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Former GA moderator and Presbyterian News Service chief Marj Carpenter dies at 93

She was ‘one of most powerful missionary advocates for justice that God has given to the PC(USA)’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Marj Carpenter

LOUISVILLE — Ruling Elder Marj Carpenter, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 207th General Assembly (1995), a tireless supporter and interpreter of mission and for 15 years director of the Presbyterian News Service, died Saturday in Big Spring, Texas, following a long illness. She was 93.

“In many ways, Marj Carpenter was a pioneer,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). “Having served as moderator, she was committed to meeting with churches and our ecumenical partners both domestically and abroad. As news director of the Presbyterian News Service, she shared the stories of our work and ministry to the world and set the standard for other religious journalists to follow. Her contributions to the PC(USA) will long be remembered.”

“She was a an outstanding moderator of the General Assembly, a witness without parallel to God’s call for us to be a missionary people, and one of the most powerful missionary advocates for justice that God has given to the PC(USA),” said the Rev. Dr. Cliff Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk Emeritus of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). “I give thanks to God to have shared much of this journey with Marj and rejoice that this great saint of the Church is now part of the Church Triumphant.”

“Marj was truly one of a kind. She had a true-life story for every occasion, and they all came together with an overflowing love for Christ and for this community known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” Kirkpatrick said. “We will miss Marj and the unique way that she could make the mission of Christ come alive in powerful ways.”

“From the moment Marj invited me to join her at the Presbyterian News Service in the summer of 1988, my life changed forever,” said the Rev. Jerry Van Marter, who ran the denominational news service after Carpenter retired. “No one knew or embodied the PC(USA) more than Marj and I have been blessed beyond measure by her mentorship and friendship for these 30+ years.

“She also greatly expanded my vocabulary of cuss words,” Van Marter said. “The PC(USA) will forever be in her debt.”

Carpenter was a longtime journalist before coming to work for the Presbyterian News Service. In 1962, she helped break the Billie Sol Estes oilfield scandal while reporting for the Pecos (Texas) Independent and Enterprise. During the investigation and trials that followed, she contributed reporting to Life, Time, Fortune, The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, the Associated Press and numerous Texas newspapers. Her work earned her and two colleagues a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

In the midst of reporting the scandal, Carpenter had a snake thrown at her car and her office firebombed. A number of bomb threats were phoned in.

Carpenter landed her first reporting job at age 15 with the Mercedes Enterprise. One of her early assignments was a press conference with the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Carpenter eventually interviewed seven U.S. presidents.

At age 16 she enrolled at Texas A&I University, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in music.  After marrying following the end of World War II, Carpenter taught for several years, eventually moving to Pecos. When her husband died at an early age, Carpenter quickly became a familiar sight around West Texas as she trooped around with one or all three of her children in tow.

Eventually she made her way to the Big Spring Herald, where her column “Riding Fence” was popular among locals. In 1979 she left Big Spring for Atlanta to run the news service for the Presbyterian Church in the United States, staying on in 1983 following reunion between the northern and southern churches. In all she led the newsroom operation for 16 General Assemblies and worked on the reporting staff for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches General Council in Ottawa, Canada; the World Council of Churches Assemblies in Vancouver (1984) and Canberra, Australia (1991); and the Caribbean and North American Area Council of WARC, meeting in Havana, Cuba.

The late George Cornell of the Associated Press, the dean of American religion writers, called Carpenter “the best of the religion hacks.”

She won more than 150 writing awards, including the 2007-08 David Steele Distinguished Writing Award bestowed by the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

Over the course of her work in denominational offices, which included several years doing global mission interpretation, she visited nearly 600 mission stations in 130 countries. The Rev. José Luis Casal, former director of Presbyterian World Mission, said via Facebook he has fond memories of the years when he was presbytery executive at Tres Rios Presbytery, where she was “a supporter, good friend and a real example,” even later in life.

Marj Carpenter of Big Spring, Texas, celebrates her 92nd birthday. (Contributed photo)

“During the last 10 years she used a walker and never missed a presbytery meeting,” Casal said. “Even with a walker, she came with the presbytery to Costa Rica on a mission trip. We were painting a couple of churches and she was the ‘storyteller,’ sharing stories about mission while we were working. Unforgettable! To God be the glory for her life!”

Carpenter’s two books on Presbyterian mission, “To the Ends of the Earth: Mission Stories from Around the World” and “And A Little Bit Farther,” were top sellers for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She also authored a long-running humor column for the Presbyterian Outlook.

In 1995, months after her “retirement,” she was elected moderator of the 207th General Assembly on the first ballot. “As many of you already know, I am painfully, sinfully proud of being a Presbyterian,” she told commissioners in her acceptance speech. “I am proud of being part of this wonderful, diverse, intelligent, educated, concerned and loving Christian family that we call Presbyterian.”

She is survived by two children, JimBob and Carolyn.

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