Martha McGougan was a preppy 20-year-old student on a visit back home from Winthrop University when she first saw Robert Horn walk into St. James Episcopal Church on James Island.
“He was wearing hog washers and had a ponytail to his waist and he had something in his back pocket, which I found out later was a half-pint of Jack Daniels,” recalls Martha. “I said to my mother, can you believe they let trash like that into church?”
Her mother proceeded to inform her that Robert, 21, then a College of Charleston student, was son of the church's canon and deserving of some respect. But, it made no difference to her, a self-described reveler whose life revolved chaotically around disconnected and, she says, “fleshy” relationships.
“I was a churchgoer then, but I was not a Christian. I wouldn't have known Jesus Christ if he had walked up to me on the street,” she says.
Robert had equal disdain for her, he says, though he was slightly further ahead in his knowledge of Jesus; so much so that when some strangers from a Christian community in Moncks Corner approached him the following year on a street corner near the college and demanded a personal profession of faith in Jesus, it was almost as if Jesus himself had asked.
“I kneeled and prayed with them right there on Coming Street and accepted the Lord,” Robert said.
Soon after, Martha had her own meeting with faith through the St. James youth director, who, one night at a family dinner, muscled her into a soul-churning conversation that forced her to peer hard into her life and realize how awry it was.
“I knew instantly that Jesus had come into my life,” she says.
Shortly after those improbable independent conversions, Martha, cigarette in hand and wearing hot pink short shorts, walked into a youth Bible study at St. James and found Robert, also on his path to salvation. They fell in love — over the Bible, she says — and together they embraced the reprieve they had been seeking unbeknownst even to themselves. They married and embarked on a journey that over four decades has made them into a spiritually compelling couple. As of this month, they are both ordained priests in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, and both are answering to the title of the Rev. Horn.
From the very start, the Horns were elevated individually and bonded to each other through a belief in God and the study of the Gospel.
“I saw Jesus through Robert,” says Martha of their youth church group days. “We were cemented through the Lord, and for both of us, he was a God of second chances. Everything was made new.”
In their case, though, the meeting with faith transcended into living redemption as some of life's toughest challenges, including loss of a child and, most recently, a shared diagnosis of cancer, came their way, testing, yet strengthening, the very core of their call to service.
“They are very faithful folks,” said St. James's current rector, the Rev. Arthur Jenkins, who has known the Horns some 20 years.
“Talk about people who have gone through trials: they have gone through trials ... and they have had to seek redemption. That is the point of the cross. That's God dying and bringing something good from it. That is redemption. It is the hallmark of Robert and Martha's life.”
After studying in the church youth group, Robert and Martha went to their respective graduations and were married. By then Robert had felt his call to the ministry, and when he entered Virginia Theological Seminary, Martha followed. She was an X-ray technician, and soon a young mother, but she ate the Gospel like sugar, she says, and she took many of the same seminars as her husband.
At one point, Robert said, “I began telling her that I saw a pastoral presence in her and that maybe God was calling her.” She shrugged it off, but the seed stayed.
Robert's first parish placement in the early 1980s was St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Summerton. The couple's impact on the parish was immediate, said Deb Embry, a parishioner there.
“It is hard to talk about how many lives they have touched and changed,” she said. “They made such a big difference for all of us and gave us such an example of how to live the Gospel.”
Embry, a palliative care and hospice nurse, was a single mother then, trying to figure out her life. She said Martha ministered to her and taught her the Gospel one on one, guiding her to the Scriptures for appropriate wisdom at every turn in her life's circumstances.
“I was 30 then, and to see someone who lived what they believed so intensely was different,” Embry said. “What struck me was the intensity and passion with which she lived it, and she has never wavered in that. It was a tremendous growing experience for me.”
In Summerton, the Horns left behind a Bible study group and a prayer group that lasted decades after they had moved on to a different church in another town. They cemented through these practices the talents Jenkins ascribes to them easily: Martha an extroverted, powerful Bible teacher; Robert a scholarly, discerning spiritual leader.
“He holds things in his head very well, and he is very good at pointing out God's place in your life. He is good at saying, this is not the problem, this is,” Jenkins said, paying him then the ultimate compliment: “A pastor is someone you go to for counsel and prayer. I would go to him.”
Eventually Robert's work as a priest took them to Georgia, Louisiana and, finally, Alabama. It was there that one night in 1999 they got a call saying their son, Joseph, had died.
Joseph, 18, a youth church leader whom Martha calls “such a little evangelist,” had taken a prescription pain killer given to him by a friend and had gone into anaphylactic shock. Martha was working at the hospital that night and she watched when they brought him in.
“It was devastating. For days I could hardly get out of the bed,” she said.
Suddenly she was terrified that the joy that had come into her life through finding God would vanish. And, she couldn't understand why God had taken this child she had raised so righteously to glorify God.
“I didn't want to teach anymore,” she said.
A few days later she understood.
“The Lord gave me two words: I want you to stop asking why and give me a how: How can this become a stepping stone toward God instead of a stumbling block?” Martha said. “God ministered to us very fiercely through this.”
Martha redoubled her work ministering to Bible study groups and women around the country, often focusing her work with other who suffered similar grief.
“After their son's death, people who had lost a child came to them and said, 'How can I get through this?' ” Jenkins said.
Robert and Martha worked hard to preserve the spiritual bond that first drew them together, not letting the grief they each felt separate them. They led prayer meetings together, retreats and healing seminars, with Martha's more visual and intuitive tone balancing and complementing Robert's more pragmatic, rational style of ministry. They drew from each other and grew, they say.
Meanwhile, Martha began opening her heart to the concept of becoming a priest herself, reconciling her calling with the Scriptures she knew so well, and shedding an unrecognized fear of failing.
Deep down she knew that priesthood is where she would be her greatest; she just needed to own that. Finally, after consulting with bishops and spiritual mentors, in 2007, she enrolled at the Trinity School for Ministry, and soon after graduation in 2010 she was ordained as a deacon.
“She is an incredible teacher and preacher, and those are good gifts for a priest to have, but she is subjective when she reaches out and the Holy Spirit speaks through her to the specific needs of the people she is addressing,” said Robert, praising her natural sensitivity.
But, as Martha puts it, God was not done. She was serving as deacon in Ridgeland and looking forward to her preparation for ordination as a priest when Robert was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma.
And just months later, in 2013, Martha was diagnosed with breast cancer. Robert recently received a stem cell transplant and seems to be moving toward remission, while Martha, whose cancer had metastasized, has been through remissions and sudden reoccurrences.
Amid chemo treatments and hospitalizations, and a couple of years behind schedule, just earlier this month she nonetheless managed to be ordained to priesthood. She is now assistant priest of St. Luke's Church in Hilton Head Island; Robert is priest in charge at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Barnwell.
Martha's ordination, at 62 and in a church where female ordination remains nontraditional, is a natural, if courageous, climax of a lifelong progression in ministering, in which life's ebbs and flows have merely served to sharpen an already steely faith, said Jenkins.
In what he calls a broken world, where bad things happen not as God's ultimate will but as a test of our spiritual mettle, the Horns walk as models of selfless endurance, and, ultimately, redemption.
“Jesus Christ was the first wounded healer,” said Jenkins, “and Robert and Martha are now acting as wounded healers.”
“With Martha and Robert it is not about 'why me?' but about how God can use what they are going through to his glory,” Embry said. “There are not enough words to say how much God has used them to make a difference. ... If they can come through with the grace they have, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.”
None of this has been easy, said Martha before yet another trip to the hospital to deal with side-effects of her chemo.
“This has not been a skipping down-Calvary kind of experience,” Martha said. She mentions chemo dates with Robert and weeks in cancer lodges.
But, she said, “God used this in our lives mightily: How to live in the midst of this? To us, it's about the continuing transformation, about God using us through whatever comes to transform.”
“These are not experiences anyone would ask for,” said Robert, “but they do not have to be destructive to one's soul. We have gone through difficult times ... but we have learned that no matter how difficult the situation is, God has never abandoned us.”
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly quoted Deb Embry when she said, "“With Martha and Robert it is not about 'why me?' but about how God can use what they are going through to his glory."