Long ago I awoke one morning to a day that in the pastoral ministry all ministers dread. Two wonderful families, independent of one another but both resolute components of our small congregation, unexpectedly experienced tragedies you would never wish upon anyone.
The first telephone call I got that morning concerned a family whose oldest adult son had been killed instantly in an automobile accident while driving to work. Being the result of a careless driver was no consolation to his parents, siblings or to his finance who was planning their wedding just a couple of months away.
Scarcely had I entered my study at the church from that critical circumstance than the ‘phone rang bearing the news that a fire of unknown origin was even that moment devouring the home of a young family - a carpenter and his wife in their early thirties and their two-year-old son.
Arriving posthaste at the home-site, it was immediately evident that nothing was salvageable except the clothing they happened to be wearing and their automobile parked sufficiently away from the blaze not to have been consumed.
Though half a century ago, I remember the tangled metal of the car that one young man had been driving and his body in the emergency room which just a few hours before had been the picture of health, as well as the distinct stench of house-fire smoke that was the remaining wispy sum total of the home the young couple had planned to live in the rest of their lives.
But mostly, I also relive the completely opposite reactions of the two families in the aftermath of their individual ordeals. Both families were the quintessential church and community leaders that pastors treasure. They were such role models for others that if one could choose them for neighbors, the property values would appreciate exponentially. Friends consulted their counsel and heeded their advice.
But while the family that was burned out of their home set out road to recovery, the other family retreated from public life, never to return to church or even go out into public venues.
I recalled the above distinctly different reactions to tragedies today, February 11, as it is the anniversary of the founding of the White Rose Mission by Victoria Earle Matthews in 1897. Matthews had been born into slavery and, of course, freed along with millions of others by the Emancipation Proclamation. Residing in New York city, she witnessed firsthand the servile limitations of employment, inadequate housing and exploitation which African-American women suffered.
But rather than succumbing to the disheartenment of such atrocities of involuntary second-class citizenship, she opted to become a social reformer. The Mission (also known as the White Rose Industrial Association) offered shelter, training, substance and even a parlor where the ladies could suitably entertain young men. A library was made available to them furnished with volumes by Africa-American women authors and regular lectures to help improve their social skills. One might rationalize Matthews’ determination to fortuity or some unknown influence, however, it really boils down to a matter of choice. Like the two families in that congregation years ago, when a person confronts what appear to be insurmountable circumstances, their willingness to stand in rectitude or collapse into vulnerability is the deciding quality. Victoria Matthews was a lady of faith.
To their misfortune, some believe that a display of faith is waiting for the Lord to create circumstances that are convenient to one’s desires. Ms. Matthew’s understanding of faith was more akin to Jose Harris’s encouragement, “Falling down is part of life - getting back up is living.”
Isaiah understood this truth when he recorded the Lord saying, “I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”
Johnny A. Phillips is a retired minister residing in Morganton and may be contacted at email@example.com.