If Baptists Could Have Saints

When my parents died, I kept the treasures of their beloved testaments. I also kept the German Bible that my dad was given while stationed in Germany during WWII. The book of Esther was ripped out. My dad explained that the Nazis didn’t want anyone to read the story of the Jewish people being saved from death by an uprising of their own people. I wanted to be like Queen Esther.

Perhaps it was the spirit of Esther that urged me to go to the principal’s office in the sixth grade. I told him it wasn’t fair that only boys were the crossing guards at school. Girls could do it too. The principal smiled across his huge desk and said, “No, Nancy. Only boys can be crossing guards.” I decided that the principal simply needed to see it to believe it. We girls got organized. We told the boys that if they’d give us the yellow-striped belts to wear one morning, we’d give them some Hostess Twinkies. Sure enough, it worked. We walked the children safely across the street. The principal changed his mind and girls became crossing guards too. It’s unfortunate that it did not happen as easily with women ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention.

From that experience, I learned that it does not take much to stir up trouble. I learned that if you want to get things changed, it’s best not to try to do it alone. It helps to have others join you in the struggle. Sometimes it is easier to say no to one voice in a private setting than to many voices in a public setting. I also learned that acting courageous has little to do with feeling courageous. As with faith, we step out with all the truth that is within us in spite of knocking knees.

It was the fall of my seventh grade year. I stared at the magazine photo of the young girl. We were born the same year, 1951. She had a coat with a Peter Pan collar, just like me. She had short, curly bangs, just like me. She sang in her Baptist church choir, just like me. But her skin color was not like me. A bomb had killed her and three other girls while they prepared for Sunday morning worship. Her name was Denise McNair.

I tore out her picture and stuck it between the pages of my Bible. Each night as I said my prayers, I held the picture of Denise and asked God to stop the bombs that killed young girls. Then I prayed that God would show me a way to help.

As the days passed, I added more pictures to my nightly ritual. Magazines from 1963 were stacked on our coffee tables with photos of the guns, the whips, the fire hoses, the dogs, the bombs, and the angry faces. I spread them out on my bed. I couldn’t make sense of it.

I wrote to the president of the United States, twelve pages in my best handwriting with my favorite blue cartridge ink pen. I wanted him to know that we were all created equal and God’s message of love was that we didn’t need to fight. I concluded the letter with “Mr. President, if you need any help with getting this message out, I’m available. You can reach me in Dallas, Texas.” I addressed the envelope to President Kennedy at the White House and placed it in the mailbox.

With each nightly prayer, my dreams increased. I imagined the president contacting me, pleased with my offer. I pictured myself speaking in school auditoriums, in church halls and sanctuaries, and even in stadiums, but weeks passed and no invitation arrived.

On November 22, President Kennedy visited my hometown. The television monitor in my seventh grade classroom showed the president and first lady as they walked off Air Force One and into the motorcade. A short time later we heard the wobbly voice of the principal: “Boys and girls, the president of the United States has been shot. You will all go home now.”

I joined my parents, my brothers, and my sister in our den, huddled in front of the television as we listened to the horrifying news of the assassination. We sat in silence until my mother picked up an envelope and said, “Nancy, you got a letter today. It’s from the White House.”

I ran to my room to open the letter alone and read these words:

“The president wants me to thank you for your letter. He and this Administration are dedicated to taking every necessary and proper step to end discrimination in all parts of our national life. . . . He appreciates your public spirit and concern for our national principles. . . . Your constructive leadership in this will be important, now and in the years to come.”

It was signed by Lee C. White, assistant special counsel to the president. For an impressionable twelve-year-old, the letter on that fateful day was enough to make a vow to God to be a peacemaker. And I imagined Denise McNair was my patron saint, if Baptists could have saints.

Where does a person go to become a peacemaker? Seminary seemed like a good idea.

The post originally appeared in the First Story of When God Whispered My Name: Stories of Journey Told by Baptist Women Called to Ministry.

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