Friday, January 8, 2021

Freda Jane Wood—Devoted Church Volunteer's Life Set a High Bar For Giving

Freda Jane Wood came into this world on August 26, 1957, a Baby Boomer by generation, only daughter and fourth child born to Bob and Jane Wood. At the time she was given the named of her aunt, Freda, and her mother’s name as her middle name. Growing up in Bryan with three brothers, she quickly learned to love sports, which would remain an important part of her life forever. She loved her family dearly, and she grew up in First United Methodist Church of Bryan, and clearly idolized her parents, Robert “Bob” and Jane Wood.[Photo, FUMC Bryan Directory, 1995, Jane and Freda Wood]

It was in 1993 I first met Freda, at the former 6pm Sunday evening worship services led by Rev. Bob Richers, formerly of FUMC Bryan. Freda would bring her mother, Jane, to our group of about 100 gathered for an evening opportunity to praise and worship God once again that day, furthering our resolve to live better lives in the coming week.

Two ladies, Anita and Jan, alternated playing the piano for 6 pm worship at this service you’d hear traditional “Methodist” golden oldie hymns, and a Cokesbury song or two. Freda could have easily been part of the Sanctuary Choir as she had a good second soprano voice, but that wasn’t one of her goals.

Different times over the Sunday nights, I learned from Freda a lot of the history of our church. Having grown up there, she knew virtually every member, old and new; she’d been present for each of the many developments and growth and building phases that happened through the years. Not any different than anywhere else in the United States in the 1960s, the church’s administrative structure would be described properly when you said, “The men of the church.” That was indeed the composition of those who made decisions, and those who financed with personal funds, the growth of their church.

Her father was an accountant, and the CPA firm formerly known as Durst, Wood, Milberger, et al. was part of her family history. She worked there in the office for many years, until her brother Gene opened his own accounting practice, and she joined Gene there. That was Freda by day. By night, she was at FUMC virtually “every time the doors opened,” for two reasons: (1) she loved it, and (2) she knew she might be needed to do something.

Doing “something for her church” came naturally to Freda. Never once did she have to be asked because she had already volunteered, rounded up a team, and was well on her way to fixing whatever was broken, as she saw it. The quality of never having to be asked to help because you see a need and just move to repair is rare, as things go.

[Photo, FUMC Bryan Directory, 1999, Freda and Jane Wood]

When it came to her church, every action she took was merely what she learned from childhood. She saw her father, one of the “pillars of the church,” work together with others, such as the late Joe Hanover, Holland Porter, and others who remain with us today. If something broke, they took out a pen, opened their checkbooks and paid for it. Never did a fund-raising campaign have to be initiated. No magic appeal or consultants were required. And then the church grew larger and larger.

Back then the church was a frequent part of estate giving for local families, and the Permanent Endowment Fund was often grown as individual gifts and trusts were set up to provide funding for the future of FUMC. Church leadership changed over the past forty years as more women were brought into that role, matching what was going on around the country, albeit slightly slower than the national scene.

Women were offered and excelled in leadership roles, and were also found to be most generous in financial support. I have yet to hear one of them named as a “pillar,” but that definition is no longer used contemporarily anyway. Pillars are made of some kind of clay and held together with mortar, and it all depends on the foundation as to how long and how strong it will prevail.

I first saw Freda’s impact in action ca. 1995, but she’d been at it long before that. Freda was a favorite of the town’s older generation, as she was a willing volunteer who would do anything she could for widows who might not have children immediately nearby to help out with simple tasks. I remember Frances Allen describing her at one time as “you would hear that we’d be expecting a freeze soon on the weather forecast, and you’d look out your window and see Freda wrapping your outdoor water faucets to prevent them from freezing up. She didn’t wait to be asked.

And so a long-term friendship would be cemented between generations. Freda did all these things with the love and approval of her mother, Jane, for whom she was devoted daughter and caregiver until Jane’s passing in October, 2015. Freda’s ministerial efforts were all indirect for years and she chose the people to help who had been devoted to her church all of her life.

She took ballet as a child from wonderful angel Jane Lee and Freda adored her. In her later years, she preferred functional comfort to fashion so if you haven’t known her more than 20 years, you’d have missed the beautiful outfits and matching jewelry that she always wore for church directory photographs and other special occasions. A few pictures here from past directories underscore that fact.

It was when a new senior pastor was appointed to FUMC in 1995 that would ultimately change the church forever, at least in terms that I perceive (your mileage may vary). For the first time in memory, the Methodist church was less about the changeup of ministers every few years to a new trend of allowing them to remain in place longer term. At least that is how it felt to those of us who had always heard of the process of fairly quick rotation. It was a guarantee that if you didn’t resonate with the style of one pastor, another would be along soon, so keep worshiping consistently and trust in the Lord even if you didn’t in the Bishop’s wisdom.

Early on, that newly appointed senior pastor decided he would change things up and reroute everything that once was one direction to flow another direction, his way. Early decisions and changes were well received, but one day, one decision split the congregation in half. It’s not unusual in any church to have such earth-shattering changes.

Every congregation is made up of volunteers and devoted members who believe passionately in what they believe to be true and correct. The senior pastor’s challenge is to maintain common ground among the membership so everyone still feels as though it is “their church,” when in fact it is always God’s church, subject to decisions and actions of the Bishop and her/his appointees. I say this because it would be at this point where my discussions with Freda would become less about the Houston Astros, to whom she was their #1 most devoted fan, and more about the wisdom of some of the things ongoing in our church. The discussions were always pleasant, never unpleasant, but her determination to support a path I didn’t agree with was unrelenting.

About that time some senior church ladies took me to lunch for my birthday and Freda was included. I was opening cards and Freda handed me a small package. Inside was a glass desk decoration with a quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It reads:

What counts is not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

She was not forecasting purposefully, but did I ever come to see firsthand what that meant in terms of her devotion to pursuing a goal relentlessly, thoroughly, and with the kind of tenacity akin only to a bulldog unwilling to let go of a perceived invader. And yet, never was an unpleasant word spoken between us. She proceeded to rally support for her chosen path, succeeded, and prevailed. Anyone who might have doubted her abilities was “taken to school,” as the saying goes.

The amount of goodness Freda gave to FUMC Bryan over the past thirty years that I observed was virtually uncountable—there’s some you will see clearly but others (most in fact) that she did behind the scenes that most will never even know of, because that is how she operated. She preferred being behind the scenes, even if she was front and center briefly to have to do something before going back to her other pursuits.

For example, today FUMC enjoys a magnificent online and media ministry and that is thanks to Mike Holmes, Rev. David Henry, Gregg Barfield, and Freda Wood, to name just four people that I know of, though of course many others were involved. It began, the way I recall, when the then-senior pastor (ca. 1993) wanted “someone” to take photos of new members who joined the church each week, so they could be included in the weekly newsletter. Freda volunteered, went out and got a new 35mm camera and came down the aisle as church ended each week to snap the pictures.

Next, there was a need for a video ministry that occurred as the radio broadcasts of the weekly worship service were becoming less available to the homebound members of our community and, as you’d expect, Freda volunteered to be part of that team immediately.

The next thing you knew, Freda was up in the gallery loft above the back of the congregation running the board on the multimedia elements of all services, whether it was 8:30 am worship, 11 am worship, or even going to the Gym between those two services to run the media board in the 9:00 am service, known today as the Awakening Service led by Rev. Jennifer Webber.

That was what she did and she was still just as frequent a financial supporter of the church, particularly when it came to the youth of the church. Every time the church would place lilies on the altar for Easter, Freda would join with her brother Gene and sister-in-law Wanda and donate funds sufficient to give in memory of every beloved angel of yesteryear in the church as well as her beloved senior widows—often being 50% of the needed donors, to assure the youth funds would be sufficient to send every child who wanted to go to Lakeview would go to Lakeview.

[Photo, FUMC Church Directory, 2004, Freda Wood]

One of very few things that might cause Freda to leave the FUMC campus for a time would be precious trips to see her beloved Houston Astros play baseball at home. She went to as many games as she could and listened or watched all the others faithfully. She helped get plenty of church buses going that way as well, and she was the best advocate the team could have here locally.

Freda was named Media Assistant to the FUMC staff and the need for her presence became more full-time than part-time, and she loved all that she did. Whether official church staff or lifetime volunteer, Freda did anything that she could do. Even though as a child she didn't attend Lakeview church camp, as an adult she became the Registrar for the annual Methodist camp activities at Lakeview each year and brought excellent order to the registration process and did it essentially solo for many years. Her personal philanthropy had made it possible for many of our children to attend; she truly put her heart into each thing she did for her church.

Freda had the admiration of so many church members that I could name and name and name and still it would not be a complete list, because if you were a new member last week at 28th and Houston, you’d have met her and been welcomed to “your” church by her. You never saw her without a smile, even if the Astros didn’t win, because she was determined they could do it the next game. It was not the smile of a person of simplicity; rather, it was a determination to use each day to help anyone she saw in need, without being asked.

Her dogs were another part of Freda’s life’s joy. If you had her e-mail address, you know her handle, “Fredasdogs,” and her Facebook pages are overflowing with photographs of dogs—hers as well as the photos of local lost and found pets as she was always willing to help spread the word of a missing pet and, more importantly, a found pet.

Many people have known Freda Wood longer and better than I do. They know personally of her service to FUMC Bryan and appreciate her for her wisdom, sense of humor, willingness to follow up on any need for anyone she knew, and most of all her faith in God. It was not something she spoke of as much as it was her actions.

Her faith in action reflects the words of Matthew 25:40 (NIV)

And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.’”

When a dear friend shared the news of Freda’s passing with me yesterday, the very first image that came to mind was a memory of the lobby of the former College Station Medical Center. Freda was about to undergo knee surgery. Although many of us might consider that a routine procedure today, it was a rare happening in Freda’s world to be in the hospital. She was not alone; of course Wanda and Gene were there, and perhaps her nephew Tom and his wife Dana were, plus her primary doctor and longtime friend Dr. Philip Alexander (at the time on the hospital board, no less). Yet, one simply could not miss the other crowd of Methodist ministers all standing together, from her childhood pastor to her pastor of the hour, there they were. She smiled her 750-Watt smile at that sight, seeing them one and all.

If memory serves, Reverends Morris House, Carroll Fancher, Harral Dunnam, and Bob Richers, gathered in the informal collective of the lobby to assure Jesus and all of his archangels surrounded Freda with love and a genuine regard for returning her to her church world as to carry on in her ministry as unimpeded as possible.

It is with blessed assurance that I know Freda entered the kingdom of Heaven greeted by her beloved parents, her brothers Porter and John who preceded her there, and Reverends Morris House and Carroll Fancher awaiting the reunion of another in their congregations who joined them and all the now angels among those she tended to here on Earth. She leaves her funeral service to the most capable pastor, Rev. Rick Sitton, whose ministry here these many years has been blessed and enhanced by Freda’s media ministry and friendship to him and his family.

As Pastor Sitton wrote of her in his morning tribute, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” Faithful church volunteer Rose Cates shared a copy of Freda’s father’s business card he had made upon his retirement, which gave him more time to do good works. When the man you know and love as father on Earth has “this” philosophy with him all of his life, it’s easy to see that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. [Photos courtesy of Rose M. Cates]

Freda Jane Wood will always be remembered, uniquely for one so young, as one of the “pillars of the church” at First United Methodist in Bryan. And though she never sought acclaim for anything she did, I think she would have been pleased. Godspeed, Freda, and thank you for all that you did for those whose lives you touched.