Helping people serve Jesus

written by Nicole James

In high school, Mary Jo Padavoni’s friends used to call her ‘Dear Abby’ after a popular newspaper advice columnist because she always seemed to have a practical suggestion for solving their problems. “One of the things I like to do is to give to other people and help them through their journeys in life, whatever those journeys might be. If I can help, that’s great, even if it’s just to have somebody to chat with,” she explained.

As a self-proclaimed rule follower, Mary Jo said her 11-year tenure in Human Resources (HR) at the OM office in Tyrone, Georgia, has been a perfect fit, professionally and personally: “My biggest thing is wanting to help people, and the first and foremost is that I’m doing it for Christ and for His kingdom.”

That tendency to help might be why, pre-pandemic, she sometimes found it challenging to find time to accomplish all the tasks required for her current role as an HR generalist. Why? “I don’t turn people away. I want to help,” she said, as she smiled and shrugged.

Her often-revolving office door, filled by other workers wanting clarification or to chat, proved her point. “People are comfortable with me,” she said. “I won’t take your next step for you, but I’ll help you through the next step. I try not to be an enabler. I try to teach somebody something so that they can help themselves, and I think that’s appreciated.”

Helping send God’s workers

Despite her desire to help people, until a couple of years ago, Mary Jo didn’t see the direct link between her work in HR and other OM workers who share God’s love around the world with people who don’t know it. “I’m just a behind-the-scenes person. What they do doesn’t have anything to do with me,” she thought.

But when payroll for overseas workers switched to her responsibility and a new HR director arrived, her perspective shifted. “I’m helping the people that God is telling to go out,” she realized. “He has talked to every single person that comes into this office and told them: ‘This is what I want from you. This is what you’re gifted for. This is My plan for you.’ And in that way, I’m working for Him… I’m helping Him get His workers out into the field.”

For Chris Williams, the senior director of HR for OM in the US, the connection is crystal clear: “The mission of sending workers well is exercised in about every facet of Mary Jo's day,” he said. From processing funding to working with insurance brokers to answering emails, everything she does impacts people serving with and sent through the US OM office.

“Our field would not be the same without Mary Jo,” Chris continued. “She chooses to work toward excellence in the way we serve people because she believes in the mission and finds a deep responsibility to make sure that there aren't hindrances for those who say ‘yes’ to overseas missions.”

Praying for peace

Spending over a decade in HR has brought challenges, including personnel turnover, multiple restructurings and, most recently, the new coronavirus. Working from home for months because of the virus eliminated the distraction of people appearing in her office doorway, but it also increased her workload. With all-day virtual meetings and a never-ending to-do list, “I’m busier than ever,” she admitted.

“But I just have to continue to tell myself … that Christ brings me peace,” she shared. “When the whole shut-down thing started, a lot of my old before-I-found-Christ anxieties were coming back, and I felt myself drifting further away from Christ instead of closer.”

Conscious of that shift, Mary Jo started scheduling time to spend with the Lord and in prayer. “I pray before I start anything pretty much, and I have to have a conversation with Christ before I can feel comfortable and at peace with what I’m doing,” she said.

That peace she experiences in God transfers to those she serves. “Perseverance, longsuffering, worship, praise, and presence—these are some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that if you spend any length of time with Mary Jo, regardless of the circumstance, you will see how quickly she is willing to engage with you and serve you,” Chris said. “OM is better because Mary Jo serves the Lord first and the rest of us next without partiality.”

Experiencing God’s love

Growing up, Mary Jo had Jesus followers in her family who influenced her ongoing desire to serve others. “The first person to ever show me God’s love was my grandmother on my mom’s side,” she recalled. “She used to tell me that she was a friend of Jesus and I could be, too.”

Kind and generous, Mary Jo’s grandmother was “a perfect example of what a Jesus lover is,” Mary Jo explained. She lived near a railroad track and would make sandwiches for the people who illegally caught rides on the trains. “She was always one of the most genteel, sweetest people I’ve ever known,” Mary Jo said.

Her mother, too, raised by that grandma, showcased selflessness to Mary Jo. “Everything she did was for somebody else,” Mary Jo said. “If there were four pieces of bread and five of us to eat, she wouldn’t eat the bread. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of love.”

Despite these tangible examples of God’s love, Mary Jo didn’t decide to follow Christ as her Savior until she was 50 years old. Her religious upbringing, a mixture of Catholic rituals and strict Brethren rules, lacked a personal relationship with Jesus.

Not until her son attended a small start-up church’s youth group with his friend, did Mary Jo experience God for herself. “When I joined, it was 30 people. That little bitty church had meetings every weeknight at a different person’s home,” she remembered. For a while, Mary Jo went to every group except the men’s meeting. As she listened to the teaching and participated in the groups, she felt God soften her heart.

“I finally understood that praying to God isn’t having some fancy words and using Scripture addresses and all of that. It’s pouring your heart out to Him, and that’s what He wants,” she said.

Several months later, when she was chaperoning a youth retreat for the church in Saint Simons Island, Georgia, everything came together. “I found Christ that weekend by trying to help kids find Christ,” she said.

Now, when Mary Jo hears stories from around the world of how God is moving, often through small home discipleship groups, she not only prays for those seeking Christ for the first time but also resonates with their journeys. “It’s good for us, too,” she explained. “That’s how it happened for me.”

United States: OM USA HR Specialist and Field Personnel officer, Mary Jo Padovani. Photo by Adam Hagy.

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