Sunday, June 1, 2008

SHE BUILT HER HOUSE UPON A ROCK, PART II

In the last blog, I began a “memoir upon a memoir” about Baptist missionary Dora Runnels, Greenlaw, my great-grandmother, and promised a second installment in today’s blog. Here is the conclusion to that story.

Part II.
Dora was known to be “quotatious,” often gathering her grandchildren in her bedroom to make them memorize Scripture. She thought about St. Paul whose dislike for women often annoyed her, but for whom she had deep respect as the best disciple of all. Her admiration was so great that she named her youngest son after him. The words of the fifth chapter of the letter he had written to the Romans came readily to her: “Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Our Lord Jesus Christ…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character…” (Romans 5:1-4) and most especially did the 13th chapter fill her disappointed mind after the encounter with the stoic pastor: “Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good and you will receive its approval…” (Romans 13:3). The night following the incident with the pastor’s blatant disapproval of her missionary work, Dora fell asleep on the words from Romans.

The next morning, she hitched up Nell and went to Mt. Pisgah where she formed a society. The women there told her about ministerial students, hungry men at Louisiana College in Alexandria who needed food as they often went without meals so they could follow their calling. Turning Nell toward the Great Northern Railroad Depot, Dora began another mission. The men may not approve of this action, she thought, but we’ll give them what they need anyway. Hitching Nell to a post at the depot, she marched into the station master’s office and demanded an audience.

“I want to send meal, potatoes, syrup, peas, canned goods, free of transportation charge, to the men at Louisiana College. You do remember Our Lord’s imperative to feed the hungry in Matthew 25?” (Matthew 25:31-46). The aging station master, a veteran of “The Late Great War” and a friend of Dora’s beloved captain simply said “I do” and scheduled an entire car for the shipment.

“Send it in His name,” Dora said, daring the man to oppose her. She vowed to sit down and chart her course for her missions that morning. Mt. Pisgah, Hays Creek, Pine, Bogue Chitta, Bogalusa, Rio, Enon…she had a lot of building to do but the field was broad, and she would remove the mountain of male opposition.

Dora Runnels Greenlaw, a more than “good Baptist,” and my great-grandmother, met the opposition of approximately 20 pastors, finally becoming Superintendent of Women’s Work in Washington Parish, Louisiana, a position she held from 1908-1920. Often, societies would weaken, especially when Dora ran out of tracts, and the women resorted to reading old sermons aloud. “After two or more sermons, the societies when to sleep, and it took several years of effort to resurrect them,” Dora related in her memoirs (Greenlaw, Mrs. L.D. MEMOIRS OF THE BEGINNING OF THE BAPTIST WMU OF WASHINGTON PARISH ASSOCIATION, 1920. Private printing). Much of what I have related is paraphrased and expanded from Dora’s chapbook of memoirs, which is now in the Archives at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

That day in 1909 when Dora struggled out of a mud hole and overcame the shifting sand of a male pastor’s disapproval, she revitalized an already strong faith in Christ and began to build a legacy that she passed on to other generations, a legacy that morphed into different denominational forms, including this Episcopal deacon now relating her story. She told her stories of struggle and faith, wrote poetry, taught her grandchildren Bible verses, and ventured out in her buggy daily to appeal to pastors for cooperation in spreading the Gospel. Dora Runnels Greenlaw established not just that one Spring Hill Society, she formed eighteen missionary societies in Washington Parish. Today, those missionary societies remain a testament to her call to build many missions – even Episcopalians know about the proliferation of WMU! Dora had clearly heard Christ’s words and acted on them. She died the night I was born. In my family, relatives tell strange stories about her soul transferring to me because she was a poet and so am I. Perhaps…but I think it’s fair to say she passed on her discipleship to me, and she inspires me to strengthen my own faith. In the closing paragraph of her memoirs, she says, “He who leads his armies had another armor bearer ready.”

A short biography of Dora Runnels Greenlaw is included in BAPTIST BUILDERS IN LOUISIANA by John Pinckney Durham and John S. Ramond. The authors reported that in 1916, pastors finally relented and attended the annual meeting of the WMU of Washington Parish, and in 1918, the societies raised over $11,000 for their missionary work, a considerable sum in that particular period of history and in a rural Louisiana parish where farmers struggled to maintain their families. Dora began her mission work as a woman of good faith, became transformed through her service and mission study, and died as a woman of great faith, for…”The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because…it had been founded on rock.”

In the middle of a rainstorm that pelted the windows of the chapel at St. Mary’s this morning, the reader stood up and read the exact passage I have just quoted. It was accompanied by a fanfare of lightning and thunder!!
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