The Rev. Margaret Ann Jessup is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
The Rev. Margaret Ann Jessup said a key reason why the greater Springfield, Illinois, community continues to support the Wooden It Be Lovely ministry is because it helps vulnerable women participate in their own healing.
The nonprofit organization, where women recovering from forms of addiction, poverty or abuse have jobs refurbishing furniture, sewing or making candles, launched at Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church, where Jessup serves as an assistant pastor, nearly 10 years ago.
In the summer of 2022, the program christened its first residential program for four single women, who also have jobs with Wooden It Be Lovely. The home includes a boutique gift shop and a rental space.
Wooden It Be Lovely's popular furniture sales have been known to attract lines of people before the doors even open and often sell out. Often featuring vibrant colors and whimsical art, Wooden It Be Lovely pieces can be seen in businesses and office spaces all over the Springfield area.
Jessup, a mother of four who gave up an oncology nursing career for the ministry, credited a monthlong internship in 2013 at Nashville’s Magdalene House/Thistle Farms, a like-minded residential facility for women, for opening her eyes to helping women in drastic situations.
“We’re able to provide grace other secular other employers can’t,” said Jessup, 60. “It's a hand up, not a handout. It’s an unfolding ministry. Every day is something new. When we have these sales and people see their work, they’re moved to tears. It’s more than the furniture that’s been transformed.”
Who paved the way for you?
The United Methodist Church (UMC) gave us initial grant money, seed money (for Wooden It Be Lovely). This congregation trusted in the vision. If it wasn't for (former Douglas Avenue UMC pastor) Rev. Julia Melgreen endorsing it, it would have never it happened. They let me follow my dream. My sister-in-law, Rev. Mary Jessup of Springfield, was ordained in the clergy when she was very young. That's when women were not embraced in ministry, so I saw her do it and that intrigued me. She made me know it was possible. She supported me when I made the leap.
What is your proudest moment?
My personal proudest moment was when my third (and youngest) daughter graduated from nursing school, and it hit me that I had three daughters, all nurses. Professionally, when UMC Bishop Frank Beard of the Great Rivers Conference blessed the new residence. That's when it became real that this dream that I had came to fruition, that we had a work program and a housing program to journey alongside women. It was kind of a holy moment.
What is your definition of courage?
I think when you keep going, when you don't know where it is that you're headed but every day you keep moving forward, even when you are fearful or unsure (that's the definition of courage). I think I see that with the women I work with, but even with starting a ministry. I said we were going to do it, but we weren't really sure how we would get to that point. We just trusted that we would.
Is there a guiding principle or mantra you tell yourself?
The saying "Love heals," I can see no matter what challenges you have, if you are loved through it by people, by situations, that it can change. It doesn't always fix everything, but it does heal. I think love truly is healing and love heals. The women (in the program) it takes them sometimes years, but when they finally feel loved in this world and appreciated, they can move forward.
Who do you look up to?
The first person I thought of was the Rev. Becca Stevens, who is the founder of Thistle Farms. She kind of paved the way for women survivors. She shares her model, her knowledge with anyone who wants it. She has such a vision that so many people have caught on to. Kristen Leslie was my professor at Eden Theological Seminary and she was the one who empowered me to think I could even model a program like that.
How do you overcome adversity?
Compared to many, I've had little adversity. I've had some grief and death, but I've had a good life. Sometimes it's hard to lead women who have had so little when you've had a nice life. When I do have adversity, you have to convince yourself can overcome whatever it is, then you have to find the right people to connect with. It's all about relationships and connections. I've learned that through this work, through nursing.
Did your nursing career help you in your present ministry?
Dealing with cancer patients, being at that critical time in people's lives, you see how you have to call on first your faith, but then other people. That was beautiful and holy work. I think working with recovering addicts, in a way, is more challenging. With oncology, there are well-defined treatments. There are specialists and there is an end, either a cure, a remission or a death. You know where you're headed usually. With drug addiction, it's just always an ever and forever. There's no roadmap. There are specialists and wonderful people doing good work in addiction, but it's every day. I've seen such strength with the women I work with. To come from living in a car and having nothing, to buying your first home, it's such courage.