Jo Potter, 76, describes how God’s hand in her life – both the highs and the lows – taught her to have no fear for the future
I was born in Park Royal, West London, in 1947. My parents were both believers, my father an insurance manager, my mother a housewife and ex-professional dressmaker. We moved house many times because of my father’s work, but my childhood was secure and loving. I became a Christian myself in 1961, in response to the gospel message at church. (I’d been told to “open my heart to Jesus” when I was six, but said to my mum that my heart didn’t have a door.)
A couple of scriptures were influential in those early days: Proverbs 3:5–6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Psalm 37: “Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (v4) and “Commit your way to the Lord, trust in him” (v5). I determined to put these commands into practice as I considered my choices and my future. I had no idea as to a career at that point; I just loved learning – especially about the Bible and its history.
Early working life
My youthful ambition of a London flat and a sports car were supplanted by only wanting God’s will in my life. I taught Sunday school, became its secretary and co-edited and wrote for the church magazine. I scraped into Leeds University (grades suffered from busy church life and watching TV dramas) and met two wise people who became lifelong friends. I co-founded a Christian student magazine and helped lead services in local churches. In my first year I did phonetics and Portuguese as I believed God wanted me to be a missionary in Brazil. I found out I just needed to be willing to be willing; my path didn’t have to lead to there!
There were two teachers in my extended family and I was always expected to be a teacher too, I don’t know why. Maybe because I was always reading? But I fancied a career in religious broadcasting.
With a degree in theology and English language and still not wanting to teach, I worked in a bookshop. I was so bored! Walking past a tower block, I felt God whisper to me: “There’s a job in there for you.” I had no idea it was the Education Department. I walked in, was directed to the Chief Inspector’s office and was immediately offered a job teaching religious education (RE) in a girls’ secondary modern in Croydon.
After two difficult terms and not wanting to teach anymore, I did some occasional writing for Scripture Union and lived off savings. My father insisted I interview for another school, back in my old home of South-East London, and I had the happiest time teaching RE again, also becoming involved in music and drama.
I left after four years, frustrated at the lack of promotion possibilities, again intending to write. The Lord had other ideas! I passed a friend in a crowd who called out “There’s a vacancy at my school.” So came a further four exhilarating years of teaching RE in a large multi-cultural East End girls’ comprehensive.
While in London, I was involved with Reflection Christian Music and their choir, Charisma. I sang and acted in two big productions and on Radio London, was on several of their records and was part of Spree ’73 (a major Christian festival held in Earl’s Court and Wembley Arena). I continued with them until I moved to Essex.
In the comprehensive I started a couple of Christian Unions and a branch of the Association of Christian Teachers. I was head of lower school RE, rewrote the whole school RE syllabus, helped with musical performances, taught guitar and for ends-of-term wrote and directed drama/dance/music productions. I found this even more fulfilling than actual teaching!
A bewildering period
After a year in my job, by now 29, I married someone whom I’d met through mutual friends organising a youth outreach event. Then, when I was only 33 and about to sidestep into pastoral work, I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, which meant I had to give everything up.
My health stabilising, I worked part-time to pay the mortgage, teaching English to a local group of Vietnamese boat people and then RE again. Expecting to progress my career, I was expecting something else instead – the first of two beautiful daughters! Rachel was followed by Hannah two years later. Unfortunately, after 15 years together, my marriage ended in divorce. I wasn’t able to go back to work full-time, and was left with no maintenance and not even complete ownership of my house. I’m afraid I was very bitter, and God had to deal with my bitterness for years.
‘Stuck’ as a single parent on benefit in a small town in South Essex, I began volunteering. I co-founded a parliamentary constituency group, was involved with old peoples’ housing, taught Sunday school, co-led a women’s meeting and produced the church magazine. In preparing performances for church celebrations, I was able to help others gain confidence in speaking, reading, acting, singing and even dancing in public in order to serve God.
I met my second husband after a friend and I answered ‘Lonely Hearts’ adverts in our mid-40s. I had to become his carer not long after we married as he developed a severe mental health problem. We left my new home, bought somewhere close to my ageing parents, and moved to Somerset, ostensibly for treatment. My father died and I’d hardly seen him. My husband’s health deteriorated and he went into care. I became my mother’s carer when she came to live with me and my teenagers in 1998.
To sublimate my loneliness in this unfamiliar coastal town I’d started studying – psychology, interior design, business start-up, counselling skills, active listening (with a view to chaplaincy work) – but with children and then my mother gone, I needed to earn. After another chance meeting I started a business selling educational books to schools and families, but when the parent company failed, jobs went – along with all my savings. In 2004 I did a ‘return to teaching’ course. How teaching had changed – I decided I didn’t want to return. When this window closed (there being no available jobs, not even supply) I was so relieved.
A friend who knew my need felt God whisper ‘in her ear’ about a social club for older people being opened. I became manager for three wonderful years, and then the funding ended. Some of us spent the next year trying to start something similar but were thwarted by lack of finance. I’d let my pension accrue so took the lump sum to tide me over. I had a couple of potentially homeless lodgers, the last one staying 18 months. He did some work on my house but unfortunately wasn’t very honest. My lump sum was soon gone on materials, tools and living expenses. Then the town chaplaincy needed a coordinator, and yet again I was the right person in the right place at the right time.
I’d moved house five times in four years before God gave me my forever home. I was single for ten years. Although I was lonely romantically, I was never alone. Coming back to an empty house I’d imagine Jesus welcoming me home. Peace became contentment, which bubbled up into joy.
I began to wonder: “Would or should I ever marry again?” Christian dating websites have narrow age-groupings, until you’re 60+ and then there’s no upper limit. I wasn’t ready for the pipe and slippers brigade, and older men only seemed to want a housekeeper/carer. I told the Lord I’d forget my shopping list of desirable attributes and have anyone – or nobody. But “take delight in the Lord”, and he changes the desires of your heart to his desires for you.
Someone online (who did fulfil my list!) only wanted friendship, but when we began socialising with others, for five years we kept being told how comfortable we seemed together. At which we would jump apart! But finally we didn’t, and Derek and I married in 2012.
Mostly my ‘guidance’ has been doing what seems the obvious thing to do. Trusting God was all I had for many years
In 2016 I had a massive bilateral ‘saddle’ pulmonary embolism. God whispered to me in the ambulance that I wasn’t going to die, but three doctors expected differently! This miracle was a strong wake-up call about the rest of my life. Two years later God gave me a vision for a modern mystery play acted along the seafront. It took two years to write and we were a month or so into rehearsals when COVID struck. The play is now waiting for when God says “Go” (or not!).
I have been passionate about singing and acting the gospel since my first play at 17. Ageing has returned me to my passion for the written word. Now is the time to finish all the many stories, articles, poetry and plays that need polishing. In 1993 I’d started a semi-fictionalised memoir about my Aunty Connie. Constance and Me was completed in 2023!
The Lord has directed my paths, when I’ve let him. Several times I’ve literally heard his voice, usually in crises such as in the ambulance. Back when studying theology, one starry night I was believing in Jesus but not understanding about God. His ‘voice’ hit me in the solar plexus – “I AM”. I’ve had no doubts since then! But mostly my ‘guidance’ has been doing what seems the obvious thing to do. Trusting him was all I had for many years. When outside pressures were tipping my second husband over the edge he begged me to keep hanging on to my faith by my fingertips as he was hanging on to my ankles.
I used to cling to the past as my present was so awful and the future looked so grim. Now my present is very blessed. I have no fear for the future, because I know who holds it – and that’s enough!
To find out more about Jo and her book Constance and Me, visit: Jo Buchanan Hay – Author