May 06, 2024 8:13 PM

52 Faces: An odyssey of faith

Posted May 06, 2024 8:13 PM
Photo by John Lovretta
Photo by John Lovretta

By William Smith

Rev. JudyAnn Morse is the epitome of a “cool” pastor.

Her parishioners love Morse for her kindness, motivation, and practical sensibilities. But not all of them know about her motorcycle trips across the country. Or the years she spent as a literal clown, entertaining children under the name of Sonshine.

Her life is not easily encapsulated. She wouldn’t want it to be.

“I’m proud of my life,” she said.

At 83 years old, Morse leads weekly services at St. Paul United Church of Christ and Biggsville Presbyterian Church, alternating between the two every week. The Biggsville church reminds her of the country church she attended as a child.

“I love both congregations,” she said.

Morse talks about God as a necessity in her life. She wouldn’t have survived the death of one of her sons without her faith.

“I hear people say, ‘I don’t need God.’ And I’m going, really? How do you survive without God?” she said. “God is more important to some people than to others. I need a daily relationship with God to live my life the way I want to live it.”

Adopted By God

Morse published a book of devotionals in 2020 — a lifetime project cobbled together from devotionals she had been saving her entire career. She is currently working on another.

The root of Morse’s faith was planted by her father. She was adopted at two days old, and her parents adopted another baby from the same woman before that. While many adopted half-siblings grow up estranged, Morse grew up with her half-brother from the start of their lives.

“We lived in Geneseo, Ill., when I was in kindergarten, and that’s when I really came to know that Jesus was someone very important,” she said.

Morse literally cut her teeth on the church pew and accepted Christ at the age of six. Morse held down several jobs as she got older, including at the former hospital (Burlington Medical Center). She didn’t plan on becoming a pastor but was already writing devotionals.

“One day I was sitting outside waiting for Dad to come pick me up because I didn’t have a driver’s license. And I was sitting there looking around, and I thought, ‘You know, I should be setting some life goals,’ because I was 17. And I said, my first goal is going to be to write a book of devotions. That was in 1962,” she said.

Morse got married a year later and became a missionary in Kodiak, Alaska. But it took some convincing from God to make that trip.

“I said, ‘Oh no, God, I don’t want to go there,” Morse said.

Adopting Brothers

Morse laughs about her hubris now. She was certain she was willing to do anything God asked her to do. Until he actually did.

“In 1966, we got the letter from the home mission board saying, ‘We have two positions open as house parents in Kodiak, Alaska,  we want you to leave in January of ‘67,” Morse said.

Morse hates cold weather, and in the months leading up to the trip, she swore she wasn’t going.

“My husband kept saying, ‘We’re going.’ I said, ‘I’m not going. You can go, but I’m staying here,’” she said.

But then she got a “God sign” at the end of the blockbuster movie “The Ten Commandments.”

“The last screen said For me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ And I thought, okay, God, I got it,” Morse said.

They were only in Alaska for a year, and the stay forever altered their lives. As house parents, they had fallen in love with two Alaska boys they were watching over. Their father was a crab fisherman, and couldn’t raise the boys himself. He willingly signed them over so they could have a better life.

“We brought them back, and three months later I had a baby,” she said. “So we had three sons in less than a year. We had a four-year-old, a three-year-old, and a newborn. So life got really busy.”

Riding God’s Highways

Morse didn’t buy a Honda 650 motorcycle because it was cool. She bought one because it was practical.

“My parents lived in Oshkosh, Wis., and their health was deteriorating, and I wanted to go up there. And I could ride from here to Oshkosh and back for $12 worth of gas,” she said.

What started as a convenience quickly became a hobby. She moved up from a Honda 400 to a 650 for long road trips and ended up riding just about everywhere. She put 56,000 miles on the two bikes combined.

“I rode across Canada. I rode to Gatlinburg, Tenn., two or three times,” she said. “I loved riding through the Smoky Mountains. That was probably the highlight.”

After about three years of riding, Morse attended motorcycle courses. That also became a family affair.

“My youngest son Richard, we got him a bike, and he had to go through class to get his license. Since I was going there anyway, I told him I was going to go through class too. And he said, ‘Just don’t sit next to me,’” Morse said with a laugh.

She learned a lot in that class, but the lesson that always stayed with her was “never cross the center line.” If you do, the accident becomes your fault, and not the other driver’s fault.

Morse utilized that lesson in her one and only motorcycle accident.

“My light was green, so I came through. And this guy in the Lincoln Continental just backed right out, and I knew he was going to hit me. I knew it,” she said.

But Morse never crossed the center line. She tucked her legs like she was taught and came away injury-free, minus a few scrapes.

The bike was worse for the wear and never felt balanced after the accident. The crash soured Morse on riding anyhow.

“I haven’t ridden since 1991, and now I wouldn’t ride, because I see so many people in their cars texting and driving,” she said.

Clowning for the Lord

In 1988, Morse started a clown company. She was the star and in demand far beyond the First United Church of Christ. Morse was the pastor there for 18 years before retiring from full-time service.

“It was supposed to only be a one-Sunday thing. I needed a program for the back-to-Sunday school breakfast. And so I prayed and prayed and prayed,” she said. “I was actually riding my motorcycle, and I thought, I’ll just be a clown. I’ll write this little skit, and I’ll be a clown.”

Morse began as a non-verbal clown but then ditched the white gloves and became a talking clown.

“Within a week, I had five churches call and say, we heard about you being a clown. Can you come to do it at our church? So I started doing Sunday mornings and banquets, and that kind of stuff.”

It was another case of a practical solution transforming into a new passion. Morse adored her life as a clown. She did it from 1988 through 2001.

“Then I got Bell’s palsy, and my mouth got messed up. So the clown makeup just didn’t work anymore,” she said.

Recently, Morse brought back her clown for a program she calls “From a Pastor to Clown.” It’s a Sunday worship like any other, except Morse puts on white face paint and her floppy clown suit.

Instead of clowning around, Morse talks about the spiritual significance of wiping the soil from your life, which is emulated by wiping away her normal makeup. She then starts to apply her clown makeup, which equates to putting on the countenance of Christ.

Clad in an oversized coat the entire time, she takes it off to reveal the clown suit underneath.

Donkey Walks

Morse stopped working after the birth of her youngest son so she could take care of her children. When he entered kindergarten, Morse re-entered the workforce. She worked at the American Baptist Assembly in Green Lake, Wis., for 14 years.

“Then our marriage fractured, and I moved on to Burlington. And I’ve been here ever since. That was 1978,” Morse said.

Morse was offered the job as the Christian Education Director at First United Church of Christ but thought she was unqualified because she was an American Baptist.

“The pastor said, ‘We won’t hold that against you,’” Morse said with a grin.

Morse got the job right away and continued in that position for eight years. She retired and became a pulpit supply pastor — a spare pastor who can fill in at any church when needed. 

“Meanwhile, I was working as a data processor for a vending company here in town,” she said.

Morse later remarried, and in 2001, she lost one of her adopted sons. It was a traumatic time for her and her family. But she had to keep moving on.

In 2002, she got a call from First United Church of Christ again. They wanted her to come to work full-time as the head pastor.

“So I did a three-year study course put on by the United Church of Christ called Center Learn, which meant that every six weeks, I was driving from here to the church camp in Tama, spending Friday and Saturday in classes. I would get home about 11 o’clock Saturday night and was at the pulpit Sunday morning. I was licensed right away in 2002 so I could do the sacraments,” she said.

At the age of 57, she became an ordained minister. 

“My dad said, ‘I always knew you would become a pastor. I just didn’t think it would take this long,” Morse said.

Her father never pushed her to be a pastor. He let God figure that one out.

“Dad was my mentor, my friend, my confidant. He’d kick me in the knees when I started sloughing off, and yet he was the best cheering section I’ve ever had,” Morse said. 

After becoming pastor, Morse started the donkey walk-up Snake Alley on Palm Sunday. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. It became a church tradition that still carries on today.

Morse retired after 18 years and found her new home — minus the administrative duties — at St. Paul United Church of Christ three years ago.

For 65 years, her father never stopped preaching until Alzheimer’s took it away from him. Morse possesses the same tenacity.

“It’s exciting to see how God is working because we’re hearing so much in the press about God is dead, and churches are dying, and people don’t want to go to church anymore,” Morse said “Yes, these are very small congregations. But the people are here because they want to be.”

As long as there are butts in the pews, Morse will always have hope.

“I find it thrilling that God isn’t dead. God is alive,” she said.