Remembering Our Friend Barb Newman

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On June 23 of this year, Barb sent us a message that began, “I heard someone say that there are times in life when you are driving on this great road and you hit a patch of black ice. All of a sudden, life seems quite out of control. That was my journey this past week.” 

Barb explained that she found out that she had cancer; the exact diagnosis was still forthcoming. Her message was full of hope, expectations about projects she planned to tackle over the summer, and a request that we find someone else to moderate a panel discussion at our CRC/RCA Disability Concerns Leadership Training event that Barb had previously agreed to lead. Less than three months later, the cancer took Barb’s life when she was 57 years old. 

The first time I (Mark) met Barb was in March 2006, for a planning meeting at Trinity CRC in Grandville, MI, to begin planning a conference on disability and ministry. Getting to know Barb, reading her books, and hearing her speak have been gifts that enriched my thinking and my life.

Since July 2006, my vocation has been serving the Christian Reformed Church as Director of Disability Concerns. I’ve read many books, heard many lectures, and had many discussions on disability, theology, and ministry, but Barb has influenced me in this area more than anyone else. I thank God for that Barb’s perspective on disability and ministry was concrete, gracious, and hopeful.

Concrete: Cans and shredded cheese, green and pink puzzle pieces, and knitting all made their way into Barb’s teaching. Wondering about shredded cheese? Churches often put ministry into cans—youth ministry, worship ministry, seniors ministry, and so on. Disability ministry, Barb said, should not be a separate can but should be like shredded cheese, sprinkled throughout all the ministries. Looking back at her email to us, it’s no surprise that it begins with a concrete example—hitting a patch of black ice. 

Barb said she was first of all a teacher, and she was a prolific and extraordinary speaker at conferences across North America. Gifted in curriculum design, education methods, and individual support and consultation, she was in demand as a keynote speaker and traveled extensively throughout the program year. When churches called us with specific requests about inclusive children’s ministry, Barb’s books were a staple we recommended to education ministry leaders and teachers, but she also made herself available for individual consulting, which I (Terry) found so impressive and helpful. However, Barb also was in demand in more academic and theological circles that explored intersections of faith and disability. Although she claimed not to be a theologian, she made a deep and lasting impact as a featured presenter at conferences hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Institute on Theology and Disability. They and so many others share our grief and our tremendous appreciation for Barb’s wide-ranging work.

Gracious: Barb saw the best in every individual no matter their ability or disability. She taught that when kids exhibit challenging behaviors, they are not so much misbehaving as communicating, and a good teacher will listen carefully to that communication and respond appropriately. Instead of displaying frustration about churches not engaging with people who have disabilities, Barb’s gentle and gracious spirit encouraged church leaders to see what she already saw: God working through every person. Healthy churches, she said, will design their worship and every ministry so that everyone can engage fully

Barb was relational, attentive, and impressionable. She connected easily with people, was fully present, and had a remarkable gift of recall. Mark and Barb successfully nominated me (Terry) for the Henri J. Nouwen Award in 2020, which was presented in a virtual ceremony on June 4—weeks before her diagnosis. Two nights earlier, the three of us met at my church in Holland MI for the photo attached to this post. The beautiful plaque etched with my name had been shipped to Mark’s home so he could present it to me. And, knowing my appreciation for craft beer, Barb surprised me with an assorted six pack of really good beer. The next day I unpacked the box full of bubble wrap that Mark had received, but there was no plaque inside. After searching all over and checking with my spouse, I frantically reached out to Mark and Barb that evening. The next morning Barb texted me, saying that she and her husband Barry had driven to downtown Holland at 5 a.m. and found the plaque, where Barb had recalled noticing how perfectly it blended with the church steps while we were packing up. Barb was a self-proclaimed lover of words, but she also was a person of thoughtful and timely deeds who went out of her way to assist others.

Hopeful: After Barb’s diagnosis, my wife Bev and I (Mark) went to Barb and Barry’s home to express our love and support. By then Barb knew that she had tumors in her brain, her lungs, and elsewhere but still did not have a name for the cancer. Barb looked squarely at the sobering reality of multiple tumors with a deep and rich hope rooted in her faith that God remains in control and would stay with her and her family. Barb had the same hope about God’s people, the church. That hope kept her traveling throughout the year, writing books, teaching at a Christian school, guiding the development of Together Small Groups, and leading the church services division of All Belong

As hopeful, positive, and trusting as her expressions of faith were, they were also biblically informed and theologically grounded. Ten days before her death, Barry posted this six-minute video on Facebook that includes Barb’s reflections on her own mortality and specifically Philippians 1:21ff (near the 4:00 mark). 

When we published the second edition of the Inclusion Handbook, we dedicated it to another pioneer of faith and belonging, Nella Uitvlugt, who passed away suddenly from a blood clot at age 58 in March 2013. We wonder why God allowed these women to die at relatively young ages, when it seems that they could have contributed so much more had they lived. Like Barb, we will put our hope in God, trusting that God will accomplish his work as it needs to be done. Barb (and Nella) made their contributions to that work, and both served God well.  

View Barb’s obituary here.

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Thank you, Mark. Barb touched so many lives, had an amazing ministry that God will continue to bless, and will be dearly missed. Love and prayers to her family and coworkers who carry on the mission. 

Thanks Mark and Terry for your lovely tribute to Barb. She will be so deeply missed by everyone who touches the world of church, disabilities and inclusion. I found her to be delightful, hopeful and deeply caring. She and Nella taught me so much. Friendship Ministries will remain so blessed by both of these talented women.

I only met Barb once but I still remember it.  I was at a conference and was talking to her about my son and how church wasn't a good fit for him and I remember being so encouraged by her with the possibilities of what church could be for all.   She was a lovely woman who will be missed.