FEATURE STORIES

Mama Ruth: On a Mission to Serve

by Brenda Huff
May 2010

 

Thank God It’s Friday

The big blue room is filled to capacity; standing room only, one might say. Three seating sections with rows of blue chairs flank the front stage. Standing on the small stage facing full seats, a soloist singer wields a microphone and renders a heartfelt melody. An attractive, older woman provides musical accompaniment behind a small upright piano.  Florescent overhead lighting illuminates the scene.

This is a strange, albeit different place to be on a Friday night for many in the room.  Their former hangouts more likely would have been bars, the streets, or anywhere where they could have gotten a drink, scored a hit, or indulged in some other vice. Instead, they are here, at the First Baptist Church in Milford, and they have come in droves to attend the Reformers Unanimous International (RUI) meeting.

Dichotomy abounds in the room: Some are well dressed. Others are wearing jeans or sweats. Warming the seats are the gainfully employed, the jobless, those on government assistance, and even the homeless. All 100-plus attending are here with a common goal:  To have freedom in Christ over addiction and/or the effects of addiction in their lives.

Addiction can come in many forms: pills, syringes, bottles, caffeine, sex, food, people. The addictions and stories are as varied and unique as each individual. Regardless of their struggles, all are here with the intent to overcome.

The song is over and Ruth Kelly gets up from her piano bench. She and the soloist resume their seats among the crowd. Some of the faces are what one might expect to see here; tired, haggard, cut by deep lines and a hard life. Others are more commonplace and surprising. Ruth has one of those surprising visages: smooth, creamy skin and kind blue eyes that sparkle behind wire-rimmed glasses as she greets you with a warm smile. She is well-groomed in appearance and dresses simply and conservatively. I could picture her baking cookies for her grandkids more easily than in this setting. 

The RUI Program

This RUI chapter meets every Friday night. The program is somewhat of a family affair:  Ruth’s son, Jay Griffin, is the RUI pastor and director. His wife, Brenda, is the RUI secretary, and Ruth’s husband, Mike Kelly, takes care of technical support (lights, speakers, running the projector and video). As you will read, Ruth has many supporting roles within the ministry.

The meetings are from 7:00-9:30 p.m. followed by ‘happy hour’ (refreshments). In spite of the time commitment, many, including Ruth, faithfully attend every week. The program is divided into three sessions, referred to as ‘Talk, Talk, Talk’ sessions. Prior to the first session, a video is run in which RUI founder, Steve Curington, expounds upon one of the ten program principles and Psalm 1 (the program motto) is recited. 

During the first talk session, the large group talks to God in prayer and testimonies.  Participants are invited to stand up and share their victories. On one given night, a young man praises God for eight days victory over meth amphetamines, while a mother declares victory in Christ over a cocaine addiction for two years. Yet another couple rejoices in victory over credit card use for nine months. Applause follows each testimony, along with the ringing of a cowbell. Standing inconspicuously in the back of the room with the cowbell and a smile is Ruth.

Ruth observes, “It is so sweet to hear in testimonies that, ‘This is the first year I was sober during the holidays’ or, the ‘first vacation that I have taken with my family being sober.’  Wow!”

As the first session adjourns, the large group breaks up into smaller, gender-specific talking groups. Each meets with group leaders behind closed doors for more personal, confidential sharing. Ruth is a women’s small group leader. She has served in this capacity for the last three-and-a-half years.

The first order of business is to check homework and to see what challenges for the week from RUI books were completed. This is done at each participant’s own pace and motivation, and checked by peers. Awards are distributed at the end of the evening based on merit (completing challenges). Next, small group participants talk to each other, give praise reports and prayer requests, and generally support one another. This session ends with prayer. 

Ruth is well-loved by the women in her group, and her devotion to them is outstanding.  She meets with her girls in an intimate circle of chairs. Ruth guides and facilitates the meeting as a seasoned leader. She gently prods sharing from those who might otherwise not. She listens intently with genuine interest and concern to the stories, struggles, praises and prayer requests spoken, all the while keeping careful notes. She encourages, affirms, consoles and supports with words and hugs, and sometimes in laughter or tears.

One of the women in Ruth’s small group, Erica Kahl, says of Ruth, “God placed Mrs. Ruth in my life when I needed her most. I came to RU because I was struggling with a food addiction. She finds her way to every heart that is looking for hope.”  

Jay Griffin says of his mother, “Mom’s spiritual gifts are giving and mothering. Her nickname by many in the program is Mama Ruth.  She is like a mother to many. She gives endlessly of the time, gifts of encouragement, and other resources. Those that are around her know that she loves them and it gives her a unique opportunity to minister to them.”  

Ruth is relational. She adds her personal touch to leadership and goes the extra mile.  During the week, Ruth sends out an email to her small group highlighting praises and prayer requests for that week. She has a generous and serving heart. Behind the scenes, she sends cards for birthdays and encouragement, and often makes phone calls to “see how things are going.” She visits some of the woman on occasion. Even while on vacation in Florida this fall, Ruth sent everyone in the group a postcard saying she missed them. The feeling was mutual. 

I asked Ruth how she became involved in the RUI program. She said that her son, Jay Griffin, needed help running the program at his inception, five-and-a-half years ago. “He asked me if I could help out for a little while,” she says with a chuckle. In the beginning she put together the food table for refreshments at the close of the meetings, took care of secretarial duties, and played the piano. After a short time she fell in love with the program. 

Jay says, “Mom joined just because I asked her to help. God quickly knit her heart to the ministry and gave her a love for the people we were trying to reach. Mom use to be the secretary, but her love for the people and godly walk made her a group leader.”

According to Ruth, “I never in my wildest dreams thought that I could love and minister to people with drug and alcohol addictions. God sent this ministry to me.”

Ruth is no stranger to adversity in her lifetime. She has experienced firsthand the devastation of alcoholism in her own family, and the hardship to follow. Ruth’s first husband was an alcoholic and a womanizer, and, when Ruth divorced him after fourteen years of marriage, she became a single mother of four children. She is familiar with extreme hardship. Other close family members have struggled with addiction as well.  She identifies closely with the women in her group. She understands what they are going through.

Jay Griffin says of his mother, “My mom has always been a godly lady, faithful in church, and faithful in serving the Lord. My father walked out on us when I was a little boy, but that did not affect what my mom did—we still went to church every Sunday, she still served the Lord and she still desired that each one of her children do the same. She never used the life circumstance as an excuse to miss church or stop serving God.”

Ruth can attest to the goodness of God in the midst of disaster. From her own experience she can speak of victory in Christ, of all her needs being met, of an abundant, redeemed and restored life, of good things coming from dire circumstances. God can take any situation, and make it come out good in the end. She brings to the women in her small group her vast wealth of experience, strength and hope, as well as great love.

As the small groups get dismissed, they reconvene in the big blue room and find seats with the larger group for the final talk session. In this last session, there is worship (singing) and a teaching message, ending with award presentations. During this session, Ruth often plays the piano to accompany the music. This is where our story began (with Ruth playing a support role in the RUI program), but it is definitely not where her ministry ends. 

Jail Ministry

Along with Ruth’s dedicated leadership and support of the church’s RUI program, which alone is noteworthy, she has extended her service to the community outside the church:  She began going to the Clermont County Jail to serve incarcerated women about three years ago. 

It was during this time that one of the women in Ruth’s small group was incarcerated at the jail for an offense committed prior to her involvement in the church’s RUI program.  For roughly seven months Ruth visited this woman weekly at the jail, and conducted a one-on-one bible study over the phone, through the glass partition. Word spread, and this evolved into Ruth meeting individually with other inmates in the same manner. She was conducting individual bible studies every weeknight with inmates. One such inmate borrowed bible study materials from Ruth and used them within the facility. This inmate began her own bible study with a group of six women. The group quickly grew to twelve women. They met under concrete stairs within the facility.

Another inmate, Karlee Pell, began attending RUI meetings at the church after she was released from jail, and has been Ruth’s right-hand-(wo)man ever since. Karlee was an answer to one of Ruth’s prayers at the time: She asked God for her jail ministry to make a lasting difference in the life of at least one woman. Karlee has been that woman. She is very special to Ruth. 

Ruth recalls meeting Karlee: “One of the first girls that I talked with at the Clermont County Jail was Karlee.  Karlee was so anxious to get out of the life she had been living. She began doing her RU program in jail and each week when I would see her, she was just sailing through the challenges, reading her Bible and giving testimony of what God was showing her. She has been out of jail for almost two years and is a beautiful Christian young lady, serving the Lord. Her attorney and the judge are thrilled to see the difference in her life and she gives God all the glory! Praise Him!”       

This is what Karlee says about Ruth: “Ruth brought me reassurance of my salvation at this time [in jail]. We would meet once a week for an hour or so discussing the word of God and going over challenges I had completed out of the RU material. Ruth helped me to grow in Christ and develop a personal relationship with Him. Having these meetings gave me a sense of hope again. Not only was God comforting me during these hard times, but He was also working through Ruth to get me through it all. I didn't have to feel alone anymore for God is always with His children. By His grace and mercy I was released amazingly six months later. Grateful for the change of heart the judge had upon the circumstance, I was blessed to be free and able to physically be involved in RU.

“I have seen her work with so many ladies with their struggles,” Karlee says. “Ruth sees the potential in people and allows God to guide her every step. It doesn't matter the time or day she has Godly advice and scripture for whatever it may be your going through. On holidays she even has those without families to be apart of hers during their time of celebration. She loves and cares for everyone. The fruits of God’s word really are present in her day to day life.”
 
The Choice

Eventually, Ruth completed chaplain training, and she now visits the Clermont County jail weekly providing counseling and conducting bible studies with inmates. She goes weekly and brings the message of Christ’s love and hope to women behind bars. She also extends the RUI program individually within the institution. Several of the women within her small group at the church have stories of meeting Ruth while formerly incarcerated.  

Ruth genuinely cares for the women she ministers to. Often she will request prayer from her small group for women she has met in jail.  Ruth tells the story of meeting a young woman in solitary confinement at the jail. Ruth had just finished her rounds, and was completing some paperwork in preparation to leave, when the CO approached her and asked if she could talk to a woman who was suicidal. 

As Ruth approached the woman’s cell, she prayed for guidance and the right words to help her. It turned out that the woman had drug addiction problems, and this had led to poor life choices and incarceration. Her husband and friends had all abandoned her, and other inmates were harassing her. Ruth spent a generous amount of time listening and talking to the woman, and spoke to her about Jesus’ love and ability to help her. By the end of their first meeting, the woman had accepted Christ as her savior, and felt hopeful in her situation and for her future. Ruth has been meeting with her routinely at the jail, and has noted a huge change in her demeanor. She is much more animated and happy, and expectant of good things in her life.

Ruth tells me that so many of the women she encounters in jail tell her, “I never thought I’d end up here.” By and large, they are ordinary women who have made a series of bad choices in their lives. She talks to them about the paths they have chosen, and how it began with a choice: A choice to take that first drink, write a bad check, or smoke that first joint, but it starts somewhere. The choice may have seemed innocuous and inconsequential at the time, but over time the cumulative effect is bondage. 

She tells women, “It [the bad choice] looks good at the time, but Satan never showed you this outcome [incarceration].” She recalls a song sung in church that goes along these lines: Sin takes you farther than you ever expected to go; it costs you more than you ever expected to pay; and, it keeps you longer than you ever expected to stay. The good news that Ruth brings to these women is a message of hope, love and freedom in Christ to change their lives and overcome bondage in their lives.

Risky Business

Ruth has experienced both triumphs and heartbreaks within her ministry.  In loving others she has taken risks and been vulnerable. She and her husband Mike have taken in several girls to stay with them in their home. Recently, they had to evict one girl who was staying with them because of her renewed drug use. She had been staying with them and doing well for about three months, and Ruth had grown quite close to her. It was a hard, but necessary decision to finally ask her to leave, and one not done without great sorrow. The girl is now back out on the streets. Ruth still cares for her deeply and continues to pray for her.

Of the jail ministry, Ruth says, “This can be a discouraging ministry because you do get ‘jailhouse confessions.’ But I have felt if one girl found the Lord and straightened her life out—there is a great VALUE OF ONE soul. There have been many girls turn their lives around when someone told them about Jesus. I love these girls. I have a broken heart for the children involved with mommies in jail. One day when I came home and went through the list, I had talked with seven girls and these girls had a total of thirty-seven children! These children were in foster homes, or with a boyfriend of mom’s, or with a relative – but not with Mommy. If we can just show these ladies what God wants for their lives, they can determine to break this cycle. Many have told me that their own mothers showed them how to do drugs, to shoplift, or be involved in prostitution. My heart goes out to them.” 

“You never know what’s going to happen with these girls when you minister to them,” Ruth says. She loses contact with many of the women in jail once they are released, never knowing what happens to them. Occasionally, they will call her or show up at the RUI program, but this is rare.

There is more consistency within the group of women she leads in her RUI small group.  There is a core group of women who come regularly, and a rotating group of women who come sporadically. Additionally, nearly every week newcomers join the group.  Currently, her group has been bulging at the seams in their little meeting room, with attendance souring at close to twenty women.

Ruth takes a simple approach in coping with the unknowns of her ministry. She leaves it in God’s hands. She considers herself His faithful servant, doing what He has called her to do. In this way, she serves and loves, without worrying about the outcomes. She leaves the outcome of her ministry to God, in part, because she often loses contact with women she has ministered to. She considers herself a seed planter. She throws the seeds, and lets God make them grow in His time. That’s really all she has control over.

RUI Church Revival

Ruth has observed a change within her church since the RUI program was implemented:  “Our church is fairly large. It was a church where everyone looked right, talked right, and acted right. When RU started in our church, we would see students come in on Sunday morning that looked a little different. Some of them reeked of cigarette smoke, or their dress was disheveled or ultra casual. We started seeing them accept Christ, and be faithful to Him. Then they would tell their family members and friends about what Christ had done in their lives. They certainly could see a difference, too. 

“The people in our church see the needs and struggles of people with addictions,” Ruth says. They embraced them, and showed them a genuine Christ-like love. They bring food to our Friday night RU meetings, come and bring special music for us, and have helped some of those needing employment or with daily needs. One of the Sunday school classes planned a cookout for all of the RU students and their families last summer. They worked so hard, preparing food for about three hundred people and served it, and cleaned up afterward. It was wonderful! We had our RU Talk #1 there. As the RU students gave testimonies of their victories, we looked around and saw tears streaming down the faces of some of the members of the Sunday school class. Most of them had never experienced addictions that had ruined and taken lives. They had never been close to a person that was a drug addict, or even sold drugs at one time. 

“This past Christmas,” she says, “the same class gave us a wonderful Christmas banquet. RU has brought a complete change in our church members, helping them to start seeing people through the eyes of Jesus. It has brought new life into our church, and even a revival atmosphere to our services. We have learned to look at every person as a soul who needs the Lord.”

Ruth adds, “I appreciate so much that our pastor [Pastor Duttry] allowed the RU program to come to our church. He was so sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. I also am so thankful to Jay for his faithfulness every Friday night, the time put in all during the week, and for his vision for this ministry. And I am so thankful for all the workers in the RU program [roughly 25 in all]. I know it is hard to give up Friday nights, but, as Steve Curington says, ‘That’s when they get their paychecks, and hit the bars, or blow all their money in Satan’s playground; we must fill that time and keep them busy on Friday night.’”

Seasons of Change

When Ruth was a single mom of four children, she earnestly prayed that God would use her in a local missions’ field, not knowing what that might turn out to be. She told Him that she wanted to do something big for Him. Some decades later, that prayer is answered. She is in the frontlines of missions’ work, digging deep into the trenches; loving the unlovable, encouraging the downtrodden, and remembering the forgotten.

Ruth reflects on God’s timing to use her now, rather than twenty or thirty years earlier.  “Y’know, I couldn’t have done this when I was a single mom, or when I was working a fulltime job. But I can do it now in my retirement.”  There are seasons we all go through in our lives, and this is Ruth’s season to serve. 

Ruth credits the RUI program with deepening her relationship with Christ. She says that prior to her involvement in the RUI program, she always served in the church, but something was lacking. She describes being a “functioning Christian for fifty-six years”.  She was missing joy in the Christian experience. She says that the RUI program taught her how to have a relationship with Christ, and how to selflessly serve others. She wisely observes that both seem to go hand-in-hand. 

She uses a dating analogy to explain: “Before I married Michael Kelly, I knew who he was; I respected him as a teacher; he seemed like a very nice young man. When I fell in love with him, and we planned our marriage, I wanted to know all about him – his likes, dislikes; the things he enjoyed doing and places he liked to go. I wanted to know what his favorite foods were. I yearned to please him. 

“This same hunger of wanting to know my God better happened when I started the RU curriculum. I knew God and knew He was my Savior. However, I usually didn’t take time for true personal time of devotion and communion with Him. I started reading a Proverb each day, dissecting and defining scripture, using my Daily Journal format for praying, memorizing scripture through the challenges. Now that is the most important part of my day – my quiet time with God. His word has shown me so much about Him.  He is my best friend, my comforter, my peace, my advisor, my everything!”

In the future, Ruth hopes for the Clermont County Jail to implement a formal RUI group program. She also envisions a group home to help the women she encounters with their addictions and needs, to help them get on their feet. 

The RUI program has taught Ruth that we all have strongholds that need to be broken.  There’s always something to work on to help us improve our relationship with Christ, and to become more authentically the people God has designed us to be. When we love others with the same kind of love that Jesus has for us, we live purposefully and joyfully. This brings great satisfaction.

In this latter season of her life, Ruth Kelly’s service in ministry has given her vitality, and the ability to make a tangible difference in the lives of the women she touches. We can all learn from her example: God opens doors of opportunities in all seasons of our lives to make significant contributions to His kingdom. It’s up to us, like Ruth, to seize those moments, and to walk across the threshold.

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Ruth Kelly plays the piano at the Reformers Unanimous International meeting.Ruth Kelly plays the piano at the Reformers Unanimous International meeting.

Ruth Kelly plays the piano at the Reformers Unanimous International meeting.

 

RU Brochure

 

 

Ruth with her husband Mike Kelly

Ruth with her husband Mike Kelly.

 

Ruth serving during RU "Happy Hour"

Ruth serving during "Happy Hour."

 

Ruth's RU small group of women

Ruth's RU small group of women.

 

Ruth Kelly and her son Jay

Ruth Kelly and her son Jay Griffin, leader of RU Chapter 330.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ruth (center), with Karlee (left) and Tiffany (right), members of her small group

Ruth (center), with Karlee (left) and Tiffany (right), members of her small group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Literature table

Literature table at RU.

 

Ruth Kelly and Brenda Huff

Ruth Kelly and Brenda Huff.

Don't miss Brenda's video about Ruth Kelly.