Right at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, Maureen Lowliss found herself living an extraordinary life as she neared age 50, even if she likes to downplay it.
Sure, the mosquito netting took some getting used to, she says. She wasn’t in a mud hut “most of the time,” she says.
But it was in Africa that Lowliss, a lay missionary, found herself in need of a ministry.
Around that same time on the complete opposite side of the globe in sunny Mesa, Ariz., Sherri Wetter, then in her early 20s, had her future laid out right in front of her.
The path was clear. She would become a paramedic.
She tells this story as she sits wearing a white, military-style button down shirt, with red patches on her shoulders and a blue skirt. This is not the uniform of a paramedic.
“This is not what I wanted to do,” Wetter said, with a laugh, sitting in a second floor conference room of Turlock’s Salvation Army building.
Despite her life’s ambition to become a paramedic, Wetter is now Lt. Wetter, a newly commissioned officer in the Salvation Army. In her first day in her new assignment, her first post out as a commissioned officer, Wetter takes a minute to look back at a life that could have been, a life that she wanted so badly.
“But God told me no, and I just followed him,” Wetter, now 27, said.
Sitting by her side is Lowliss, a 51-year-old Cadet, finding Turlock a bit different from Africa. But when she was looking for a ministry back in Tanzania, it was the Salvation Army she found.
Lowliss, born in Vermont and a 20-year resident of San Jose, became a soldier in, “One of the tiny little corps,” in Africa and became enamored with the church.
It wasn’t just preaching, it was practical. It was more than just a church. It was doing social work and spreading the gospel by acting out the Bible’s teachings.
“Most of the people you meet (in the Salvation Army) got a call from the Lord,” Lowliss said. “For me, God’s vision for me was to be here in the Army.”
There was just one sticking point: Lowliss was already a few years past 45. Who would consider her a likely candidate for a second career — with two years of mandatory training — when retirement age was less than 20 years away?
Then she got the good news. While 45 years of age is normally the cut off point, as long as you are willing to commit 10 years to the Salvation Army you can still become an officer.
Her barrier to joining the Salvation Army just suddenly disappeared. She didn’t see it as a coincidence.
Wetter tells a story of a similar blockade that she thought might bar her from a post at the Salvation Army.
Her parents were Salvation Army officers, growing up in Vacaville and wherever their marching orders took them.
According to Salvation Army Major Ken Hood, there’s an old axiom in the church. One-third of officers’ children follow their parents into the role of officer. One-third will continue to attend the church, but don’t take any leadership roles. And the final third will, quite frankly, never be near a Salvation Army church again as soon as they have anything to say about their religious life.
Wetter was never quite sure where she fit in.
While you wouldn’t be able to tell it now, Wetter was a shy person in her early 20s. Going in front of people scared her. Preaching to a room of teenagers? Terrifying. There was no way she could follow in her parents’ footsteps.
But Wetter received an opportunity to serve as youth pastor for the Salvation Army church in Grass Valley. It was there, and in her later schooling, that God showed her she could confront her fears, that she could become a leader of men.
“God shows you over and over again that God called you, and he’s going to equip you,” Wetter said.
Wetter now says that children and young adults are her specialty, but as she vigorously shakes a set of Yahtzee dice to get to know a few senior citizens it seems clear that she’d now be at ease in any social situation.
Alongside God, Wetter credits the Salvation Army College for Officer Training at Crestmont in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., for her transformation. During her two years in the seminary-like school — required of any Salvation Army officer — Wetter saw the transformation undergone by all of the school’s students, recovering addicts alongside natural-born ministers, all learning how to best spread the word of God.
Wetter completed her formal education on June 17, the date she was commissioned as an officer. She had no idea she’d be going to work in Turlock until that day. Nor did Turlock have any idea she was on her way.
But now, Wetter, who admits having heard of Turlock due to her time in Vacaville but couldn’t recall having visited the town before beginning work here, is here for the long haul. Or at least until the next marching orders come in.
“It’s as permanent as the Salvation Army gets,” Hood said.
Having made a lifetime commitment to become one of the 3,500 Salvation Army officers in the United States, Wetter will now likely serve the Salvation Army — one way or another — until retirement at age 66.
At the moment, however, Wetter and Lowliss — whose stay in Turlock will only last until August as an internship of sorts between her first and second years of school — are still working on getting their feet wet in their new post.
Lowliss is already a touch concerned about the Bible study course she is teaching tonight — a class on the Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-13 — while Wetter finds herself doing, “what they ask me to do.”
And that task, doing whatever it is that the church — and God — asks her to do, is something she wouldn’t trade to be the best paramedic in the world.
“One minute you could be preaching in church and the next minute you can be serving someone food, and all of it is loving people as Jesus loved us,” Wetter said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.