ONE SUNDAY MORNING, the Lord opened a door and pushed me into the pulpit! My husband Charles Shaw had been a pastor in the Methodist Church for thirty five years when he had a second heart attack which left him with heart damage. He had to retire from his work as a full time pastor.
About a year later, Rev. Harold Gray, District Superintendent (an Elder who helps with seeing that each church in his district has a pastor) called one Sunday morning and asked Charles if he would go to preach at a small United Methodist Church, whose preacher could not continue.
Charles, having "rested" in a pew for nearly a year, was more than happy to say "yes." He and I drove about 22 miles to the beautiful Rico United Methodist Church in Palmetto Georgia where only about a dozen members were present, not knowing whether or not they would have a preacher with them that Sunday.
Neither the Church nor the Bishop ever sought a replacement so Charles continued to pastor and preach at Rico for over a year. Attendance and membership grew with Charles as their gifted preacher and loving pastor. The First Sunday in Advent in 1986, Charles preached his last sermon, suffering a fatal heart attack three days later.
Two weeks after my husband's death, I was told the Rico congregation had made a request to the church cabinet that I be appointed as their pastor. So I stood there to preach my first sermon as a pastor only three Sundays after my husband had stood in that same pulpit to preach his last.
Even though I had been on the periphery of ministry a long time, the role of pastor was a new one! When Rev. Marion Pierson, called and asked me to take on the pastorate; First, I was surprised the people would call a woman pastor. Second, I knew I would continue in ministry in some way as long as I lived because of my strong sense of calling. (My husband an I had recognized my call to preach earlier. He had asked me to preach a couple of Sundays when he was not able) Third, this was the open door the Lord was calling me to walk through!
I learned also that the Lord does enable those whom He calls. The Lord blessed us richly as I continued to serve the Lord in that place nearly four years while I enrolled and finished seminary, (Emory's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta). I drove back and forth the 30 or so miles three days a week for three years to earn the Master of Divinity degree and enjoyed the classes and the learning opportunity. But my love and top priority was preaching and serving Christ and the people in the Rico community. (1)
The Rico United Methodist Church (photo above) is located in the beautiful open
countryside and is only a hundred yards or so from Providence Baptist Church, (photo to the right).
When I first went to Rico, I was interested to learn that the Baptist and Methodist congregations join together for worship services at least three times a year and also cooperate with each other in other ways.
For example, each has an annual homecoming and both congregations come together for the fellowship dinner after the Worship Service. They attend each others weddings and “showers” and other special services. Why so much fellowship across denominational lines? When I read the Rico Church History I found at least one answer.
In 1902 when a man by the name of Shannon gave an acre of land adjoining the new Baptist church to build the Methodist Church he said, “The Baptist and Methodists should cooperate on earth as well as in heaven.” Then in 1954 in an updated history this story is re-told with the comment, “It is said that there is no place on earth where Methodists and Baptists cooperate more than in the Rico Community.” So, at least for the old timers in the area, they took pride, perhaps even “un-Christian pride” in recounting their history of cooperation.
One of the joint ventures between this Baptist and Methodist congregation is a service at the Masonic Hall on the third Sunday of each September. I have not polled “the whole world” but I suspect there may be no other “place on earth” where Baptists and Methodists unite for a Sunday Worship Service in a Masonic Hall.
This includes the two pastors preaching in alternating years. The Masonic Lodge is equidistant from the two churches, in a triangle with the three buildings near one point on the triangle. The Masonic structure is a little nearer the Methodist than the Baptist, a fact that I understood was pleasing to some of the Baptists who considered the Masonic movement a work of the devil.
It was Sunday morning and my turn to preach. I had been a pastor less than a year and was a student in seminary. I had put all the time I could in preparation and felt it was not enough. The Baptist preacher would lead the singing and the pastoral prayer. After Sunday school both congregations walked the few yards to gather for this service. All of our Methodist people were present.
One family had even postponed a vacation to “support Ruth” in my first attempt to preach to the Baptists. We had about an equal number from each of the two congregations. They were seated in clusters in what could be described as a “theater-in-the -round.” I do not know if this arena style is typical of Masonic structures.
Rev. Glenn Dow, the Baptist minister, was seated on my left on the slightly raised stage at the wall in front of the entrance.
We were into the service and our Methodist Children’s Choir was singing. (Yes. We did have a Children's Choir and Children's Sunday School Class by this time...thanks to Pat Foster and Bobbie Edge who worked with our children on Wednesdays and Sundays, along with Judy Henderson, who with her husband Ernie had joined Rico Church, bringing their three children and also neighborhood children.)
A man came to the door of the Masonic Building and motioned. Rev. Dow went to the door. It seemed like an eternity before he returned to the platform visibly shaken. He walked to the podium and said, "I have a very sad announcement to make. I wish it could wait until after the service. But in my judgment it needs to be told now. There has been a terrible accident out on Garrett’s Ferry Road. It was Charlene Lewis (a member of Providence Baptist) and her children on the way to church. The children were rushed to Grady...Charlene is dead...it is time for prayer and they need prayer . . .we all need prayer. Let us pray.”
There were audible gasps and cries all over the building. I found myself in tears. I had met Charlene and her two young daughters just eight days earlier at a wedding shower at our Methodist church for a Baptist friend. She was young and very much alive.
The shock of sudden death is staggering. We were all reeling. My mind was in turmoil as I was bowed low listening to Dow and silently praying for the grieving congregation and for myself. What in the world could I say?
Painfully I struggled to remember some of the sermon notes folded in my Bible. Would it be appropriate?
Should I try to explain why an “all powerful" and “all loving God” would allow a young mother to be killed on the way to church? We did not know at the time that the only child of a neighbor had also been in the car and killed. A drunken man had driven his car on the wrong side of this peaceful and picturesque country road.
I do not remember Dow’s prayer. I do remember thinking he was handling it well. I had and still have great respect for this man of God. His pastoral care and concern was evident. Rev. Dow finished the prayer and sat down like a man whose sentence was served and looked expectantly toward me.
It was all too soon my turn to speak. I could not just “be with the people.” I knew if there were to be any ultimate to be spoken by a human being, for God’s sake and for ours it must be said. I was not adequate but I knew the Eternal God was with me in a powerful way.
It was not a funeral. It was a Sunday Morning Worship Service. But we were crying for Charlene and for our own humanness. I said something like this; “I met Charlene at the shower for Linda last week. I remember her as vivacious and friendly.” I turned to my right where several persons were sobbing. “I grieve with you. I am so sorry…so very sorry. I grieve for all of us in trying to understand how a loving, all powerful God would allow a young mother to be killed on the way to church.
“We know, of course, thousands of persons drove to church safely today and every Sunday drive to church without accident, but that does not make it easier today. And in our humanness, we take our safety, our life for granted. We only stop to question God when an accident or sudden death occurs.
God has given us freedom. We are in a highly mechanized, fallen world and it seems to me many persons' lives are cut short needlessly. I remember a few lines I read some time ago: “The grass withers, the flowers fade…you and I die. How I wish it were not so. How I wish things were different. But if things were different, it is entirely possible that we would not possess whatever it is...we wish would never die.” (that phrase had stood out in my reading a few days earlier and seemed important to me)
Moses wrote in Psalm 90, “A thousand years in God’s sight are but as a day when it is past and as a watch in the night.” It seems to me that measuring the length of life in the light of eternity - whether we live a hundred years or just twenty or thirty years - we have only a brief time. This is why it is so important to learn from God. The eternal God is our dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms. This is why what we do at church is of supreme importance.“
Before beginning the sermon, I also said a few things I had planned about my respect for the Baptist church and a few words about my call as a woman. Very few! When faced with the mystery of death, the disputes between denominational understanding and between the place of men and women in the church seemed insignificant. This Baptist pastor invited me to speak at his church and we had Bible studies with both churches participating. When I finished seminary and was sent to another community as a full time pastor, I had the same type of relationship with the Baptist pastor and his congregation. God bless these dear men and women of God. They may have a different understand of the Lord's call for Chrisitan women in the church but were respectful and loving.
BTW, I have observed that in churches where Christian women are not allowed to "preach," they preach and call it "Bible teaching" or "speaking" or "witnessing." In churches where women are allowed to preach, we teach the Bible and speak and witness and call it "preaching." Churches that preach that women should not preach, allow women to "witness, speak and teach" on the mission field. Hopefully we, as Christians, can continue to love and respect one another and fight our common enemy and not one another.
It has been one of the heartwarming and faith building experiences of my life to look at the message the Lord gave me during that week. I did not know what would be happening on that Sunday morning but it seemed evident the Lord did. From the opening story to the final illustration, the sermon spoke to all of us in the crisis situation in which we found ourselves that day.
Everyone stayed to complete the Celebration of Worship until the last amen of the benediction. Then they came forward in tears to put arms of love around Dow and around me and each other and to say affirming things about the service and about their faith.
1. I am not downplaying the opportunity and great privilege of attending seminary at Candler. It was a wonderful and valuable experience for me! But I was 63 years old and was not "preparing" for ministry but was already "in ministry." I would reach mandatory retirement age in 7 years. It was good preparation that I had spent years as a student of Bible, Church and Methodist history. It turned out helpful also that at Georgia State I had been certified in Gerontology.