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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Old Woman Everly, Whom We Did Not Get to See

Today as I read someone's tribute to an elderly woman who had passed away, I began to muse about Everly.  In our church, Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC, Everly eventually found and settled into her own specific roles.  It is important to remember that when we arrived at Mt. Level, we did so having left a white baptist church, where our family had to face a temporary failure in the ongoing struggle to overcome a long heritage of racial prejudice and division.

By God's grace, we had enough wisdom to know that we could not go into a black baptist church and operate on the assumptions that "we know how churches should operate."  In other words, we could not try to import our "white ways" into Mt. Level on the assumption that white baptists know more than black baptists about being a church.  So we agreed together and admitted to our new fellow church members that we were novices, learners.  Part of our own struggle had made us realize that whatever gifts we had to serve in church had been inadequate to find a path to unity in the church we had previously served.  We definitely could not claim the expertise of success.

Everly tried using her gifts at church in a number of ways.  We all know that part of her divine calling meant that she worked long hours in complex leadership and negotiation about the future of mathematics education and its availability to children of all races, ethnicities, class distinctions, and regions.  That was God's work, too.  So her  work at Mt. Level needed to complement and not conflict with her high professional calling.  Some things just did not fit.  Others did not match her abilities.  She could not get the hang of how the choir learned and sang its music.  (Insert your own joke about white people, clapping, etc., here.)  She loved the music, but clapping and moving her feet and singing--the lack of training for so many decades made this seem too much to her. 

She taught classes at several levels.  One place she landed for a few years was teaching pre-teens and middle-schoolers in Sunday School.  She helped them think about the questions they brought to the Bible and their faith.  She helped them learn to pray and care about people.  She let them know that she loved them and had high expectations for them.  For this reason, Everly always had some young people around at church who called her, or at least thought of her as "Mom."  Of course, she was a loving mom to her own progeny as well.  One of David's most important encouragements since Everly's death has been to find and look at and post the many, many pictures of himself being hugged by his mom.  That little girl who played teacher for the neighborhood kids grew to be a teacher and a mother who loved the children God gave her.

One thing she taught and encouraged these children to do was draw handmade encouragement cards for the older members of the church, the "sick and shut-in list."  They would draw flowers, landscapes, churches, and such.  They would copy or adapt pictures from their Sunday School books that had Bible scenes or Christian symbols.  They would write, "God Loves You," or "Get Well Soon," or copy words from hymns or Bible verses.  Everly would gather these colorful notes and put them in the mail to bless the lives of people who were struggling or alone.

These cards from the children were part of a bigger role Everly had taken for herself.  The group of adult women to which she officially belonged was the Adult Missionaries.  It is not strictly for women, but that was the de facto participation.  The problem with participating was it did not suit her work schedule and home duties.  So she rarely attended their regular meetings, though she participated in many of their occasional events.  But the regular task she took for herself was sending cards to the sick and shut-in.  She would buy boxes of cards with Bible verses, Christian sentiments, and various messages for birthdays, illness, sympathy, and friendship.  It was not every week, but regularly she would write notes to these people. 

Demographically, we understand that most of the older people in our society are women, whose life expectancy continues to exceed men's by about a decade.  So most of the cards were sent to women.  Although I am a minister at Mt. Level, my personality and patterns of conversation are very different from Everly's.  I often did not know the names on the sick and shut-in list.  I might have befriended some of the older adults, but I am not so good at keeping up with people.  Everly knew these women, and men, by name.  She knew their health conditions.  She knew their family members.  She knew how long since they had been able to attend church.  And she wrote them loving notes to make sure that they understood how much they mean to our church.

Probably as much as any reason that I am loved at Mt. Level is that Everly is associated with me, and that she showed so much love to these older members and their families.  If it were just Mike, few of them would ever have heard from the Broadways.  My mind does not work that way, I regret to say.  But because of Everly, the Broadways were busy caring for families and for older folks who appreciated receiving a child's drawing, a kind word, a remembrance from their church.

Everly also joined the Prayer Team, a ministry of the Missionaries.  She helped them organize their retreats and events.  At the resident mathematician, she handled the bookkeeping and received funds from people to pay for retreat expenses and such.  She learned who could afford to participate and who could not, and she made sure through her own donations and the donations she solicited from others that no one would be left out.  People came to appreciate her compassion, knowing that she would look out for those who struggled financially.

So today I read about the passing of a woman from another church.  I thought about the tribute that pastor made toward her elderly member who had died.  And I thought about what kind of "old lady" Everly would have been.  She had such sympathy and kindness toward older women.  She saw their strengths and wisdom, and she sought them out.  She learned about their adult children and the joys and struggles of being a mother across an entire life.  She met their children and learned of their love for their mothers.

When we were a very young couple, living in California where I attended seminary, Everly was befriended by Bobbi Pinson, the wife of the seminary president.  The Pinsons had known my parents when they were a young married couple, before I was born.  That friendship continued over the years, and Bill Pinson invited me to be his research assistant at the seminary.  Bobbi and Everly were a good match, even with their age difference.  One of the favorite conversations Everly had with Bobbi involved thinking about growing old.  Bobbi had been dealing with an aging relative whose struggles in life seem to have pushed her over into only seeing the bad side of things.  Having tried so hard to help this woman find some good in life, Bobbi was very frustrated.  She told Everly, "We need to practice being pleasant and not complaining now, so that when we get older, we won't be always looking at the bad side of things."  Everly often came back to that conversation and laughed about it.  She knew too well she could easily drift over into letting her fears or struggles take over her view of the world.  But she also learned to avoid falling in that pit.  And when she got tripped up, she learned to work her way out of it.

Everly demonstrated her capacity to deal with pain and struggle with grace during her time with cancer.  She rose above the consciousness of pain to think about others whom she loved.  She made sure that to the extent that she had any power to do so, her children and husband would be provided for even after she was gone.  As her friend Marsha reported, even when she was feeling so bad, she was writing Marsha a note on the anniversary of her dad's death. 

I don't mean she never talked about her pain.  Of course she did, and necessarily so.  But even though her fight against cancer became her primary work for her final year, she continued to look out for others and organize to make their lives better.  When Lydia went back to college last fall, after Everly's death, one of the things she realized that she had to face was that even when she was very sick, Everly had hopped in the car to drive to Waco to help Lydia set up her dorm or apartment and make sure she was at ease and ready for school.  We have cute pictures of Everly in her cancer cap, crashed on Lydia's bed, worn out from getting things in order to make sure her baby was set for school.  So we know that in her old age, she would have still been doing what she could to make other people's lives better and show her love to the ones God had given her.

Everly was drawn to relationships with the Mt. Level older women for various reasons.  One common remark I would hear from her is that so-and-so "is feisty" or "is spunky."  I think all of us who know Everly understand why this was attractive to her.  Everly was the definition of feisty or spunky.  She almost could not help saying what she thought, even if it might seem impolitic.  Everly believed in telling the truth and in speaking one's mind.  That is definitely the kind of old lady she would have been.

She also was drawn to women whose devotion to God had helped them make it through very painful and even devastating life events.  Although to us she was very strong, Everly often feared that she was too weak to face harsh turns of events.  She was encouraged to learn of women who had endured abuse or hardship, painful losses or betrayals, and come out able to keep on walking, keep on trusting God, keep on following Jesus.  This was her life's ambition, "I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Gal. 3:12).  Everly would have shown this same strength of character in her old age.  She would have been an old lady whose strength emanated and flowed into the lives of those around her.  Naomi has often said that she is thankful that her mother was a strong woman who surrounded her daughters with strong women.  This would not have changed with age, and her strength would have given a backbone to many a struggling soul.

Everly also loved to retell the funny stories and remarks she heard from the mouths of her older sisters.  She loved humor, and should I say she especially loved sarcastic humor?  Older women who found something to laugh about in their lives, even in the ways that age imposed its limits on them, were the ones she wanted to be around.  Everly, like these women, was proud and deserving of respect.  But she, like them, could still laugh about the way that life is going, poke fun at the powerful and self-important, and in general have a good time.  So for all of you blessed to hear Everly laugh so hard that she shed tears, and even snorted out loud, you know she would have been fun to be around as an old lady.

Further, Everly enjoyed listening to the wisdom of experience that came with knowing older women.  They were models of her future.  They had learned things she could not learn on her own.  Moreover, being a white woman among black women, there was another whole realm of wisdom she might not have learned in the ivory towers of power or among her own family.  These women had struggled with matters unheard of in the white suburbs.  So she listened and learned.  She wrote down things that were said to her and pigeon-holed them away in her ever-present sticky notes, whether hard copy or electronic. 

Senior adult Everly would have words of wisdom.  We know it is true because as the months and weeks drew her nearer to death, she started what she called "leaving messages."  Our friend Barbara Martin reminded me recently of the day last summer, July 4, when Barbara, her daughter Marsha, and her grandson Timothy all visited with Everly in Austin.  We did not know, but it was just two weeks before she would die.  Some of you realize that our three children, David, Naomi, and Lydia, are each separated in age by three years (one more result of sharing life with someone who is always planning with mathematics in mind).  It was three years after Lydia's birth that Marsha and Paul Lewis had their first and only child, Timothy.  So we always considered him the fourth in a series.  Everly's heart embraced him as hers too, and on that day she sat him down to say to him in her best way that he must know who he is and whose he is.  He must believe in the plans God has for him and pursue all the good that God has for him.  I don't know all of what she said, but she was practicing up for being a wise old woman. 

I wish, of course, that I could have known that wise, funny, feisty, strong, loving old woman.  It is not to be.  The cancer kept her from living that possible life.  But then again, I think I do know that woman.  The signs and pieces were there already for me to remember.  The examples she planned to follow were all around us.  And since she is still in us in many ways, I guess I'll get to grow old with her in one way.  She'll always be a voice in my thoughts, an embrace in my heart, a snide remark in my conversations, and a friend who would never leave me.

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