Today, we want to introduce you to Reverend Marie Mainard-O’Connell. She is the Interim Pastor for Adult Education at Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. She is married with three children, and has made her home in Little Rock for many years. Her life and ministry have been quite full! There’s no way all of her experiences could fit in this short blog post!
Born in Springdale, then growing up in Carrollton, Texas, she did not come from a particularly religious family, but did attend church with a friend throughout her childhood. She had a curious mind and a hunger for knowledge. “I was the kind of kid who would ask a lot of questions…I remember being kicked out of a Sunday School class—as a guest—for asking questions!” After church, she would go home and devour the Bible to learn more. “I was intrigued! I thought the person of Jesus as I found Him in Scripture to be amazing and fascinating, but I did not see Him in the churches that I was being brought to. The older I got, the more suspicious I became of that disconnect.”
Something “clicked” in her soul after discovering the book of Song of Songs as a teenager. “I encountered for the first time a God that loved me exactly as I was, saw me as beautiful and desirable.” This opened up a whole new world for her. “I have a very clear memory of being like, ‘Okay, THAT’S Jesus. He can have me!’” Through Song of Songs, she saw God less as a distant father-figure and more as a loving companion. She saw a God that would say, “The world is really terrible and people can’t save themselves. I am going to join them in that…” She believes this is where God is with us today. “He is with us in the suffering…alongside us.”
When she graduated high school, she moved to Conway to study at Hendrix College. She earned a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a minor in Religion, and went on to earn her master’s degree in College Administration at the University of Central Arkansas. She met and married her husband during this time, and they joined First Presbyterian Church in Conway. This was her first encounter with a female pastor, and it sparked an interest in studying theology. Her husband had an opportunity to study at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, so they moved there for three years. During that time, their family grew, and she was able to do some work at MBC working with college students. This inspired her to finish studying theology, and eventually, she ended up at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey with the goal of becoming a college chaplain. “Recognizing for myself and for others joy—that deep sense of peace, belonging and happiness—also as a community—has become perhaps one of the more foundational aspects of my ministry.” During part of this time, she was a full-time hospital chaplain. She loved being able to really be with people in their suffering, and this reinforced her belief that God joins us in our suffering, too.
Another area of interest and experience has been human trafficking ministry. After spending some time working in South Africa, she gained an understanding of Apartheid, which led to a better understanding of racism and labor trafficking. While serving at one congregation, she was able to participate in an immigration ministry, and learned about labor trafficking in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. At the beginning of this ministry, there were around 20 people who showed interest in a work visa program. When they actually started having meetings and programs, more than 200 people showed up! “I had no idea what I was doing!” she exclaims. Someone named Jean ended up helping her, and when she left this program, Jean was able to get 150 people work visas and their families were able to come here to be reunited with them. She continues, “Now they are in the process of getting green cards or becoming citizens…and it was all because we very foolishly were like, ‘let’s just say YES!’” She and her husband even rented out an extra space in their home to a few of them. And this was all while she was pregnant with her second son/early season of having multiple children!
Motherhood has played a large part in her ministry. “I remember I was in labor during one of my ordination exams…I had to put my pencil down every few minutes!” When she gave birth to her son, she was able to take six weeks off, but went right back to work after that. She was a breastfeeding mother, so her baby son came with her often. He was even part of a few immigration ministry meetings. “We would be…arguing about Indonesian Christians who had been caught up in post-9/11 [policies]…and I’m holding a baby this whole time!” Picture a mother of a newborn with a nursing cover on discussing immigration policy in a high-security facility. THIS is a great picture of a woman in ministry. She adds, “My ministry is in a large part based on the relationships God has already given to me…my marriage does come first, and then my children, and then my ministry….when I can hold these priorities in place, everything works.” We also discussed how this should be the priority for everyone, not just women. But it’s women who can teach us this, if we’ll let them. We all need to put the family first. She says, “That is never the wrong choice.”
In 2012, her husband was offered a wonderful job at a school here in Little Rock, so their young family moved here. Marie took a job working as a chaplain for Occupy Little Rock. It was very important to her to keep this movement peaceful. She was also able to work with people who had different political agendas than she did. One thing she learned through all of this that she has taken with her is, “How we disagree matters….a lot of our problems in church and in society now are that we have forgotten how to disagree in healthy ways…how to have a healthy fight…how to agree and disagree and how to compromise.” She remembers a time getting in between two guys who were arguing in the middle of a meeting and saying, “You cannot do this right now. Step back. Do you want ME to do something about it? Remember…I’m here because I love you…I’m here because I think it matters! I have a baby at home and I’ve got no flips to give!” They got the point.
Following her time serving Occupy, she ministered at several Little Rock-area congregations before landing at Second Presbyterian Church. She is also in the very beginning stages of starting a ministry centering on families of LGBTQ+ individuals. She explains more, “What I’ve recognized is a need in the Central Arkansas area for a safe space for these parents…to work through some of their stuff together.” The goal is for them to bond and be able to learn from each other, so that they will better be able to support their children. Based on the ministry journey she has traveled so far, we’re excited to see where this goes!
A special thank you to Reverend Mainard-O’Connell, for sharing her faith and leading her community and family well!
A Benediction for Those Who Ask “Too Many” Questions:
You see another eye roll from your teacher or classmates or coworkers
A predictable response of “go ask your parents”
Or “just have faith”
Or “because God said so”
Or “stop dividing The Church”
Sweet Child, it’s not answers you’re really looking for
You just want others to join you in a dance of curiosity
Because curiosity is the fuel for learning
And you know more than most of us that if we cease learning, we cease living
May your open curiosity be a loving spark of LIFE to all you encounter.
-Written by Katie Mitchell