Bethany–Missionary in Birkenstocks
She was most at home in bibs and Birkenstocks. Maybe that’s one reason I felt so kindred to Bethany.
Like half a dozen others, Bethany Enloe would enter my room on Thursday afternoons–shake off the dust of an 8th grade school day before kicking off her Birks, adding to the pile of others’ shoes, to sit cross-legged on what I prayed would be the holy ground of my 3rd grade classroom carpet.
This began in the fall of 1996 when I was a 27-year old teacher at a small private school in Greenville, SC. Though I thoroughly loved instructing eight and nine-year olds in math, reading, and writing, I also cherished the opportunity to disciple teenage girls in the ways of Jesus, though I often gleaned much more than I gave.
In our hour-long sessions, I was just one of a gaggle of girls, and we’d most often giggle as we shared. But there were serious moments too–when matters concerning sick family members, unsaved friends, and other issues of consequence were shared, sometimes through tears.
Though some spoke of their own personal struggles, I don’t honestly recall Bethany talking much about hers–particularly her battle with asthma, which was worsened when she played soccer, the sport she loved most. Breathing was often difficult for her, but she rarely complained, at least in our small group.
As our year together came to a close, each girl was thinking much–and praying too–about high school. Many of them had attended this particular school since pre-K, but because this academy only offered academics through 8th grade, each was facing the ensuing bittersweet transition with both excitement, as well as a bit of anxiety, and I felt privileged to be one who could so personally help ease their burden, share in their joy, in prayer.
And I was particularly honored when asked if I’d sing at their 8th grade graduation ceremony–the lyrics of the song a charge for these students as they dispersed to various area high schools.
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
(“Go Light Your World”–Kathy Troccoli)
After graduation, several continued attending our discipleship group, but instead of meeting at school, we met in homes. Occasionally we’d plan a special event–like the Christmas dinner I hosted with my then medical resident husband Bill, who graciously helped serve a 3-course meal to these blossoming young women. Each was dressed to the nines while giggling like little girls behind cloth napkins.
Another time, we had a sleepover at Bethany’s home–her parents, Neil and Elaine, kind enough to host us. We watched movies and ate junk food like champs, and I distinctly remember working with molding clay–correlating the activity to the notion that God is the Potter, and we’re His handiwork, a part of a greater and good plan as one reads in Jeremiah 29:11–
A plan to give hope and a future, for good and not of evil.
Throughout the course of high school, our group changed. Though one or two from our original gathering remained, new ones joined as I continued to meet once a week with them until my own move from South Carolina in the summer of 2001.
I was living in Indianapolis when I received the news that Bethany was ill. What had once been thought to be merely asthma became bouts of pneumonia before doctors finally diagnosed Bethany, after much prolonged suffering, with a primitive “germ cell” cancer. Her lungs would fill with fluid, making breathing difficult, labored.
Just thinking of her struggle made me suck in my own breath, beg God–
Please, please make Bethany well. She’s such a bright light, with so much more to do. Surely You’ll be glorified best by healing her.
That’s what I thought, and so that’s how I prayed.
After all, Bethany had a unique gift. This Birkenstock-wearing missionary shined Jesus in her public high school, on youth mission trips, and in the community theater where she loved to sing, act, and dance. Certainly there was more work for her here. Her journey just couldn’t be complete–her “Jeremiah 29:11” just beginning.
But the Potter’s plan was different. Despite all those pleading for her healing, Bethany became more and more sick. As September turned to October, Indiana’s trees were ablaze with the brilliance of autumn, and I fought to push back the whispered irony of beauty in death. But despite my determined resistance, the call came just the same. Bethany was in the hospital, in and out of consciousness, not expected to live.
On October 18th, 2001, this beautiful, blossoming young woman stepped from earth’s path into Heaven’s splendor and breathed the sweet breath of her Savior—inhaled with healed ease what I know, despite her years of struggling, was His familiar fragrance. The notion that she’s been face to face with Jesus longer now than she’d lived here prior to her passing strikes me, as does the fact that she inspires me still, though I only knew her–really knew her–for a couple years.
And why is that? How is it that one so humble, so unsure of herself (as expressed in her journals), could have such a lasting impact on so many–leave such an indelible mark? There’s just one answer. It was and is Jesus.
Imperfect though she was, Bethany talked Him. Yes, whether in Birkenstocks or barefooted, she walked Him–a living, breathing reminder to many that one’s faith isn’t void of fear but simply evidence of her pressing on, even in the face of it.
Not surprisingly, I learned later that, while in her final days, she’d requested one particular song be played–Rich Mullins’ Hold Me Jesus.
Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all
When the mountains look so big,
And my faith just seems so smallSo hold me Jesus,
Cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace
Bethany’s influence, which I witnessed firsthand at her worshipful memorial service, was broad and beautiful. Both young and old alike shared how she’d touched their lives, pointing them to her Savior. Several testimonies particularly pierced me, and I’ve never forgotten.
One such story was from her final days, when, while struggling to breathe and in pain, Bethany’s father, Neil, cried out, “Oh, I wish I could take all your suffering, bear it myself,” to which Bethany replied–
“No, Daddy–I want to see what Jesus has in this for me.”
Another time, Bethany boldly–though unlikely uttered above a labored whisper–professed–
“The very worst thing that can happen to me is the very best thing that can happen to me.”
And how? Because what Bethany truly believed–what her ongoing story encourages anyone who will listen to better understand–is that, To live is Christ, to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Her desire, proclaimed both in life, as well as in her death, was simply–
Hold me, Jesus.
“Bethany” literally means House of Welcome, and it’s no wonder that she welcomed Jesus at such a young age and lived him–despite hardship, amid imperfections–for eighteen years. After all, biblically Bethany was the town where Jesus loved to visit, where His dearest friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived.
It was in or near Bethany that Mary sat at His feet, where Martha strived to serve Him, and where Lazarus was raised by Him from the dead.
And it was in the girl Bethany that Jesus lived. She, too, sat often at His feet, learned from Him, breathed Him in.
It was Jesus whom she strived so to serve–to shine His light in the secular places where she attended school, where she acted, sang, and danced, and where, with her youth group, she traveled to take the Gospel. Like the lyrics from the song I had the privilege to share at her graduation, she lived their exhortation–lighting her world!
And like Lazarus, how many hoped and prayed that God would be glorified by raising Bethany from death’s grip. Heal her here.
I can’t help but wonder why He didn’t, but perhaps Jesus just wanted her Home, and I’m certain she’s most happy now with Him.
And I pray that, until we meet again, I will walk like Bethany. After all, she gave me much more than I ever gave her, and, even after all these years, she keeps on giving…
All for God’s glory!
Dear Sweet Savior, please tell her hello and let her know that many miss her here. We hold to the promise that, one day, we’ll all relish in the sweet Breath of Heaven, an Amy Grant song I can’t hear without thinking of her. I’m certain that many more will be there because of Bethany’s Birkenstock-wearing witness to the world.
To learn more about this wonderful missionary in Birkenstocks, you can visit Bethany’s Place. You’ll be blessed to know her better.