One Lord, One People

As I often say, I especially love All Saints Day because with grateful hearts we receive the blessings of God through the lives of so many who have built us up.  These are the ones who’ve helped us to thrive.  Or like my 11th grade English teacher Mrs. Reiner who did her darnedest on my behalf.

George Regas called these folks his “balcony people” — those living and those who cheer us on from beyond the grave.  They urge us to pull out our best stuff.  They instill confidence and expect that we will strive always to do the honorable thing.  Even when the cost is high.  These are the people who have invested in us.  Because of them we are far better than we might have been, left to our own devices.  These are the Saints of God, a few of whom I want to highlight.

In short, the Saints are those who have brought us along with them that we might thrive.  Their victories are our victories.  They are testimony to the basic truth:  We are all One.

You’ve known them – a parent or other family member who believed in you.  A teacher or maybe a scout leader.  It might have been a neighbor down the street.  Or someone at work.

I want to mention Ruth Jean Simmons.  Ruth, born in 1945, grew up in a Black East Texas sharecropping family.  The last of twelve, the baby of the family.  She not only rose far beyond what life expected of her, but returned that gift to her many students later on.[1]

Her family’s house — actually, “shack,” — in Daly, not much more than a wide spot in the road, had no running water, the only heat being provided by the woodburning stove in the kitchen.

She worked in the cotton fields, beginning at the age of six.  The work was backbreaking and consumed most of her waking days and those of her other family members.  Restricted to purchasing at the company store on the farm, families would sink further and further into debt.

This is what life had laid out for Ruth Jean Simmons.  Her foreseeable future, until she would die.  A life of unending toil, dwelling in a land of ignorance and Jim Crow racism.

Her hope for something better came from her church and the hymns they sang.  They resonated with the promise of something better than endless toil and hardship.

Recitations were one activity young Ruth delighted in.  The passages she memorized for this activity, especially the verses about the Passion and Resurrection embodied hope.

“Come and see the place where he lay,” was an invitation to the imagination to conger up a time of liberation of Blacks from their earthly burdens.

“Even as a child, I understood that these passages gave hope to all of us who sought signs of change from segregation and discrimination.  When churches staged programs and gave us the opportunity to recite stories of deliverance, I understood that these performances were giving sustenance and meaning to many of the famers attending the services.”[2]

It was her Sunday school teachers that opened up the meaning of the Bible to her, and the sermons she heard.  It was the hymns which gave comfort and promise of a better future. 

These comforting hymns her mother often sang through the weekdays of her unremitting toil.  “In the Garden,” “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,” and “Jesus, keep me near the Cross,” were among her favorites.

Because she lived on a school-bus line on Highway 19 after the family moved to Latexo and truancy laws were more strictly enforced, Ruth, unlike her siblings, regularly attended school.

There she encountered one teacher who would set her on the path to an unimaginable future: Miss Ida Mae Henderson.

“Accustomed to my family calling me ‘you ole big-eyed girl!’ I found it remarkable that this woman greeted me with ‘Hello, precious!’ or ‘good morning, baby!’  By telling me that I was valued and speaking to me in this way, she invited me into a world of mystery and magic.”[3]

Ruth remembers the classroom as something special, from the brilliant lighting that was unaffordable in her home to the order of all the desks in a neat row.  More importantly, she had her own desk, her own private space just for her.  And laid out on that desk were all the materials to begin her education.  The whole setup indicated that something very important was to happen here.  This room seemed like magic to a child coming from a house where there was not enough furniture for everyone to have a place to sit.

She recounts, “Everything seemed possible with Miss Ida Mae.”  From that teacher Ruth received the first praise she had known as a child. “Her words made me feel like a unique person rather than an appendage to my family.”[4]

Much later in life Ruth Simmons would be invited back to the little community of Grapeland, the home of that first school.  The invitation came from one of the prominent white churches, a church that back in the day allowed no Blacks in Sunday worship.  This for a program held in her honor.

And up came a very frail Miss Ida Mae.  “I was overwhelmed to see this woman who had set me on the path to a career in education.  She had introduced me to the simple premise that the life and exercise of the mind bestowed enormous power and promise.  She provided me a beacon that guided me toward achievement through education.”

“She was the incarnation of all that it means to be a teacher, a mentor, a guide.  Ever hopeful about what human beings can achieve through learning.”[5]

Saints Alive!  If you were fortunate, you also remember a teacher like Miss Ida Mae Henderson.  Or you had a mother like Ruth’s who sacrificed to make sure you had the basic necessities for school.  But more than that, a mother who taught you discernment.  Ruth, as a young girl, would aspire to “be able, like Mama, to be as observant or as discerning.”

Years later at a ceremony at Harvard, where she had earned her PhD in Romance Languages and Literature, Ruth sat on the stage listening to the encomiums lauding her accomplishments as president of Smith College and later Brown University — the first Black woman to have ever reached this pinnacle of academic achievement, wondering how on earth she got there.  “How did I end up here?”

There she sat, musing about the “improbability of the moment.”   It was through a life’s journey graced with saints galore who sped her along the way.  Saints who had paved the way through their own accomplishments and perseverance, and then given back.

As I sat in Decker Auditorium on All Saints Day as we at Pilgrim Place celebrated the lives of those saints in our midst who are now no longer with us in body, gratitude welled up in my soul as candles were processed up the aisle for those who had nurtured us along the way.  My old ethics professor Joe Hough, an iconoclastic hero who taught me community organizing.  Dean Freudenberger, an agricultural missionary in Africa who returned to teach those skills at my seminary.  Saints galore flooded my being as tears flooded my eyes.

We celebrate those family and friends who have been part of our common life here at St. Francis.  Testifying that we all are One, in the benevolent embrace of one Lord.  Amen.

[1] Ruth J. Simmons, Up Home: One Girl’s Journey (New York: Random House, 2023).

[2] Op.cit., 43.

[3] Op.cit, 68

[4] Op. Cit., 69.

[5] Op.cit. 72.

November 5, 2023
All Saints Sunday

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 22:15-22

“One Lord, One People”

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