Hershel and Janetta Hill

They have many wonderful life stories to tell, but none more vibrant than those about their current ministry. Every Monday for the past 18 years, they have been visiting patients in the oncology unit at Obici Hospital in Suffolk, Virginia, about ten miles from their home. It is a ministry that brings extra sparkle to their eyes and voices.

Hershel usually goes immediately to the ward to be with the patients, sometimes offering prayer, but always being present in love. Janetta begins her visit by seeing to the family facilities—children’s toys, kitchen, refrigerator, and waiting room. She then spends time either with family members or with Hershel and the patients. Hershel says, “We do no ‘hands-on’ [patient care] work. Many times, there is nobody there for a patient; just to have somebody come in and let them know you care means a lot to them.” They bring special empathy to their ministry—Hershel is a six-year cancer survivor, and both his and Janetta’s fathers battled the disease.

While she and Hershel had no special training for this work when they began, Janetta has developed a philosophy of caregiving and has become a trainer of volunteers who visit the ill and dying. She says, “The older I get, the less I know except the thing that really matters is loving.”

Hershel was born and grew up on a farm in Central Indiana. He has always been a Quaker, as were his parents and ancestors, including John Woolman. His early years were spent going to a quiet, unprogrammed rural meeting. He recalls, “I was a teenager when we moved our membership to the programmed meeting in town [Westfield, Indiana]. But I have always felt the quietness of the unprogrammed meeting gave me a background which has helped me in various Quaker and other settings.”

During his teen years, he went to the Quaker youth camp, enjoying it but not experiencing anything dramatic. But one “Sunday morning I had a serious feeling that something was changing. I was on the farm—with farm equipment and hogs I was pretty well fixed up—when I began to feel like the Lord wanted me to become a minister. To make sure of the leading, I had about 50 head of hogs, and I told the Lord, ‘if You want me to go into the ministry, You take care of these things.’ Monday morning, a man came and bought me out! So I hearkened! It made me really sure!”

It was at Cleveland Bible Institute (a Quaker school, now Malone College) that Janetta and Hershel met. She grew up in north central Pennsylvania, where her German ancestors had settled into the lumbering business. She attended what is now a United Methodist church and was active as a youngster and teenager. Her pastor had heard of the Quaker college and encouraged her to attend there, which she did. When she and Hershel fell in love and eventually decided to marry, she felt that she had found her spiritual home among Quakers.

About her youthful church experiences, she recalls, “I had both frightening and good experiences. As a child I was frightened by preaching about the second coming—’you may wake up some morning to find your mommy and daddy gone.’ In the dark of night, I would crawl downstairs to make sure my parents were still there.” The good experiences were primarily of the programs for which she memorized and presented material. She has always had a bit of the actress in her. As Hershel notes, “She does a mighty good program, becoming one of the characters in the Bible, like Zacchaeus’ wife or the mother of the blind man. She makes a play of it.”

After the Hills were married, they pastored various Friends meetings in Indiana. Then they moved to North Carolina, through the urging of Fred Carter, who asked them to come with him when he became superintendent of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM). A strong motivation was Hershel’s severe hay fever, which gave him few deep breaths in Indiana for a significant portion of every year; hay fever has not troubled him in North Carolina.

Over the years of their ministry, they have developed and experienced their own way of making decisions, of following leadings. Hershel says, “My philosophy has been if a door closes, there will be another one and I just sort of trust the Lord—’If you don’t want me here, where do you want me?'” Janetta comments, “It’s part of our Quakerism. We don’t have to wait for our priest or preacher to tell us what is ours to do. The leadings come, and we follow, we obey.”

Their experiences as a pastoral team have been many and varied. At one point, Hershel served three years as superintendent of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, during which he traveled to Kenya, which he found “interesting. A different language and culture, yet unity in their Quaker understandings and spiritual beliefs.” Living in a parsonage had its joys and frustrations, especially for Janetta, but they have dealt with it in good spirits, affirming that “We have always found good people wherever we’ve been, although,” Hershel adds, “you always find one or two . . . !” They own their home now, which they were able to purchase when Hershel’s parents died and the farm was sold. Parsonage or per-sonal home, however, their lives are ministry.

Hershel also canes chairs and has some beautiful examples of his handiwork in his own home. They enjoy playing table games, a passion each inherited from their families. When asked what keeps them excited they both said “friendship with people,” and Janetta adds, “a hug!”

Their spiritual disciplines include having “our devotional thought at the breakfast table, and prayer, fellowship with people.” They go to meeting regularly, although “once in a while we visit an 87-year-old lady in a retirement home on Sunday. But we try to be at Bethel (Va.) Meeting the first and third Sundays.” Hershel also participates in “a local ministers’ group of eight—four white and four black. I appreciate the ministers’ group, a real fine group.”

When asked to name some Quakers who had been influential in their lives, they noted several—Elton Trueblood, for his books; Seth and Mary Edith Hinshaw, for their good Quaker material; Ruth Day, for her help in inspiring and teaching Sunday School teachers in their meetings, and Fred Carter for his spiritual and vocational support.

I have known the Hills for 20 years, and it seems that they really have found the secret of growing younger! Perhaps it should be mentioned that they are both in their mid-80s and have been married for 63 years. Their family includes two grown children who live in different parts of the country, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. While they keep a large garden and do all of their own cooking, yard, and house work, they also spend a great deal of time caring for their spiritual family near and far.

Truly they are Quaker ministers, reaching out to live out their faith in strong, quiet, and caring ways.

© 2001 Kara Newell

Kara Newell

Kara Newell retired as executive director of AFSC early in 2000. She is a member of Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Oregon.