P: What is your earliest recollection of church life?
J: I was born a preacher’s daughter, so I was taken to church from day one. My first memory of church was when I was just under four years old. I was standing on the seat beside my mother; I can still see the lights and how they were arranged. I was singing lustily the song that Daddy always had us sing at the close of an evening church service, “God be With You Till We Meet Again.” Another early memory was when I was five years old, and Daddy gave the invitation to at the end of the service. I got up and started to walk down the aisle. Mother told me to sit down and not make a fuss. I started to cry, and Mother thought I was sick. When she asked me why I was crying, I said, “Because you won’t let me go down and give my heart to Jesus.” I remember it as if it were yesterday. My mother very wisely said, “Of course you can.” Mother and I sat on the back row so she could spot the visitors and get to them to speak with them. For some reason on that night, we were sitting halfway down the aisle. She let me crawl over everybody to get to the aisle. When Daddy saw me coming around the corner, he was just as surprised as Mother was. When Daddy saw me, he said, “My own precious little girl has come down today to give her heart to the Lord.” I knew exactly what I was doing. I was going down to give my heart to Jesus. I was taught from day one that Jesus loved me and that I could give my heart to Him. I wasn’t thinking in terms of salvation. I guess I was thinking in terms of a relationship. When I was a teenager, I went through a period of time when I was discerning what I really believed. I needed to decide whether I believed based on what I had been taught or whether I believed in my heart. I came to realize that I believed all of this myself. I can’t remember a time when I did not love Jesus. From an infant, I was sung to and talked to about how much Jesus loved me; when I walked down that aisle, I was telling everyone just how much Jesus loved me.
My father was a Baptist preacher. He had a PhD and preached that God is love; he did not preach hellfire and damnation. He preached love. In my daddy’s first church, which was a country church, I can remember other mothers telling their children that if they didn’t behave, my daddy would “get” them. My mother would then find and hug those children and tell them that my daddy was not going to “get” them.
When I was a junior at Mars Hill Junior College, the pastor called on me to dismiss church with prayer. I had never been so shocked in my life. In those days, you didn’t ask a young person to pray out loud in church. I did pray, but everyone was dumfounded that he had called on me. Come to think of it, I had never heard a woman pray in church until I did so.
S: My earliest recollection of church is probably sitting in the little wooden kindergarten or preschool chairs in a class called the Sunbeams. The Sunbeams were the first step in our early Christian education. After Sunbeams, we went on to GA classes and beyond. Sunday School, children’s choirs and Training Union were also important in those early years. We had such loving teachers. I remember going to my Sunbeam class in particular and two grandmothers taught the class. As we entered, Mrs. Avant and Mrs. Thornell would hug each one of us; and I remember thinking this is a wonderful place to be.
Jo and Sydnor began singing a duet: “A sunbeam, a sunbeam, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, a sunbeam, a sunbeam, I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.”
My earliest memories are all centered in love. Being in my home with my family; often having devotions at mealtime or sometimes in our den; and being at church sitting in those little chairs, singing, having people love me who taught me there—all of these experiences were so formative. We had revivals at church, sometimes twice a year, with services in the mornings and evenings. These were a special part of my growing-up years. When I came forward to profess my faith, it was something that had been in my heart for a long time. It happened during a typical Sunday service. I told my parents during the week that I wanted to tell Dr. Byrd that I was ready to become a Christian and be baptized. You might say that I had a growing realization over time that I wanted to be a Christian.
Two things happened in my early church life that made an impression on me. Dr. Byrd was our pastor, and his assistant was a lady named Eugenia Gasque. She was a single lady who was devoted to the church. The church was her life. One summer, Eugenia asked me to help her with Vacation Bible School in a poor church whose membership was African American. I remember doing whatever she asked me to do to help the children that week. I must have been around 10 years old. I remember thinking that someone (Eugenia) thought I could make a meaningful contribution and trusted me to do it.
The second memory was when I was about 11 years old. I had become a Christian and had walked down the aisle like Jo was talking about; and I remember that when I walked, the hymn being sung was “ Only Trust Him.” Since then when I hear that hymn, I go back in my mind to the day I publicly professed my faith. Around then, the chairman of the deacons in my home church, Mr. Dameron, asked me to give a tithing testimony during a worship service. Now I was a child at that time, and he wanted a testimony from a young person about the experience of giving and tithing. I was growing up in my home and at church with a strong emphasis on giving and on sharing what we have with others. My parents and I talked about what I would say. My daddy told me that sermons usually have three main points, so I should think about my testimony in terms of three things that are important to me about giving. I don’t recall the three things, but this experience impressed on me the importance of giving children and young people the opportunity to participate, to feel that they belong, and that what they are thinking is of value to the church body.
J: My first experience with tithing was receiving 25 cents, which wasn’t in connection with my chores. Mother was very careful to differentiate between tithing and chores. I did not get paid for doing my chores. Mother said that my chores were my part of contributing to the family and keeping it running smoothly. I got my allowance as part of the family money. It came to me as three nickels and a dime. I had three little banks and my savings bank got a nickel. My Lord’s bank was a brown wooden sewing box, and it got a nickel too. My mother asked me what my tithe should be, and I replied two and a half pennies. Mother explained that I owed the Lord that money since it belonged to Him. Mother said that certainly since God was so good to me that I would want to give him a gift also, so put more pennies in the Lord’s bank adding up to five cents of tithe. I was left with 15 cents to spend that week. The deal was that my tithe stayed in the wooden box until the end of the year. I was allowed to place in that bank any loose change I could find around the house. At the end of the year, I would sit on the bed and count the money and place it in little sacks for the Lottie Moon Christmas offering.
P: Did you decide to live a life of Christian service?
J: I was at Mars Hill when I decided I wanted to dedicate my work life to one of Christian service. We were having a youth revival, and I felt compelled to walk down to the front and say that I was dedicating my life to Christian service. I knew that was how I wanted to earn my living. When I called my mother and daddy and told them what I had done, they thought it was wonderful. I was 17 years old at the time. My parents asked me what I thought my calling would be, and I replied that I thought the Lord wanted me to be a preacher’s wife. I had planned to go to seminary after I graduated from Baylor, but I couldn’t go until I was 21 and had worked a year. During college, I was a theater major and had parts in every play you could imagine. I was a firefly in a Tom Sawyer play in first grade and continued acting until I was a junior in college. I switched to major in English and history. I didn’t think I could get a job during my first year out of college with an English degree, so I got a job at the YMCA handing out basketballs to the kids. While working there, I fell off a friend’s porch and had to spend a lot of time in bed since I couldn’t walk. While I was bedridden, Mother brought me the Atlanta Journal in which there was a job listing for a child welfare position. I scribbled out a note to apply for the position; and before I got out of bed to start walking, I got phone calls of interest from the local, district, and Georgia state welfare offices. Not long after that, the district manager picked me up and drove me to Atlanta for an interview and offered me the job for “the” child welfare record. When I say “the,” I mean for the largest county in the state of Georgia. During the interview, I was told that I would have to go to school for a year if I wanted to keep the job. I could work for a while; and if I liked the job, the State would pay my way through a year of school. I thought that would be a year of seminary. I had worked for only a few weeks when I realized I had found my spot. I liked the work. I still, however, thought that my vocation would be to marry a preacher. My first year of graduate school was at the University of Louisville because that is where our seminary was. You know, if you want to find a preacher, you go to where the seminary is! I promptly fell in love with a Presbyterian boy who was a ministerial student. When I went home and told my parents, they were not real thrilled. While at home, I went to church and saw Davy, whom I had known from Mars Hill. He was stationed there in my home town. I thought this was my ticket. If I dated him, it would get mother and daddy off my back about the other guy. Dave and I dated the whole summer. The other boy was going to come down and visit me in September. The night before he came, David proposed to me. I didn’t know he felt that way. He said he knew it was too soon, but that he knew the other boy was coming down and that he wanted to marry me before he got there. The thing is, Dave was going to be a French teacher, but I wanted to be a preacher’s wife. I had a real struggle with that because I realized pretty fast that he was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. We got married thinking that he was going to be a French teacher. We went to Chapel Hill for a year, and one day he came to where I worked and said he had to tell me something. He said, “Honey, we are going to the seminary next year.” I was surprised since I had just got my head on straight about the child welfare work. He said he wanted to take some time to make sure he was headed in the right direction. So, I did do the welfare work that I liked so much and did become a minister’s wife. I always said I would end up doing what I had hoped to do, but it sure took a circuitous route. I believe that the Lord knows what the end result is. We just have to let Him guide us there.
S: Jo, when did you come to First Baptist?
J: We came in 1964.
S: Bob and I came here in 1977. One of the things I have always loved about being in this church with Jo and Dave is that we have always known that we loved this church; the four of us have always loved being here together. It’s been great to have that friendship together.
J: You know, Sydnor and I grew up as city girls. When Mother and Daddy and David would talk about things, it was as if they were of a different generation, and I was the child. I never lived anywhere that didn’t have a bathroom. David was 16 years old before they had electric lights. I can’t even imagine such a thing.
P: Did either of you attend a crusade?
J: We attended a Billy Graham crusade in Louisville and in Knoxville in 1970. After attending these crusades, there was a wonderful feeling of being part of a vast throng of humanity that knew the Lord and loved the Lord. Growing up in the South, I found that Christianity was the primary philosophy. The people who weren’t Christians were the exception in our world.
S: We attended large revivals held by our church. They were ecumenical and were attended by many churches, not just Baptist churches.
P: With both your husbands being ministers, did you feel obligated to go above and beyond your normal duties as a Christian wives to help them in their work?
S: From the time we were married, actually before we got married, we talked about having a partnership. From that time on, wherever we were led on this path, we approached how we would do things as partners. So, when Bob went back to school after being in the pastorate, we decided that I would have a greater role at home in terms of responsibility for everything since he would spend every third night on shift at the hospital. We always felt we were partnering in this journey together as we went from step to step.
J: I always felt that my role was just as active a role as David’s was. My mother and father met as students in seminary. My mother was a student there herself back in the days when that was rare. Mother felt just as called to the ministry, but of course there was never any question about her being ordained; that just wasn’t discussed. You didn’t even think about women being ordained back then. My mother was just as active as my father was—not only in her role in the church but in her sense of responsibility as a minister’s wife. I recall her saying that the minister’s wife like Caesar’s wife must be above reproach since people watch what the pastor’s family is doing. When I was growing up, she would say to me, “Darling, I trust you to the ends of the world because I know you would always do the right thing.” My mother said that there were some questionable places I could go to in our area and not get into any trouble; but if someone saw me there, they might say, “The preacher’s daughter went there, so I can go to.” That person might not be as strong and could get into trouble. So, I grew up as part of a minister’s family; and I realized that we were all in this together—that it was a joint responsibility.
P: What is it about this church that keeps you here for so long?
S: Well, people are a big part of why I am here.
J: We have always felt that the Lord puts you in places where He wants you. We don’t believe in putting our resumes “out there.” David has had chances to go many places while we have been here. He believes that one should never talk about such things since one should not disturb one’s congregation. We never felt the Lord calling us anywhere else. The moves we have made through the years never came as a result of us offering our services anywhere else. There was a church in North Carolina that was determined to have David as their pastor. They just would not leave him alone. He told them no; they kept asking, and he kept telling them no. He did preach for them once, and they were so excited to have him. I was devastated because I didn’t feel good about it. I just didn’t feel that this was what the Lord wanted. Then came the Sunday morning at the church they voted on whether they wanted David to be their preacher. I remember telling the Lord that if that was where He wanted us then we would be happier there than here. We prayed that if that church wanted us, that it would be a totally unanimous vote. This church was located in the town where my parents lived, so they really wanted us to be there. The head deacon would put his arm around me and say, “You know the Lord wants you to come down here so that you can take care of your parents in their old age.” So, the pressure was on. One lady voted no since she felt David was too young. Another no vote came from someone whose father voted yes. Since the vote was not unanimous, we were relieved and felt that was the Lord’s answer to us. So, we stayed here. We never mentioned this process to anyone here.
The people make up the church, and this is a wonderful church. The Lord is not through with this church. I look at the congregation, and I see it being sparse. I don’t know what the Lord has for the future of this church. This place will not turn into an opera house someday. We have all the new residences being built behind the church and the new places across the river, all of which are within walking distance of this church.
S: First Baptist has always encouraged service to others and supporting mission efforts. We have so many opportunities right here, and I am looking forward to our future together.
P: Thank you, ladies, for your time.