by Sue Ann Rybak
“Over the past 20 years, Nellie’s ministry has touched many, many people inside these walls and out,” said the Rev. Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, at a service to honor the Rev. Elinor R. “Nellie” Greene as Deacon Emeritus.
During the recent Sunday service, Greene, 62, of Chestnut Hill, looked small and fragile sitting in her wheelchair near the front of the church. Her hair, once light brown, had turned to a lustrous silver and sparkled in the light. While she can no longer communicate using her spelling board, her smile and eyes were bright as she listened to Noonan talk about her ministry.
“Nellie’s ministry at Chestnut Hill United Church has primarily focused on preaching, prayer and presence,” Noonan said. “For me, the most important sermons Nellie has done are the ones in which she talked about her own life and her own story. It’s the most powerful testimony – about what it means to be a woman of faith.”
A woman, it should be noted, whose life was changed forever by a car accident on Sept. 13, 1970.
At 18, Greene seemed to have it all. She was an accomplished athlete, singer, actor and leader in school.
Helen Mirkil, a parishioner at Chestnut Hill United Church who met Greene in 10th grade at Chatham Hall, a boarding school in Chatham, Virginia, said Nellie was a very “cheerful, energetic and athletic person.”
“She was also a linguist, learning Chinese when it was first offered at the school, around 1969, well before taking Chinese became fashionable,” Mirkil said.
Greene wrote about the accident that left her unable to speak, walk or even feed herself several years ago.
In an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007, Greene wrote, “Our car turned over three times, and I flew out the door as I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Both of my lungs ruptured and my right arm clavicle was severely broken … I bruised a kidney, was instantly blinded, and had a lot of internal bleeding. I suffered two heart arrests on the operating table, and this, along with other factors, resulted in my suffering severe and extensive brain damage.”
Despite all the obstacles she faced, Greene never lost faith in God’s plan for her.
Determined to earn her degree, Greene returned to Hampshire College in 1973 after several surgeries and extensive therapy. It was there she received a calling to serve God as an ordained minister.
Noonan said that unfortunately, when the time came for Greene to do her pastoral internship, the Episcopalian Church couldn’t find a position for her.
The Rev. Hal Taussig, the former co-pastor at Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, which is now called Chestnut Hill United Church, suggested Greene complete her internship there.
In 1993, she was ordained as an Episcopal deacon, and the Chestnut Hill United Church created a position for her. Since then, Greene has preached regularly, writing four to five sermons a year that are delivered by the “voice of a congregation member.”
Cindy Clawson, of Mt. Airy, is one of many congregation members who have had the privilege of being her “voice.”
“She was very methodical about how she wanted it done,” said Clawson, who has been a member of the church for four years. “It was something that was very important to her, and she wanted to make sure that everybody who served as her voice went through the same process because she wanted to make sure it was done correctly.”
Clawson, who used to work with people with brain injuries, added that after seeing Greene’s photo and bio on the church’s website, she felt drawn to the church in a special way.
“Nellie was a demanding, exacting drill sergeant when it came to preparing people for the sermon delivery,” Noonan told the congregation. “She was ambitious and independent in selecting her readers, her voices, and she gave them quite a workout.”
“Together God and Nellie broke just about every rule in the book,” said Noonan, whose daughter Sarah Noonan-Ngwane also served as Greene’s voice. “And frankly, while there is no doubt it had to have taken every ounce of strength and courage and faith Nellie had, in the face of unfathomable obstacles, I really think she and God had a hell of a good time doing it.”
“Jesus upends the traditional, prevailing view of God’s success,” wrote Greene in another sermon. “He tells us NOTHING that is offered to God goes wasted. Whatever we offer to God, be it our weakness or strength, form or shadow, God will transform, and give back to us in manifold ways.”
Mirkil said Greene’s sermons are “very down to earth, often with stories about growing up, relating situations including her father or mother, and are always endearing.”
“Her stories touch on life lessons that relate to the scripture reading of the day,” Mirkil said. “While reading a sermon to her I would invariably have to stop and clear my throat, to keep my emotions from interrupting me. Nellie has an uncanny way of drawing from the depth of her human experience, yet with a delightful and childlike humor, to reach truths we can all recognize in ourselves.”
“Nellie Greene’s abilities, her call to ministry, her faith, her persistence, her gentle, playful spirit and her ambition have been gifts to the world, and special gifts to this congregation,” Noonan said.
“I pray that her ministry will not just have delighted us and inspired us, but caused us each – in some small or large way – to change,” she said. “To change our understanding of what it may mean to be temporarily able-bodied. To change our understandings of welcome and access and hospitality. To see how God can work in each of us in radical, life-giving, unexpected ways.”
Many members of the congregation held back tears as Noonan asked members to take a journey down memory lane as they watched a video of Lisa Lovelace, a professional dancer who choreographed and performed a dance set to Greene’s poem entitled “I am.”
Lovelace, who was a longtime member of the church until recently, explained that she bought a poem by Nellie at a church auction.
“I asked her to write a poem about herself,” said Lovelace. “It turned out to be one of the most meaningful and amazing dances I’ve ever done. Unlike Nellie’s sermons, her poem was a personal statement.”
In the poem Greene writes, “The choice is to accept grace, love and guidance and God’s transformative power because of the work Jesus did here, or we can say ‘no.’ It’s a choice and it’s a pilgrimage. I struggle with this a lot because sometimes my faith in God feels so weak as to be nonexistent. But, even when I know I am falling short, and the way ahead is not clear, I still do my best to go through the narrow door. I think that is the best any of us can do.”
To hear one of Greene’s sermons go to www.chestnuthillunited.org/Sermons and click on Nov. 9.