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Finding love in the age of COVID

Major Nancy Townsend was a retired officer and had been a widow for five years when Salvation Army leaders asked her to take over the Athol, Mass., Corps, last October. It would be her third post–retirement appointment.

Nancy, 66, had never served in the Massachusetts Division during her 38–year officer career or in her previous two post–retirement stints.

I expected to just have this lovely retirement situation in this beautiful little corps in a beautiful area of our country,” Nancy says. I expected to come and love people and make sure everything was running OK at the corps administratively. I didn’t expect to actually come in the middle of a pandemic and face some of the challenges we’ve faced.”

She also didn’t expect to find love, but as she says, “Isn’t He a God of great surprises?”

A month after arriving in Athol, she attended a retreat and met a fellow retired officer named Herb Thomas. Like Nancy, he was recently widowed. The couple was soon meeting for breakfasts and lunches and got engaged April 19. The wedding is in September.

“This is a God–ordained thing,” Nancy said. “God is pretty much in this situation. It has been an amazing thing.

“Who knew I would come here and meet a truly wonderful person and God would say, ‘This is for you’ when I wasn’t even thinking about being married again? It was quite a surprise.”

Nancy’s first husband, Major William Townsend, suffered from Alzheimer’s and died five years ago, just a year into the couple’s retirement.

“I found myself at a loss,” Nancy said. “I found myself suddenly single and really not doing well. The grief was just overwhelming, and I found it hard to leave the house. I said to God, ‘You open a door for me to serve and I will do it. I will do whatever you want. Just let me serve.’ I was missing that piece so much.”

Nancy, who grew up in The Salvation Army and is a fourth–generation Salvationist, came back to serve in post–retirement appointments in Ohio and then Pennsylvania.

“I didn’t feel quite ready for retirement and I was young, not quite retirement age, so the Army really provided me with a way to sort of work out some of the things I was missing from being an active officer,” she said. “I loved being an officer and still do. It’s been a wonderful thing.”

So, when Nancy was offered the chance to go to Athol for another post-retirement hitch, she took 24 hours to pray about it, but knew she would answer the call.

“It’s lovely here and I fell in love quickly with the people and the area,” she said. “It will be hard for me to leave here when my time is done. I’ve told the Army I would be glad to stay here.”

Things were sailing along pretty smoothly until COVID–19 hit. Nancy’s first priority was to make sure people had food. Many residents were laid off or permanently lost their jobs.

“Some of them know that after this, they won’t have a job to go back to,” Nancy says. “We’re picking up the slack for them in terms of financial things to make sure that they have food. I think there’s a sense of security and comfort if they have food.”

Every weekend since March 20,The Salvation Army in Athol has provided food for 20 men staying at the Athol Area YMCA homeless shelter. With restaurants closed due to COVID–19, the men have nothing to eat and struggle to find food.

“We make sure they had breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the weekend,” she said.

Twice a week, the corps also gives out food baskets, providing enough for about eight meals. Nancy said the corps has also fed shut–ins and sometimes the local fire department with the help of local businesses such as Market Basket and Hannaford.

“Athol is really a significant place in terms of the way the community comes together—I’ve not really seen that before,” Nancy said. “This community cares about one another. People are calling all the time saying, ‘What do you need?’ or ‘What can we do for you?’ It’s extraordinary.”

Nancy said her motivation comes from “supremely loving God,” who has taken her through some rough times, such as the death of her son, Kyle, in 1998 from heart issues.

“I want to be available to Him, no matter what He has me to do,” Nancy said. “I want to do for Him because I’m grateful for what He’s given me in terms of the good things of my life, and my salvation.

“I also love the mission of the Army. I love what we as women are able to do in the Army as ordained ministers. I love that piece of it, and I do love to talk with and be with people.”

by Robert Mitchell

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