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Local woman recognized by NCC as mentor

Circles of Names recognizes the leadership gifts of women

It is the fall of 2009, and the National Council of Churches (NCC) began tracking a disturbing trend. Women’s ministries programs were being cut. Women’s desks were being eliminated in its member communions. Women in ministry were being laid off at an alarming rate.
Some pointed to the economic downturn as the cause. Others cited sexism and a lack of support for women in general. Whatever the cause, morale was sinking.
“It has been a difficult time for women in the church, but we decided not to become cynical and give up,” the Rev. Deborah DeWinter of the NCC reflected. “We wanted to celebrate the rich legacy of what women have always done in faith communities. From the beginning, it has been the women who were fundraising in their sewing circles, like the widow’s mite, in order to fund world missions. Women have always led the way and made churches work.”

Anne Hale Johnson (left), honorary chair of the Circles of Names Campaign, hosted the Washington, D.C., Circles of Names Gathering in November 2010. Next to Johnson, the Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, formerly the director of the Washington, D.C., office of the National Council of Churches, was a member of the Circles of Names steering committee. The Rev. Deborah DeWinter (right) is director of development for the NCC. At a similar event held last fall in the Twin Cities, Dorothea Burns, a member of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (ELCA) of St. Paul, received an award. Photo provided by The Circle of Names

“It has been a difficult time for women in the church, but we decided not to become cynical and give up,” the Rev. Deborah DeWinter of the NCC reflected.

The outcome was the creation of a new national campaign, The Circles of Names, to lift up the stories of women of faith who have been sources of inspiration across the country. The goal in creating the circle has been to raise much-needed financial support for women’s ministry by asking a thousand persons each to give $100 in the name of a woman who helped to shape their faith.

Local woman is recognized

In the Twin Cities, a special ceremony was held last fall honoring seven women in particular who have served as notable mentor leaders in this community. Among the recipients was Dorothea Burns, a member of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (ELCA) of St. Paul.
Burns’ nomination by the St. Paul Area Council of Churches was a natural one, explains Kristi Anderson, Director of Development. “Dorothea personifies the traits of a dynamic female leader. She is a faith-driven person and a servant leader who continues to give and give and give. She has been a major leader in the St. Paul Council of Churches. And we are just one of 15 organizations she has been involved with.”
Burns is surprised and somewhat embarrassed by the recognition. “A lot of people call me a mentor. I just look at it as working with people and helping them. I have always believed I should give of myself.”
While still a child herself, she learned what it meant to care for others. “My mother died when I was ten years old. I was one of six children, and I was given the responsibility of caring for my youngest brother. I learned early on how to take care of the needs of children.”
When a need arose for someone to sit with an elderly person across the street and provide care and conversation, Dorothea was tapped again — this time at the age of twelve.
A lifelong resident in her St. Paul neighborhood, Burns became involved early on with the Hallie Q. Brown MLK Community Center, first in a volunteer capacity and then as a staff person hired to help young children develop the necessary skills for learning in school. She went on to become a transformative leader of the center.

A lasting impact

Many of the children she mentored, now adults, have not forgotten the key role she played in their lives. As a young mother, Burns served as a Girl Scout leader and began to focus on issues related to girls and their livelihood in the community. Among the many troop members she shepherded and influenced was former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

Dorothea Burns

Burns’ successes in volunteerism and community activism have led to her selection for numerous community boards and organizational leadership roles. But through it all, she has never ceased working directly with children, helping to instill in them an understanding of their potential to be contributors to society.
Pastor James Erlandson of Redeemer Lutheran Church has known Burns for 20 years and calls her the rock of the neighborhood. “When the freeway came through St. Paul and our community was cut in half, many people had to move. Dorothea stayed in the neighborhood and solidly continued after-school programs, children care for families, and youth ministries. “
Burns reflects: “I learned at an early age to seek comfort and wisdom in the words of the Bible. I have tried to live my faith based upon the direction of Psalm 121. When people ask me about my life, I share a simple poem by Greg Anderson:
‘When we are motivated by goals that have deep meaning,
By dreams that need completion,
By pure love that needs expressing,
Then we truly live life.’”

A life well-lived indeed.
Mary Brown works in media with the Odyssey Network in New York. She is an ordained ELCA pastor and lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

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