I moved to Russell County, Virginia in 1989. I was fresh out of seminary and excited to be out of school and assigned to a two-point circuit in the real world. I was relieved when I found out I was going to be assigned to a place in southwestern Virginia, as I had felt a particular calling to the area while in College. The hills and mountains felt like home and the green pastures and clear streams fed something deep within my soul.
So I found myself getting to know my church members. I was pretty meticulous going through the church roll and trying to find people whose membership was listed there but who had not shown up yet. I found one of those to be an elderly woman named Maggie. She lived in a house by the side of the main road between Claypool Hill and Lebanon. Her house was on the side of a hill, and from her picture window in the living room she could watch the traffic go by. That is, she could watch the traffic if she could see better. Her eyes were deteriorating, and her vision wasn’t great. But she enjoyed sitting in the sunlight and waiting to see if anyone was coming to see her.
It was in this context that my little VW drove up her driveway one day. I had asked some folks in the church about her. One of her sons had a garden in my back yard, and we had talked about her. I think he had asked me to go see her. I got out of the car and went through the front gate of the yard and bounded up the steps to the front porch.
After introductions, Mrs Maggie began talking. She informed me that no pastor had ever come to see her. And she told me some interesting stories from her life. She had raised a house full of young’uns. Their family had worked on farms around Belfast. The children were put to labor as soon as they could work, helping with the crops, working hay and tobacco, and rounding up cattle. As her children grew up they moved to places to seek work away from the farms, as the pay there wasn’t much.
One son had gone up north to work in the auto factories. Word reached Mrs Maggie that he was sick and she was worried to death about him. So she made plans to go see about him. At the time her husband was working on a particular farm where they lived and she went by night to ask the farm owner if they could spare some money to let her go see about her son. She told me the lady of the house threw a dollar out the window at her. She took it and bought a train ticket. With only some change left she arrived in the big city, not really knowing how she was going to find her son.
Her testimony of the kindness of strangers, people of African American heritage (not her words), was moving. She had found more care and concern in the big city than she felt she had received in the county of her birth.
But her words weren’t bitter. She held herself with dignity and continued telling her tales of her life to me. After a while I had to bring the conversation to a close and offered prayer and went on my way. But I kept coming back to Mrs Maggie’s house. Her hospitality and need to talk kept drawing me.
One day I learned of her being in the hospital at nearby Richlands. Her children were known for their deep love for her, and some in the community had noticed that there was a particular way they talked about her that bespoke that love. “Preacher,” the voice on the phone said, “Mother is at the hospital.” The way the speaker said “Mother” was noticeable. They continued: “And she wanted me to ask you for a special favor.” I was glad to do whatever I could for Mrs. Maggie.
“Preacher, she’d like to be baptized. Can you do that?” My mind went to how to do something like that in the hospital, but I was glad to do it, so I answered in the affirmative and collected some things and headed that way. I stopped at a store and bought some bread and grape juice too. I was going to double up on sacramental worship if I could.
I arrived to find Mrs. Maggie accompanied by her daughter, her son-in-law, and a couple of her sons. I visited with her for a few moments to find out how she was doing. She didn’t think she was going to make it and wanted to make a profession of faith and be baptized. I fixed a bowl of water and even put together my chalice with communion supplies. I read some scripture about the goodness of God. Then I walked her informally through our baptism ritual, hearing her answer to the examination questions. I cupped water with my hand and sprinkled it on her head. She teared up. I said the words of the ritual: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Her children said, “Amen.” I asked them to lay a hand on her as we invoked the Holy Spirit to work within her, that she might become a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Then we had communion.
What happened that day in the hospital was an act of inclusion. Many times Mrs. Maggie had told me of ways she had felt excluded, and even unwelcome by some in the community, especially those who had more that she had. That day she was included in the gracious community of faith, and surrounded by some of her own family who dearly loved her.
Mrs. Maggie lived through that hospital stay and returned home. I remember being invited to her house for a home-cooked meal not long after that. She worked for weeks to get that together. At 91, and mostly blind, she couldn’t do much of it anymore, but her children helped her and she fed the preacher. This was her way of thanking God for including her in the kingdom. I knew when I entered her house for this meal, it wasn’t about serving my needs, it was about allowing her to show thanksgiving to God.
She was thrilled the day I came and told her that I was going to get married. I brought my fiance to come see her and meet her. Her son was attending my fiance’s church, and so she felt she had a special connection to her. I spoke up and asked her, since Tammie’s grandparents had died, if she wouldn’t be willing to be Tammie’s honorary grandparent the day of our wedding. She took that responsibility as seriously as if Tammie was her own. And she attended our wedding.