While I was a student at Samford University I volunteered to visit two shut-ins once a week. In some ways this would prove to be a challenge for my religious development even though I would form a relationship with each of my shut-ins. They lived in two senior high rises in downtown Birmingham.
I can remember knocking on the door of the apartment of each feeling much like I was on my first date. On my first visit it took a substantial amount of time before the door was answered. Finally, Mrs. Warner came to the door. I introduced myself and she directed me to her table where we would have many talks and I would pray with her each before I left. She would always have off brand cookies waiting for me and the television playing the Christian Broadcasting Network in the background.
We would talk about her physical pain caused by arthritis especially in her hands and because I was a fledging minister: religion. She was always quoting and referencing a television evangelist and healer who she was dedicated to. She gave monthly from her social security check a nice tithe to this evangelist and healer. If I was unfortunate and scheduled our time together at the same time her evangelist’s television show I would be ‘obliged’ to watch him with her. She often shared the mailings his ministry sent her. Usually letters asking for money. On a couple of occasions, she apologized for the lack of cookies. She would explain she had answered her evangelist’s call for more money.
She once asked me if I could heal her arthritic hands. I told her I did not have the gift of healing. She seemed a bit confused as to why I was entering the ministry if I could not heal. I had to remind her on several occasions that as a rule Southern Baptists did not believe in her evangelist’s kind of healing.
Usually after I visited Mrs. Warner I would drive to visit (Stella as she told me to call her): my other shut-in. When she opened the door the first words out of her mouth was ‘I love my Jesus’. She asked me if I did and would praise Jesus offering up prayers and scripture verses to the universe. She was more evangelical than I would ever be. Her voice was so sweet and melodious you would have thought you were at the Pearly Gates hearing the angels inside praising God.
I usually would stay for an hour with each shut-in at the first. But I stayed too long with Stella. After thirty minutes with her, Stella’s demeanor would have a transformation. Gone was the angel voice. Now her voice was lower and if I must be honest, scarier. She would start using nigger in her sentences and complain how they were taking over the city of Birmingham. I would steadily correct her and say I did not like the use of that word and try to challenge her complaints. She looked confused when I did not join in her habitual race damning. And on occasion when I would challenge her she would momentarily stop. But she could not help herself and would eventually backslide into her racist monologues. I can remember being very uncomfortable when her black caretaker was in the room and she would start carrying on with her racist talk. It was very challenging to visit her. Always the first few minutes would start about her love of Jesus and a few minutes later she would degenerate into her racist diatribe.
I knew or at least I hoped her mind was not working right. But in all other things she appeared to have her senses. I never knew if it was the disease of the mind or the disease of the heart. My visits with her became shorter and shorter. I was only staying for ten to fifteen minutes by the end of my visits. I hoped by cutting the time with her I would miss the racist talk and only hear the ‘godly’ talk.
One day when I visited Mrs. Warner she was excited. Her television evangelist was coming to the Birmingham Civic Center. Her aide was going to transport her and she was going to position herself on the front row. She was going to at last be cured of the crippling arthritis in her hands. I had never seen her in such a good mood. I was concerned that she would be disappointed but did not want to dampen her mood. When I left I told her I would be praying for her and she could tell me all about it at our next meeting.
When I returned the next week she was slow getting to the door. As I greeted her I could see she was depressed. Slowly she divulged the story to me. She did it in a hushed funeral home voice. She had wheeled herself (with the help of a nurse to a meeting of his) to the stage. Listened to his revival spirited sermon. As was his custom he began the part of the service where he picked ailing members to the stage. She waited for him to call her on stage to be healed. He stopped and looked at her as he went down the row choosing people. But to her dismay he did not direct her to line up on stage. She desperately asked one of his assistants why she was not chosen. The assistant explained she did not have a gold pin signifying a certain amount of money she had given. In other word give more money if you want to be healed.
After telling me her story, she dropped her head and I could see tears flow down her cheeks. She whispered to me I should have been giving more. She of limited income stated to me I must give more. I was angry this was not right. He was nothing but a huckster and knew nothing about Jesus. But I managed to kill my first instinct and told her that I did not believe that it is how God operates. She said he was a godly man and if that is what he said it was the gospel. I could see there was no arguing with her. I suddenly felt a huge black cloud come over me. There was nothing this man could do that would have her leave his ‘flock’. He would buy two jets, he would be accused of an affair, he would be questioned how he spent his money but she and others would still support him. They held to their faith dearly no matter how challenging it might come. Though she walked through the valley of the shadow of death without comfort she would remain loyal.
After two years of weekly visits with these two saints it was time for me to head to seminary in another city. I slowly had prepared them for this moment. The program in which I first volunteered to visit had been closed for months now. There would be nobody to come and replace me. I had mixed feelings about this. I partly felt guilty but also was a little relieved to not have the responsibility of visiting them once a week.
When I visited Stella one last next time she served me one last dose of her vitriolic racist diatribe. And before I left she prayed for me and my new home. Mrs. Warner was excited to present me with a gift. She had passed from her valley to a new mountain top in the last six months. Her evangelist was even more of a godly man than before. She brought me her gift. I opened it. It was a book entitled Six Steps to Excellence in MInistry by her evangelist. I smiled and thanked her for the book. Later as I was walking out the door for the final time I saw on her television her evangelist.