We stood under grey skies, heavy and ominous with impending storm clouds. Necks were craned, eyes strained watching the flock of purple balloons rise, slowly twisting in an elaborate wind-choreographed dance, until they were carried far out of sight. Goodbye, Renée my heart whispered. I glanced over at Gordon, her husband of 57 years. How would he even begin to carry on without her after a lifetime together? Then I smiled as I remembered Renée telling how it all began. Love letters.
Renée was a fresh-faced teen, on a visit to Detroit from her hometown of Marquette, when she was introduced to Gordon. She was smitten–her Gordie was more handsome than Robert Duvall, she would always say. She returned to Marquette and they struck up what was known as a correspondence. Love letters. A concept that makes most women swoon and some men cringe. A quaint and old-fashioned notion, a forgotten art and lovely, leisurely cadence in this instantaneous digital era. Oh, they saw each other on occasion but it was through those letters that they truly began to know each other, where innocent hopes and dreams of youth were shared, enduring inside jokes first made (he always could make her laugh).
Renée treasured those letters all her days, keeping the bundle wrapped up with a silky ribbon, tucked away in a box, brought out at times to be read, smiled and sighed over. They were precious to her.
Renée and Gordon married and built a life together, a family that from five children burgeoned to many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There were shared joys and sorrows, successes and struggles. They became Christians around age 50, accepting the free gift of salvation, and reestablished their lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ. For two such practical, passionate and skilled people, giving themselves to the work of the kingdom and the service of the Savior was a ‘no-brainer’. They tirelessly ministered, worked, served, gave, taught, fed, and loved people through Church in the City in Detroit and Revival Tabernacle in Highland Park. Marching into the projects, up to crack houses, through notorious motels and dangerous streets, armed with Bibles, blankets, food and this message: Jesus cares, you are loved! With such a heart for hurting people–the downcast, broken, hungry, lost, sin-bound, homeless, addicted–it is no wonder that Renée was a fiercely loyal friend and supporter of Life Challenge Ministries.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8
Pastor Jeff Bonzelaar shared a story at Renée’s memorial about his early days as executive director of the ministry, more than 25 years ago. He had made some decisions that had taken the direction of the ministry off course. Things were starting to unravel, the city was breathing threats, and he was feeling very alone and insecure. It was at that critical juncture, a note arrived from Renée Vertin. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of one of her notes or cards well understand the hope, truth and encouragement she could impart. “Be strong and courageous…’I will never leave you or forsake you’” she wrote and his heart lifted as he absorbed words that were life to him at that moment and gave new found strength and courage. Words that were undoubtedly Spirit-led, prayed-over, perfectly-timed. That was the first of many notes Renée would write to Pastor Jeff throughout his tenure.
From that time on her life was woven in with the fabric of Life Challenge, as she prayed, shared, encouraged, and gave sacrificially. Renée knew that hope, help and healing through Jesus Christ is the only answer for men and women who struggle with life-controlling problems such as addiction and alcoholism. She believed that and lived it out, sharing the good news, through words and deeds, wherever she found herself.
Renée may have treasured her own love letters but more than that she cherished the most remarkable and perfect ‘letter’ ever written. The Word of God…the Holy Scriptures…the true story of Jesus as told from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible was daily bread and living power to her. God’s beautiful love letter to a lost and dying world.
She was wholehearted and like-minded in her belief in the mission of Life Challenge Ministries: to introduce men and women to the Lord Jesus Christ. Once they have met the Love of their life (through grace imparted and received), the most essential element is for that relationship to grow….and grow through the penultimate love letter, the Word of God. True, the growth comes also from prayer, worship, fellowship and service, all of which are integral components of our program. Yet it is the intense study and application of the scriptures that renews, frees, transforms, heals, equips and sustains the students in Life Challenge, and our sole curriculum is the Bible.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Luke 21:33
There was an empty chair at our recent Roots in Christ Gala. A chair that was supposed to have seated a strong, godly woman, most likely dressed in purple and wearing a posh hat, presiding over the table with benevolence and laughter despite her constant pain. Renée ran her race, finished her course and had gone home to be with Jesus mere days before. We sorely missed (and will miss) her presence but her legacy lives on in the transformed lives of the men and women to whom we minister. Renée invested her heart, her prayers, and her resources in Life Challenge, and we thank and honor our friend. She was a Life Challenge champion of the finest order. If she could have chosen a benediction to give, as that good and faithful servant left us to enter into the joy of her Lord, I imagine it would have been this:
“So, friends, take a firm stand, feet on the ground and head high. Keep a tight grip on what you were
taught, whether in personal conversation or by our letter. May Jesus himself and God our Father,
who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a
fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech!” 2 Thessalonians 2:15-17