responding to). Alvera admired my work and adored our children, but mostly she was grateful that I was a good husband to her daughter. But being a good husband to Lynnell is not that hard!
As a young woman, Alvera Johnson lived in Michigan City, Indiana, where her carpenter father had moved the family from a farm outside of town. There were hardly any jobs for him in the city, either, during the Great Depression. She went to college at Wheaton, where Lynnell would later study, and spend 1938 at Linfield College in Oregon (photo below) taking care of a relative’s home in return for room and board.
Back in Chicago after graduation, she studied journalism at Northwestern (I know: she had a brilliant mind. No one could beat her in a debate!). She began teaching journalism at her Alma Mater and met an equally brilliant young professor of Biblical Interpretation named Berkeley Mickelsen. They married, had two daughters, and when the politics of patriarchy and Biblical literalism made the place too uncomfortable, he accepted a similar post at Bethel College and Seminary in St. Paul.
They both taught at Bethel at the time Lynnell and I met, in 1983. This photo is taken on October 12, 1984, at my parents’ house in Detroit. Berkeley died in 1990, but Alvera kept up their shared work in promoting Biblically-based feminism. The organization they co-founded, Christians for Biblical Equality, lives on; although gender equality is even less popular now in most Baptist circles than it was in the late sixties. Her special gift was taking Berkeley’s sophisticated and nerdy analyses of the context of the early writers about Jesus and explaining them for a popular audience in plain English.
She told the truth about those first generations of Christians whose churches were often owned and led by women, and about their beloved Jesus, who counted women among his best friends and most trusted followers, even if he probably never married.
It has been an honor to know and love and be loved by Alvera. At her memorial service in two weeks, I will introduce the scriptural passage that guided her life, from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“Be not conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you might know what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”