One day a small, elderly woman, came into the office to speak with our minister, Jason. Ms. Zella stood about 5 foot nothing and couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. She walked slowly but proudly. Her voice was calm and gentle. Her glasses took up a good portion of her face, the other portion reserved for her beaming smile. There was not a single intimidating quality to her, she made others feel heard and loved, but there was something about her that made everyone stop in their tracks and listen.
Zella talked with Jason about Matthew 9:35-38:
35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
She simply confessed that she had never prayed for more harvesters but it was about time she start. She asked Jason if he had ever prayed that prayer. Jason simply said no but it was about time he start.
After that very simple conversation the entire culture of our church changed. Jason went about preaching on that Scripture and we used it as a rally cry. We started praying for harvesters. We looked out into our community and saw the people God was raising around us, the people who were ready to hear his Word. We picked up our tools and went to work.
Zella Boner was born July 25, 1917. Yes, that says 1917. She married Eugene Spani in 1938. She served with the Red Cross during World War II. She saw and did quite a bit during her life.
Her family attended First Christian Church of West Frankfort, Illinois. Zella liked to say she was carried to church since her first Sunday on earth; she never stopped coming. She was a faithful member, her family continuing to come to the church even after preachers changed, buildings changed, elders changed, members changed, service times changed…and changed….and changed. Zella was the one thing consistent for almost 100 years of our church’s history. She was our matriarch.
She became a school teacher, taught Sunday school and served for several years at the church secretary. She never had to shout or control her students with threats or fear. There was just something about her that made people listen and want to learn.
Even when Eugene passed away, Zella continued to serve God faithfully and found her joy in the Lord. She was a widow but her home was never empty. Zella opened up her arms to women and children who needed a safe place to stay or a hand up. She housed college students and single mothers, anyone who needed a warm bed.
Her generosity blessed more people in our little community then you could ever count. She gave and gave of her money, her time, her love, her resources, her knowledge, her energy. She would take school kids shopping for clothes and supplies. She tithed faithfully and still wrote check after check, thousands of dollars to help expand our church building and grow ministries. She gave money to mission trips, basketball programs, students going to camp, and just found ways to give to anyone who had need.
She would also have beat me if she knew I was telling the entire internet these stories. Zella’s generosity was quiet. She swore her friends to secrecy whenever they found out about her giving. No one ever knew how funds miraculously appeared, except the good Lord and Zella Spani.
She also lived her life in humble submission to God’s will. Her knees hit the floor every morning, even when those knees were 99 years old. I was personally on the receiving end of some of those prayers.
I spoke with the women of her Sunday school class to learn more about Ms. Zella and her faith. Each one of them had a story of Zella praying for them. The room was filled with tears while they remembered her love for them. Something about knowing that Zella Spani was praying for you would give you extra hope and confidence. When Zella said she would pray for you, she meant it. She would write everything down. If she heard of someone in need, she would write it down and she would pray over every name and every burden.
Ms. Zella knew her Bible too. Raised in church, teaching Sunday school, and faithfully reading Scripture for herself made her sharp. She loved God’s Word and loved sharing it with others. She never spoke in front of large crowds, she never wrote a book, or had a blog. Her platform wasn’t impressive by the world’s standards but she was consistent, she was faithful, and she taught them well. Her influence was deep and one small class at a time she fulfilled the Great Commission.
She taught students from kindergarten to high school. She coordinated Vacation Bible School and played piano. She taught a women’s Sunday school class for decades, up until a few short months before her passing. I should have been a part of that class. These women studied. They dug into God’s Word. There was no fluff, no fanciness, no gimmicks, no shiny packaged “Women’s Ministry” material-only God’s Word, taught to women by a woman. That’s leadership.
When God asked Zella for something she never said no; only obedient, brave, yeses from Zella.
Zella Spani passed away March 27, 2017, a few months shy of her 100th birthday. My imagination likes to think of Zella fretting over turning 100. She knew our church would make a big fuss about it and Zella didn’t like it when we made a big fuss over her. Maybe the Lord took her home in March so she could quit worrying about it. I also know that there is no one else she’d want to spend her birthday with than Jesus. I’m really, really, happy she gets to spend the rest of her birthdays with Jesus, even when we miss her so much.
Honoring Ms. Zella
Of course we went ahead and made a big fuss for Zella. The church had a dinner and we honored her 100th birthday. There is a beautiful picture of her hanging outside of her Sunday school room. When things get hard sometimes I hear leaders ask each other, “What would Zella say?” “What would Zella pray?” We like to honor her memory and many of us wish she was still here to provide some perspective, give some encouragement, and pray for us!
After I spoke with several people about Zella’s life I realized that I needed to honor her. Her life convicted me that my worries are small and my God is big. I realized that I wanted my life to look like Zella’s and I can say that because her life looked just like Jesus’. Not to say Zella didn’t mess up, that she wasn’t tempted and didn’t struggle, that she didn’t mourn, or fret, or get super annoyed with other people. But she did everything she could to beat down those desires of the flesh and follow Jesus. I have a lot of catching up to do.
However, the best way to honor the life and memory of Zella Spani isn’t to honor her at all; it’s to honor God. I want to be obedient. I want to hit the floor in prayer every day. I want to read Scripture and know it; know it enough to teach it boldly. I want humility. I want boldness. I want a life of worship. I want to honor God and I want to be like Jesus. I want more and more women in our faith communities living like that!
The people who make history are the ones who never set out to make history. Zella was faithful. Full stop- that’s it. She was faithful. Her life, her example, her generosity, her wisdom, her love for others changed everything. Our church culture was flipped upside down after one conversation, one challenge. Our vision changed because a sweet old lady was reading the words of Jesus and thought, “I need to be more faithful, Lord.”
There wasn’t anything about Zella that the world would see as intimidating, trail blazing, or world changing. But there was one thing about Zella that could make giants fall in front of her small, frail, frame- the Spirit of the Living God dwelling inside of her.
If there is a woman you know like Ms. Zella, let me know! Share her story in the comments. How can you be more like these women? What kind of obedience is God calling you to? How can you say yes to God? And most importantly, how can I pray for you?