Missourians know Jean Carnahan for her contributions in the past — as First Lady of Missouri when the late Mel Carnahan served as governor and as the first woman to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.
But to a host of young people and friends, Jean is an encourager and a mender of brokenness (everything from relationships to world problems) — two constant outgrowths of strong religious faith.
“I have become a professional encourager,” she explained recently. Now at nearly 82, Carnahan believes her life’s purpose lies in the ministry of encouragement.
Her faith was born and grew out of a love for words. “The beauty of the words” first attracted her to the Bible as a youngster. “It had a profound effect on my life,” she said, adding that it still keeps her focused on God.
While her two guiding principles — encouragement and mending the world — grew over time, anyone can live by them at any life stage, Jean emphasized.
She has always looked for ways to impact those around her, regardless of her circumstances or platform, and is grateful that God put her in situations and places that afforded broader opportunities.
During the decades she and her husband lived in the Rolla, Mo., area, she taught adult Sunday School classes at First Baptist Church and participated in other activities. She also organized children’s church and started a bus ministry.
Concerned about students at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology), she created International Homemakers, a monthly meeting for women international students, to help them adapt to life in the U.S.
As First Lady of Missouri, she emphasized children’s issues. She started an annual egg hunt at Easter for disabled children. Jean called her outreach “a natural thing to do” because of her own four children.
Her faith was tested and her testimony became more public when Gov. Carnahan, son Roger “Randy” Carnahan and political aide Chris Sifford were killed in a plane crash on Oct. 16, 2000, while the governor campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat.
In a brief statement following the governor’s funeral, Jean said, “While I still ponder the mysteries of God, I do not for a moment doubt His purpose or His love for us.”
The former governor won the Senate election posthumously, and Jean was appointed to fill the post from Jan. 3, 2001, until a special election was held in November 2002. She lost her bid to retain the seat to Jim Talent.
Losing a national platform did not deter her from following her principles. In her book “The Tide Always Comes Back,” she notes the ancient Jewish teaching, tikkun olam, that Isaiah said called God’s people to make a difference.
“It means repairing the world — that is, taking responsibility for correcting the damage done by people to each other, as well as to the planet,” she wrote. “I like to think that if we can mend a moment in time, perhaps we can mend a millennium. At least, we must try.”
Jean continues “repairing the world” through face-to-face encounters and through writing. The author of seven books has tried her hand at a couple of genres, starting with a history of Missouri’s first families and her most recent, “Secrets of Dawson Mills,” a romantic comedy set in small-town Missouri in the 1970s.
Often asked what she would do if she could live her life over, she usually responds, “I would have gone to seminary or divinity school to be able to teach theology…because of the beauty and language of the Scripture. As a youngster, I always found such joy in reading…. And I always feel the presence of the Lord.”
As people grow older, they have to look for new ways to contribute to society, Jean explained. She has relied on God to show her opportunities.
She has started every morning for years with the question: “What do you have for us today, Lord?” She remains open to whatever comes — like recently meeting someone new over lunch to encourage the individual in a project and sharing on her blog about her grandson’s work to dig water wells in an emerging nation.
Jean makes a point to encourage others to become encouragers themselves, regardless of age. “Don’t stop. Keep going as long as you can. Be an encourager…and look for purpose every morning,” she said.
“There are all kinds of opportunities out there — just look for them.”