DALLAS—In pursuing a United Methodist seminary education, the Rev. Ella Luna faced so many trials—some of them matters of life and death—that friends began to compare her to a certain Old Testament character.
They meant well, but that too became a trial.
“People would mention Job to me and I would just want to wring their necks,” she said.
Ms. Luna never faltered in taking what she calls “the long way around” to realizing a childhood dream. On May 12, at age 43, she received her master of divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology.
“Many of us were rejoicing to see her walk across the stage,” said the Rev. Jeannie Trevino-Teddlie, director of Perkins’ Mexican American program.
The ongoing anxiety about the future of the United Methodist Church subsides a bit this time of year as stories emerge of remarkable seminary graduates, bent on a career in ministry.
At Perkins, Ms. Luna is example number one.
She grew up as Ella Leal in Austin, the eighth of nine children. Her father was a plumber. Her mother worked in a school cafeteria. Neither finished high school.
They were a Methodist family. Ms. Luna recalls that at age eight, visiting the San Antonio zoo, she saw some nuns walk by and told her father she wanted to be one.
“My Dad looked at me and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Well, why not?’ He said, ‘Well, for starters, there are no nuns in the Methodist church.’ I remember being heartbroken, sobbing for days.”
Ms. Luna’s hopes for a Christian vocation rebounded when she attended a Methodist youth camp and met the Rev. Minerva Carcaño.
That was the first time she’d encountered a female pastor. Ms. Carcaño—now Bishop Carcaño of the Desert Southwest Conference—became her pen pal and mentor.
“I remember a sense of joy about her, and a sense of determination,” Bishop Carcaño said by phone.
From her, Ms. Luna learned the names of all the United Methodist seminaries.
“She actually gave me a list of them, and I remember at 14 years old calling every single one, a long-distance call, and asking for a catalog,” she said. “Even before I got out of high school, I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m going to Perkins. I will end up there somehow.’”
There were many detours. Knowing she would need to work her way through college, she entered trade school and became a dental assistant. She found she liked the work and stuck with it for years, during which she married Tony Luna and settled in Dallas.
In 1999, the dentist she worked for told her he was selling his practice. She got a strong offer from another practice.
But the call to church work had persisted.
“I went to the doctors and said, ‘You know what. This looks great, but I can’t do it,’” she recalled. “I know I’m supposed to go into ministry and there are some things I need to do to get that done.”
With her husband’s support, she began taking undergraduate classes at Southern Methodist University and working at Perkins, which is part of SMU. She had her first child, A.J., in that period, and got her undergraduate degree from the University of Phoenix in 2004, three days after the birth of her second son, Diego.
Diego was born with focal cortical dysplasia, a brain malformation that causes seizures. Ms. Luna herself soon was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Despite the challenges, she enrolled at Perkins, took a social work job with Dallas County Youth Advocates, and even worked part time at a church in Sherman, Texas.
Then in 2008, her husband was found to have stage four colon cancer. Expected to live four weeks, he lived a year and a day.
“It was a struggle,” she said. “I was working full time, and I had the church part time. I had my two kids. My husband was dying of cancer for a year, and I was going to school.”
Ms. Luna recalls that people packed Perkins Chapel for her husband’s memorial service, and many there had helped the family during his illness, providing meals, doing yard work, taking the boys to Scout meetings, and more.
“Complete communities which I was tied to, or not so tied to, just jumped in and were the church,” she said.
After her husband’s death, Ms. Luna continued to balance work, parenting and school, as well as dealing with her son’s and her own health issues and grief.
Diego is doing well (including making A’s at a magnet school), and Ms. Luna’s rheumatoid arthritis, while painful, is under control. But when she recently finished her final assignments at Perkins, emotions overcame her.
“I was overwhelmed at the thought of what it has taken to continue in this road,” she said.
Bishop Carcaño is among many who have followed her story.
“She came through at every level, and she did it out of this deep sense of faith that was always there, even in the low moments,” she said.
Ms. Luna is commissioned as a provisional elder of the UMC, hoping to be ordained next summer, and will continue in a job she took on in her last stretch at Perkins, serving as pastor of Casa Emanu-El UMC in Dallas.
Asked to name a Bible passage that has sustained her, Ms. Luna cited this one: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Ms. Luna said, “I think that’s such an inspirational piece, and it was written in the middle of ‘The Lamentations.’”