REV.BIRGITTE “PASTOR BEE”FRENCH Executive Director of FirstWorks Pastor of Union Avenue United Methodist Church In the beginning … I’m a pastor’s kid, so I moved around a lot. I was born at home in a little town called Hjorring, Denmark. I grew up speaking Danish, with English our second language. My whole family is Methodist ministers, so my homes growing up were always in parsonages provided by the church. The first home I remember was when I was five in Ronne. That particular parsonage was on top of a sanctuary. Our apartment — on the third floor — was heated with charcoal bricks, and it was huge. But our bathroom was the congregation’s bathroom — on the second floor. We could not use it during worship time because when we flushed, they could hear it in the sanctuary! The attic was as long as the church, and it was where we dried our clothes. We didn’t have a washing machine, either. I remember my older sister, Charlotte, and I playing up there. For pets, we had parakeets! Pedro could talk and whistle, and he was “mine.” One morning, I saw Mom wrap him in some beautiful paper. I was so mad! “He can’t breathe!” I cried. That was my first encounter with death. I was six. I still have Pedro’s tail feathers to this day. My mother’s aunt had a little black doll, which was very uncommon in Denmark when I grew up. That doll became my child. I took him in and really took care of him. My sister remembers me saying, “One day I’m going to take you home where you came from.” So I was talking about going to Africa when I was eight years old. But I didn’t want to be a pastor. Pastors are charged with loving everyone. That can be very burdensome at times. There are some people you can only love with the love of God. When we moved to Copenhagen in 1973, Mom headed up the Methodist Church outreach ministry, where they had a food pantry, clothing closet, soup kitchen — sound familiar? For 10 years, I ate all my warm meals, five days a week, in that soup kitchen with my parents. We always had missionaries in our home. I was fascinated by them and their stories. When I reached 18, I made myself three promises: never become a Methodist minister, never marry one, and never have anything to do with the Methodist church. Eventually, I broke all three. But for two years, I lived a totally sinful life at college. I told my parents not to call me — and they didn’t. But every time we talked, they told me there was nothing I could do to make them or God stop loving me. I came to realize that the life I was living was very empty and that the people at church were real — they were sincere about wanting the best for me. When I was 20, I gave my life to Jesus. It took several hours, and I was crying. I was on my knees in my dorm, singing some of my favorite hymns. I said to Jesus, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” Little did I know what that meant! Had I known, I would have included some conditions! I moved into the church dorm and reconnected with my family. I felt like a yoke had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt cleansed, free to live a new life of love. I went on an exchange program with the Methodist church to America in 1982. A young woman on the team had a prophetic gift. Three times during the trip, she told me that God wanted me to go to Africa. Now, remember my little black doll. I got really angry with God. If God wants me to go all the way to Africa, he needs to be talking to me and not her! I told my parents when I got home. Dad asked, “Do you pray?” “Yes, Dad, you know I pray.” He said, “Do you listen? Because it’s not about what God can do for us — there’s no limit to that. It’s what we can do for God. Why don’t you take some time to listen?” I was consecrated in September 1983, and on October 6 that year, I arrived in Congo. I was 23 years old. There commenced 13 years of traveling around Africa doing God’s work. I lived in places that do not exist on the map, held a leper in my hands, delivered babies, smelled mass graves, held people in my arms as they died of starvation, and saw wounds and sores you cannot find in any medical textbook. I have spoken to medicine men who showed me how to make lightning and how to do a rain dance. I have seen and experienced an exorcism done by Congo Catholic priests. I have eaten crocodile, monkey, snake, and termites. I met my husband, Niels, in Africa. He is a missionary child, and we traveled extensively. Fletcher was born in Nebraska; Hanna was born in Denmark. I began seminary at Emory University in Atlanta in 1997, and in 2004, I was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church. A job for Niels at Methodist Hospital brought us to Memphis in 2005. I’m not worried about the future. It’s going to work out one way or the other. Someone once asked me that if I could, would I live the same life again. My answer is yes. Yes, I would do it all over again. I want to ask God how to lovingly deal with incompetent people. My parents were always on the cutting edge of what you could and couldn’t do. Mom was the first to bring black gospel into the UMC church in Denmark. A hard part of my childhood was that we didn’t live near our extended family. And we could never go anywhere for Christmas or Easter because everyone in the family was working in their own churches. So every holiday, we’d create a family. Most people don’t know that I used to smoke cigarettes like a chimney — two packs a day! If research came out and said that smoking was not dangerous, I would pick it up again immediately! So, I know about addiction. I have never conceived a child, carried the pregnancy, and delivered the baby all on the same continent! To make lightning, you need razor blades and talcum powder. You stand on top of a mountain with the village medicine man, who is holding a cigar box that carries all of his remedies. He sings and dances. He puts powder on his hands, then puts rubber gloves on. Then he puts powder on the razor blades, and he holds the blades up toward the heavens and rubs them together. I get angriest when I experience ignorance, racism, classism, intolerance — not treating people the way we want to be treated — it makes my blood boil! I paid a personal price when I said yes to follow God wherever He wanted me to go. My college church dormhad 10 rooms. Two of us were women; eight were men. I don’t know if you’ve ever shared one bathroom and one kitchen with eight young men! I would pray that God would find me a place where I could live on my own — my own apartment, my own bathroom, my own kitchen. Well, He did. In Congo! Again, I need to be more specific when I pray. God answers prayers, but you’ve got to be specific! My Dad was very wise. Nothing was impossible. If there’s a will, there’s a way. Once when I was totally heartbroken over a boyfriend, he said, “Never marry the one you can’t live without, because there’s therapy for that. Marry the one you can live with.” I literally threw up when I saw a little child in Congo who was so malnourished and so filled with sores and disease — it was so overwhelming that I had to hand the baby back, go throw up, and come back. My Mom was a true lady with a huge heart. She spoke seven languages and was part of a mission team. She had a gorgeous voice. She played the organ and Dad would preach, and my sister and I would hand out hymnals. It was kind of a family business. My most joyous times were three. When my two children were born and when my husband — who I met in Congo — proposed. He came to Denmark July 1, proposed July 4, and we got married July 21. He went back to Congo July 25, and I followed a month later. The first time I saw a mass grave I cried. Was totally overwhelmed. Fell on my knees. I had no words. My parents taught me that you love people unconditionally. That’s what you do in life; it’s your responsibility. And know that there are people in this world you can only love with the love of God. If I could meet one person … Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I want to ask him, “How can I help you make your dream come true?” When your life’s work involves people who are hurting you can’t get caught up in the emotions. You look at the situation from all angles to see what is best for that person. It’s very easy to go in and do it for them, but then you’re not helping. Give a person a fish, and they have food for a day. Teach a person to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime. When my first child was born we had just come back to America from Kapanga in Congo, where it was three days’ drive to the nearest town, no electricity, and water from a pump. We had come from the bush — literally — and all of a sudden, I’m in a fancy hospital. The staff would give me a shot, then throw the needle in the trash, and I would cry, “Oh, no! No! We can wash that, sterilize it, and use it again!” I question God when … Oh, I may respond to God with, “Really? Are you serious?” But then I try to turn it into, “Show me how.” You will never get the question “why?” answered. That will not be answered for you. My experience is that wherever I have been, I have been equipped to do what I need to do, even when it was really hard. My biggest reward is to see my children make it in life, and help people experience the freedom of knowing Jesus as their Lord and Savior. It’s a gift. It’s important to love each other unconditionally, find the good in each other. I think that’s why the FirstWorks kids like to be here: We love them for who they are. The biggest misperception people may have about what I do is that it’s well paid! [laughs] I think people think that this is a job. It’s not. It’s my life. It’s a calling to do what I do. The secret to a good rain dance is you have to have a group of people, a lot of white powder, a grass field, and long animal tails, such as a monkey’s or gazelle’s. You dance around in a circle, throw things up in the air, and wave the tails. I will never again say never. I’ve always had what I needed. I’ve always had a place to call home. I’ve always had transportation — although it was sometimes on the back of a donkey! I’m safe; my family is safe. We’re healthy. We’re together. We’re alive. My final 2 cents is a quote by Bishop Hopkins. It can be used in every part of life: “The hope for our church lies not in organizations or institutions, structure, or persistence. It lies in the quality of conversation and the depth of our connection to one another.”
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.