If you watched much television back in the 1970s, you couldn’t miss the television commercial that touted, “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.” Back then, E. F. Hutton was one of the most respected brokerage firms in the country. Something similar, on a spiritual plain, could be said of Jane Williams, Love, INC co-founder. When the poor and broken speak, Jane Williams listens and they walk away encouraged with newfound hope for the future.
You’ll find her fingerprints on several local organizations dedicated to helping Columbia’s needy because she helped launch them: Center for Women’s Ministries, The Caring People, Granny’s House, FreePrayer and, of course, Love INC. She’s helped dozens of churches develop effective strategies to help the needy. Though she’s a licensed clinical social worker, those who know her best say that what she does is more akin to “soul work” than social work. No matter how desperate the situation, Williams has a unique gift for mining the gold and finding the silver lining in the black clouds she finds hovering over peoples’ lives.
When Tanya Teegarden met Williams in the ‘90s, she simply couldn’t believe the hopeful things Williams was telling her. “I don’t know what motive you have, lady, but I’m not going for it,” she protested. “This kind of love you’re talking about is a bunch of %$#%$#!” God’s love was a foreign language to her. Teegarden had just been released from jail in Kansas City for a drug charge and moved to Columbia to live with her sister, Marilyn Teegarden, whom Williams was already mentoring during her stint at a local drug treatment center. Because the Teegarden sisters grew up in an environment filled with violence and regularly saw people “shooting up,” both women readily admit that they were clueless about how to “live clean and sober without chaos.” Tanya knew she didn’t know how to live without being a drug dealer. The sisters battled addiction for years but Williams never abandoned them. She continued to support Marilyn Teegarden through the painful process of placing twin babies with adoptive parents. She credits Williams with helping her understand that she was not giving her babies up, but was “giving them more because they deserved to have a two-parent home and things I could not provide,” she says. Those babies are now healthy 14-year-old girls who return to Columbia annually with their adoptive mother for a reunion with their birth mother and Williams. When they talk about Jane Williams, the Teegardens use words like “spiritual mom” or “sister” because she’s been their family’s “backbone.” Some years ago when their mother passed away, they had Jane Williams officiate at the funeral.
You have to wonder what opened such a huge well of compassion in Jane Williams. Exactly what marked her for a life of pouring hope into those whom most would find it easier to ignore? Williams describes growing up with her identical twin in a rather average, happy family. Their dad, who could never tell his twins’ voices apart, owned a fuel oil business and their mother was a bookkeeper. When they were little girls, they often played make-believe games where Williams played the role of the rescuer. “I was always rescuing somebody in distress,” she recalls. Early on, she began feeling pangs of discouragement over the plight of the poor. “I remember knowing that dad had delivered fuel oil to someone who didn’t have enough money to pay him, and was saddened by the thought that there were people who could not afford to heat their houses,” she recalls.
But it was not until she was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Missouri School of Social Work that her heart broke wide open as she read her very first social welfare textbook and learned the bleak realities of poverty in America. “I grew up in turbulent times and we all wanted to protest and make our lives count for something,” she remembers. But Williams didn’t protest. Instead, she studied and was undone as she learned about life in public housing, inequalities in education, and the discrimination that many experienced. “After that,” she said, “I never thought of doing anything else with my life. I remember crying in my sorority room over that (social work) book and, a year later, someone gave me a Bible and I wept over that book too.” In her thinking, opening her heart to the poor and opening her heart to God were different sides of the same coin.
Williams’ college days were a confusing season filled with strange juxtapositions. She was exposed to extreme poverty and extreme wealth at the same time. All while learning about the painful consequences of extreme poverty, she was hanging out with wealthy friends. “I remember driving down I-29 in a friend’s Mercedes during my junior year and I began crying out of the blue,” she says. She was troubled by a strange scene that kept parading across her mind. She saw herself working in a welfare office and hanging up a mink coat in that office. “It bothered me that there were those who had so little and we had so much,” she thought. “There’s got to be more to life than this!” Back then, she could never have imagined what “more” would look like decades later.
After earning a master’s degree at MU, she did hospital social work at both Ellis Fischel and Boone Hospital Center and was enriched by the faith and courage of the people who had been officially classified as “indigents” – very poor with advanced cancer, often from rural areas. “Early on,” she says, “I could see that there was much more depth to a person who had struggled.” Williams thrived in that atmosphere. She remembers the six to eight bed wards and there were no private rooms back then. She’s never forgotten the patients’ gratitude, their lack of complaining, and their concern for the welfare of other family members, even as they suffered.
After leaving Ellis Fischel, she took a job as director of social work at Boone Hospital and remained there until 1998 when she began having children and only wanted to work part-time. She also served as benevolence director at Christian Fellowship Church (CFC). She fielded all the benevolence-related calls to the church and organized teams to serve weekly meals at the downtown soup kitchen. She launched door-to-door prayer outreaches in both Douglass Park and Bear Creek public housing projects and at area hospitals. At CFC, she was overwhelmed by the immensity of the needs and quickly realized that no one church could possibly take care of it all.
When her secretary saw her angst as she fielded benevolence phone messages, she told Williams about an organization she’d heard about in Alaska called “Love, INC” (Love In The Name of Christ), that created a central hub of churches to work together to coordinate responses to their community’s needy. She immediately fell in love with the idea but, at the time, there was little interest in creating that kind of structure in Columbia. It wasn’t until Columbia was inundated with evacuees from Hurricane Katrina that people began to see the benefits of churches working together to help people in need. What began as Columbia’s “Disaster Recovery Center” after Katrina, morphed into Columbia’s Love, INC in 2008, providing a central clearinghouse of churches to compassionately respond to Columbia’s benevolence needs. “At Love INC, we have tried to change the culture of charity from ‘handout’ to ‘hand up,’” Williams explains. “But there are still many people who are stuck in the handout mode, both on the giving and on the receiving end.” Columbia’s Love, INC is one of 150 affiliates located in 30 states.
Williams is often stretched when seeking to make a difference in people’s lives. She remembers struggling with all kinds of suspicions when she encountered boyfriends who always seemed to lurk in the shadows when she began reaching out to single moms in public housing. “I suspected they were eating up all the food stamp food and not paying child support,” she admits. But all those judgments melted away during a chance encounter with a young man she met when she accompanied a repairman to an apartment in the projects. “While waiting to have someone’s washing machine fixed, an immediate bond was formed when I heard that boyfriend’s story of growing up in a small town and having all of his hopes and dreams dashed by poverty, a lack of opportunity, no family support or resources,” she says. The washing machine wasn’t the only thing repaired as the two listened to gospel music and prayed together before she left the apartment that day. “As I got up to leave, I asked him, ‘What is your name?’ and he said, ‘Emmanual,’ which means ‘God with us.’” To Williams, God was, indeed, right there with them.
Over the years, there have been thousands whom Williams has helped. Some call her “My Angel,” “Granny Jane,” or “Miss Jane,” and she has even been called “The Church Lady” before. But the two who call her mom have always had a front-row seat to the transformation of the woman whose love and compassion have meant so much to so many.
Her son, Aaron Williams, a recent seminary graduate and now a PhD student at the John Paul II Institute in Washington DC, says, “Growing up, she was always involved in the matters of our hearts and wanted to know what was on our minds. We knew we could always talk to her,” even as she was pouring her life out to what seemed like half the city. He has vivid memories of the hodge-podge of visitors who frequented their home. “We always had an open room and someone was there on a regular basis,” he says. Sometimes their guest was wearing a house arrest anklet, or it was someone from what Williams calls the “AA/NA crowd.” Her son says, “I never questioned whether she loved me while she poured herself out for others. Because of the way she loved and cared for us and always made us feel safe in our home.”
Williams’ daughter, Suzy Plakmeyer, a graphic designer in Chicago adds, “Some people know the poor as a concept, but I grew up knowing the poor as people.” To Plakmeyer, Jane Williams was just “our mom, not the savior of that person on house arrest or the person who had relapsed again,” she says. “She has always lived this life of compassion that she talks about. If she could, she would have every homeless person, people living on house arrest, every needy person living in her basement!”
Williams has never fit the traditional social worker model. “I regularly give out my cell phone number and take calls in the evenings and on weekends. I invite people into our home. I don’t encourage my Love, INC volunteers or staff to do the same, but I do because I CAN’T HELP IT!” she shouts. “I don’t know how to hold people at arm’s length!” She refers to the people she meets as “friends,” not “clients.” She’s grateful for “guardrails,” though, and the main one is her husband of 38 years, Scott Williams, who is principal of Christian Fellowship School. He says he often has to be her “brakes” to slow her down when her heart tells her to be more involved in a situation than she can. Like their children, Scott Williams gets to see, first-hand, the depths of her compassion. According him, his wife’s method is simple: “When she is troubled about something or someone, she prays, asking how she can effectively help them, and really grieves when she thinks she might have caused trouble or pain for someone else.” From Jane Williams’ perspective, nothing of any real importance ever happens apart from prayer, and sometimes, it’s her own health that’s at the top of her prayer list.
Williams has had to endure multiple eye surgeries over the years to forestall and sometimes repair retina detachment. She started wearing glasses at the age of four and remembers attending her eighth grade graduation ceremony with a patch over one eye after a surgery. During the past couple of years, she’s had surgeries on both eyes, but neither surgery was successful and the end result was total blindness.
Williams and her identical twin, Judy Richmond, have battled the same eye problem throughout their lives. As premature babies, they received extremely high levels of oxygen that damaged their eyes. “I have a similar eye condition and it reminds me that I could be in that same situation at any time,” Richmond muses. “If I ever lose my eyesight, I will handle it better because of the way she’s gone through it. She doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her or to one-up them with her tragedy.” Richmond has often heard her sister say, “If God wanted me to see, I would see.” Her sister’s blindness is “one of the biggest sadnesses” of her life,” she says. It pains Richmond to know that Williams has never seen her six-month-old grandson’s face.
Many people don’t realize that, though blind, Williams can “see.” She says that in her mind’s eye, she always remembers people “at their most beautiful and best.” Her husband explains, “One of her special qualities is recognizing the good and the gifts God has given to people who have only felt like they’ve been failures and never measured up. She can help them see things that will give them hope and encouragement about themselves.”
When asked how she keeps her passion for serving others alive and not feel sorry for herself, she responds, “At first, I thought ‘I can’t do this… I just can’t do this!’ I’ve always been claustrophobic.” Groping around was difficult. “When you’re blind, you’re cut off from what others are talking about in this cell phone-photo-world we live in, but I feel so much more fuel to help those who are cut off in other ways.” And when she feels overwhelmed by the constant darkness, see imagines that her face is simply “buried in God’s chest,” or that she’s “being blindfolded and led into a surprise party.” Learning new ways to have fun has been a challenge. She loves audible books and getting together with the group of close friends she has affectionately named, “The Cooking With Jane Club.” Six women converge on her kitchen once a month to prepare and enjoy a gourmet meal with her. Another challenge is shopping. “I cannot shop, so my sister and Charlotte Scuauwecker take me shopping because I trust them. People say I’ve never dressed better!” she jokes. “Shopping by committee is definitely better.” The screen readers and other software she received from Rehabilitation Services for the Blind have enabled her to continue her work at Love INC. Because of the friends and volunteers who’ve stepped forward to help her, some say she’s hardly skipped a beat. Her husband didn’t cook or grocery shop before she went blind, but now he does. Before, he would typically give her the annual “tour of the yard” after he finished sprucing things up. “Scott has been incredible!” she brags.
Jane Williams’ life has been a contagious one. Many of the strugglers she’s walked alongside now possess that same passion and fire to help disadvantaged people. You’ll find them serving in a plethora of community programs and outreaches. Nelson Mandela once said, “Our human compassion binds us one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” That’s what Jane Williams has done for just about every life she’s ever touched.