Women in Ministry Profiles
Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries/PW seeks to lift up and celebrate women throughout the church. In this section, you’ll meet women who are leaders within the church, women who seek to share their love of Jesus Christ with others. Be a witness to their faith journeys, share their inspiring stories with others, and tell us about women in ministry whom you feel are a positive example for us all.
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A story of Presbyterian faith, service, and love
By Jessica Reid
Vera Swann (center in green) with her family and church members
In India in 1952, it wasn’t easy to be a Christian. But for missionary Vera Swann, who spent 12 years there, it was a time and a place that led to a deepening of her own Presbyterian faith.
“When you see certain people accepting Christ despite a terrible cost, you grow. Many of those who became Christians did so knowing their families would denounce them. I can’t imagine that pain.”
Vera Swann is the matriarch of a family of Presbyterian women and men who believe in the inherent value of education, faithfulness to God, and service to others. The family has five PhDs among them, and Vera earned a master’s degree in social services at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., one of the racial ethnic universities related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Vera met her husband, Darius Swann, while earning her degree. Dr. Swann was the first Presbyterian African American missionary to serve in China. Vera shared his love of mission work, and the two were sent to India shortly after they wed in 1952.
It was in India that Vera started an elementary school based on Gandhi’s philosophies and worked to support new Christians who found themselves alone.
“They were ostracized,” she said. “They gave up everything, but they gained a new community of people, Christians who cared for them.”
The lesson of service to others was not lost on Vera Swann’s daughter and niece.
“Serving in the church came naturally because of my family’s involvement. And witnessing my mother’s faith and service to others also steered my career choices,” Dr. Edith Swann, Vera’s daughter, said. “I received my PhD in nursing and worked in neonatal care, then with infants who had HIV, and later with adults who were diagnosed with HIV.”
“All my life I’ve talked about the example of my aunt and uncle in India,” Dr. Madeline Swann, Vera’s niece, told us. “They were there helping others. They were serving God.”
Edith now works for the National Institutes of Health and is focused on HIV vaccine research; Madeline recently retired after serving as an Army civilian, working in suicide prevention for the last five years of her career.
“I love to see these young people really succeed in getting out of the mold that contained us,” Vera told us. “I love to see their faith in action.”
Both Edith and Madeline attend Sargent Memorial Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and are active in their faith community. “Our church is good about welcoming all people and then helping them to identify their gifts,” Madeline said. “There is something for everyone.”
“It is one of the things I love about the Presbyterian Church,” Edith added. “We celebrate diversity. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the Committee on Representation in my presbytery. We look at the demographic makeup of our presbytery, of [racial ethnic people] and of women, and at how we can become more diverse and [meet] the needs of all.”
Taking on the status quo and ensuring others are treated fairly is not new to the family. Vera Swann and her husband played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, as did Vera’s grandfather, Warren Poe, who was also Presbyterian. Poe was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Cheraw, S.C.
“He always told me that I didn’t need money if I ran into trouble. He’d say, ‘You can turn to the NAACP,’ ” Vera recalled.
In the mid-1960s that moment arrived. Having returned from India, the Swanns filed suit when their six-year-old son, James, was denied admission to a school on the basis of race. The NAACP paid the legal costs for Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which became a landmark Supreme Court case for desegregation and one Vera said her family had no choice but to pursue.
“My kids had grown up in India. We never taught them that they were different from anyone else. We had hoped to preserve that, so we decided to file the suit.”
The case opened the way for using busing as a means for desegregating public schools throughout the South.
It was that passion for fairness, justice, and equality that Vera carried with her into her work as staff with Presbyterian Women. She joined the group prior to the church coming together in Louisville, Ky., and worked with PW until 1993. During that time, she advocated for the needs of women in other countries and was also involved in the formation of the Committee of Women of Color (CWC). She is also the former moderator of National Black Presbyterian Women (NBPW) and helped plan the Lucy Craft Laney luncheon at the national meeting of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus for many years. The luncheon, sponsored by NBPW, honors the witness and service of African American women.
Edith said about her mother, “She taught me the fundamentals of service, being fair, nonjudgmental, and accepting of all people—for their race, culture, or any other difference. We learned to think from another perspective.”
Vera believes that lifting up and supporting new generations is where Presbyterians should now focus their energies—especially for women.
“We need to look at how to help women in the workforce get involved in the church,” she said.
Vera’s granddaughter Jamie, a freshman in high school, is the next generation of Swanns motivated by the stories of her family’s faith and service. “Just sitting here and listening, I didn’t know all my grandmother and my family have done. It makes me want to be on top with them,” Jamie said. “I want to do the best that I can. I’m going to college and want to major in psychology and maybe be a teacher.”
The three older women gave a cheer as Jamie spoke. “It’s good that you’re going to college,” Madeline, Jamie’s aunt, said. “Shoot for a PhD. We have five in the family now. We could use a sixth.”
It’s clear the Swann family believes in supporting one another through their faith. Vera now attends Burke Presbyterian Church in Lake Ridge, Va., and had this last pearl of wisdom she wanted us to share with readers.
“There was a story told in our church that was meant for the children. It was about two friends named Sunshine and Rain,” Vera said. “The two were fighting about who was better and more important, so God sent them to separate corners. It wasn’t long before Rain caused a flood and Sunshine scorched the earth.
“When God asked them what they learned during their time apart, Sunshine and Rain replied that ‘we need each other.’ It’s that simple:
we all need each other and should support one another—no matter