April 10, 2000

Who heals the healer?
Prominent Austin pastor comes
to terms with wife's death

___By Janet Wilson
___Austin American-Statesman
___AUSTIN--Gerald Mann flew halfway around the world to stand under an expansive African sky and gaze at the Southern Cross.
TWO MONTHS after his wife's death, Gerald Mann is back at his office at Riverbend Church in Austin, where a pencil drawing of Lois Mann is always in sight. (Photo by Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman)
___It was a pilgrimage of sorts. The last time he'd seen the constellation, he and his wife, Lois, had pointed to the stars, saying, "There's Cynthia, and that one's Stacey, and there's J.J.," and on and on until every child and every grandchild had been named.
___Then, standing arm-in-arm beneath the heavens, they thanked God for their family and the wonderful life they shared.
___This time Mann stood alone. And wept openly.
___Several weeks earlier, Lois, his wife of 42 years, died from complications after a series of heart surgeries. The pastor of Riverbend Church in Austin, who had counseled thousands of people through tragedies and loss, had always thought he knew what his bereaved parishioners were feeling.
___But three weeks after Lois died at age 60, Mann told his congregation he was sorry.
___"I thought I knew what it was like to lose a mate because I had been with so many people who had," Mann told his audience that day. "I didn't understand. It's one of those things you have to experience to really understand what it is like."
___He returned to Africa last month because it is a place Lois loved. Now, as he begins to build a life without her, he's finding some answers are more difficult to come by. He is a healer in need of healing.
___"Lois and I had a favorite saying that we batted back and forth," said a subdued Mann, sitting in his office surrounded by memorabilia of their life together. "I would say, 'Everything will be all right.' And she'd say, 'Or, it won't. But we'll get through it."
___Lois Mann grew up near Hemphill in East Texas in a house without electricity or running water. Later her family moved to a small town near Houston where she was a popular high school student. Lois was a cheerleader smitten with a young running back named Gerald Mann.
___The two became sweethearts, and in 1958 they married.
___Mann, who was more familiar in those days with "playing football and drinking in bars and raising hell," had married a devout Christian. Just three months after their wedding, on Easter Sunday, he was sitting on a church pew next to Lois.
___"I was there mainly to appease my wife," he remembered.
___But it would prove to be a life-changing experience. Gerald Mann felt called to the ministry that day. With Lois by his side, he graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and ultimately built Riverbend Church, which has 10,000 members and an international ministry. Throughout it all, Lois shunned the spotlight for a supporting role as the "pastor's pastor," the one who counseled Mann through trying times, always there to soothe his soul.
___"They were good for one another," said Gordon Smith, Riverbend's minister of pastoral care. "They really complemented each other with their different temperaments."
___As his career took off and there were more demands on his time, Lois had less time with her husband. That's why she loved their trips to Africa so much.
___"She used to say I had an eight-track mind and when we were in Africa was the only time she could get all eight tracks," said Mann, 62. "Even though I know she never felt slighted, I'm suffering from a lot of guilt now about the times I could have spent with her but didn't."
___It took a while before Mann could bring himself to say Lois was dead. It wasn't the big things he missed, not the exotic trips or dinners with dignitaries, but the talks they shared each day. For weeks after the funeral, he would drive home and, as he approached the house, push the button to open the garage door and see her car parked inside. For just a moment, he would think she was home. Then his excitement would be dashed as he realized she wasn't.
___When he could no longer stand seeing her car, he sold it. Now when the garage door opens, he is hurt because the stall is empty.
___Knowing how deeply he was grieving, his family and friends encouraged him to accept an invitation from a professional hunter in Zimbabwe. The hunter and his wife, who had been friends of the Manns for 20 years, urged Mann to return to Africa on a healing mission.
___He decided to go.
___"I thought of Lois almost every day, and great waves of sadness would come over me, especially at sunset," Mann said of his time in Africa. "I returned to the pulpit too soon after her death. I'm glad I took this extra time off."
___Smith said the trip "was really good medicine for him."
___"When he was at the office, he was busy and tended to delay his grief work," Smith said. "Over there, he had time to focus on it. It gave him the chance to let it sink in."
___Even sorrow has its lessons, and Mann says what he has learned will help him minister to others.
___There is no "one-size-fits-all grief process," he said. "Grief is as individual as people."
___People should accept that guilt and blame are par for the course, Mann advised, but shouldn't give into those feelings.
___"Do whatever you have to do to get through it," he said. "Even be angry at God if you need to. Letting go of your grief is the toughest thing you'll do. The hardest thing to accept is that you can let go of the grief without letting go of the person you loved."
___Smith said he knows life is lonely for Mann now.
___"You never recover because that's a lifelong process," Smith said. "But he will heal up, where the pain is not as acute as it is now. He will get the spring back in his step, and life will look good again."
___Mann hasn't lost his zeal for work. "There's much more to be done at Riverbend," he said.
___He also has a teenager to consider. Lois and Gerald Mann, with the help of the girl's father, had been raising their oldest granddaughter, 13-year-old Jessica Manney. She is one of the four grandchildren.
___"Having her with me keeps me focused on the future and not the past," he said.
___And his church family has been every vigilant.
___When he returned from Africa, Mann was overwhelmed by the stacks and stacks of cards and letters from around the world, notes from people whose lives Lois had touched as well as those expressing sorrow over her death.
___It was an unexpected outpouring of support and love.
___"I have never in my life felt like the 'beloved pastor,'" Mann said. "That's not anyone else's fault, but my own bad stuff. I've always been a dreamer and rainbow chaser.
___"Now, for the first time, I feel loved in a way I never have before."
___© 2000, Austin American-Statesman. Reprinted by permission.

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