Saturday, May 31, 2008


In my last blog, I mentioned “A Memoir Upon A Memoir,” a piece that I wrote about Great-Grandmother Dora Runnels Greenlaw and her missionary efforts in Washington Parish, Louisiana. I talked about this vignette being rejected by Episcopal publications, perhaps because of the Baptist background of Great Grandmother. As a deacon, my bent is toward ecumenism, as well as the theology of inclusiveness, so I’m happy to present this cameo of a strong character in my family history in two parts. It is somewhat long but she’s worth a good read. As I entitled a poem about Dora Runnels, this story is a “resurrection of the word.”

Matthew 7:24-27…”Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 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…”

This passage from Matthew about the wise man and his house of rock probably conjures up images of tall stone cathedrals similar to Chartres or Westminster Abbey, or St. John the Divine in New York City – strong fortresses dedicated to worship of an almighty God. For me, the passage evokes a cogent image of a female ancestor who left a rich spiritual legacy to me. The houses she built were missions without walls, and the story reaches back to the early part of the 20th century, when a nudge of the Holy Spirit inspired Dora Runnels Greenlaw to lay the foundation of a future mission, and she was challenged by male objectors to complete that mission.

Dora Runnels Greenlaw was dying. She lay in the high tester bed in the back room of the old Greenlaw home on 10th Avenue in Franklinton, breathing faintly in a most disquieting way and thinking about the consoling words that God would give to his angels concerning her. She had been given her choice of the road, and she believed she had chosen the right one. Her granddaughter, Dorothy, was at the threshold of delivering her first female child, and Dora knew she wouldn’t live to see the infant’s birth but she felt her legacy was sound. Her beloved missionary societies were flourishing, and all of them appeared to be as firm as the craggy face of the pastor who, so long ago, had voiced opposition to her efforts. Half dozing, she remembered the tentative beginning of all those societies. It had been a difficult mission, but the pulls of opposition and undulations of those rough roads she had traveled were now lost in the greater recompense. Wasn’t that always the way the Lord’s work progressed. She remembered that first day…

Dora felt overheated in the billowing dimity dress her daughter-in-law Nell had sewn for her, a dress she felt expressed Christian modesty. Thank God Nell was a good Baptist and knew the value of modesty, indeed, she had made the bodice to fit tightly under Dora’s chin so she showed just the proper amount of decorum for a woman riding in a buggy doing missionary work in this year of Our Lord 1909. She missed Hazelhurst, Mississippi and Captain Lawrence Dade who had fought so valiantly in The War, but she also knew he wouldn’t have approved of her riding around in an open buggy, sometimes alone, trying to do the Lord’s work. He and the rest of the family would have been just as happy if she had acted like a Martha, doing the dishes and sweeping up every day. She glanced out at the broad hillside pastures where black and white Holstein grazed, swishing their tails at her as she passed. Dear old faithful Nell, her handsome chestnut mare, trotted briskly, showing her the way to women who needed to expand their spiritual horizons. Sometimes she thought she was tempting the Lord’s disapproval because she had named the horse after her daughter-in-law Nell who had a very distinct nose. Dora snickered and turned to her companion Deidra. Deidra had been silent all the way from the Half Moon Church in Franklinton to the hillsides just out of Spring Hill.

“Six miles of mud holes is a bit much,” Dora told her companion. “I can’t imagine why the women picked me to begin this work. I wasn’t trained to do this in the Brandon Female Academy in Mississippi, I can tell you, and the indifference of the churches around here is appalling. Why did my Baptist sisters elect me to do missionary work? ‘Seems like I have lived through enough battles of that late great unpleasantness, The War, not to mention the death of poor Captain Greenlaw, God rest his soul, without taking this on. After all, I am encroaching on 50 years.”

At that moment, the buggy swerved as Nell tried to avoid a huge hollow in the rugged road, then settled down squarely in the middle of the deep pothole. “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee,” Dora muttered, stepping down from the buggy where she promptly sank, ankle deep, in a muck of red clay. Her companion followed suit, and they both began to push the buggy from behind, only to collapse, their skirts billowing around them in an immodest fashion. As they struggled to stand upright again so they could begin another push, the pastor of Spring Hill Baptist Church, riding a sleek black stallion, appeared on the road. How fortunate, Dora thought. He can tell me what best to say to these women at Spring Hill and can also help us out of this mud hole. To her consternation, the pastor tipped his hat and passed on with a brief “Good evening.” He must have known her mission, Dora thought. He could have wished her Godspeed. What was going on?

“Deidra, what kind of pastor is he?” Dora asked her companion.
“He does not believe in the organization of women. None of our pastors or laymen do. They are sincere in their belief women must keep silent and leave the work to men,” Deidra said quietly.
Dora said nothing. She looked at the buggy and her limp-backed Bible lying on the seat. She looked at the bowed head of the woman standing beside her, and thought that this was what she was up against. Like pastors, like people. The distance between the churches, bad roads, her lack of knowledge of how best to win the ladies, were no longer to be considered. This, the opposition of the pastor, was the mountain to be removed. The enormity of it suddenly strengthened her purpose. It actually caused her to look with more faith to One Whom None Can Hinder. By the grace of that one, she’d lead these sisters into Christian world service for Him who had bade them to go into all the world teaching others about the Gospel. Her face hardened in an uncommonly uncharitable expression.

“Not everyone who talks about God’s kingdom belongs to God’s kingdom, it seems,” she told Deidra. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of are one in Christ Jesus, Galatians 3:28-29.” Dora lifted her feet in the mud. “Stop pouting now, Deidra, and help me with this buggy.”

The two women shoved hard with one valiant push and Nell struggled forward, free of the sticky clay. Without speaking, Dora climbed into the buggy and took the reins, and her companion joined her, looking decidedly more cheerful. When they arrived at the Spring Hill Baptist Church, Dora found five or six women present, “earnest and willing,” she’d later write in her diary. The Spring Hill women exclaimed over the travelers’ muddy clothing and set to work sponging the soiled skirts. After Devotions, Dora explained that the purpose of a missionary society was to evangelize the world and to help the needy. She met with no opposition. Within an hour, she had formed a missionary society, elected officers, and inspired the women to read the tracts she had brought along.

On the way home, Dora again passed the pastor, returning, no doubt, to see what mischief she had been up to. Again, he only tipped his hat, his face as stony as her own, and they passed each other like two polite statues standing their ground. The pastor’s opposition was the mountain to be removed, Dora vowed. She would even tackle the Hurricane School House Church, so called because it had once endured the battering winds of a hurricane. Hhmph, she mused, who’s afraid of a little wind? That night before she fell asleep, Dora faithfully said her prayers and committed to forming not one but many Women’s Missionary Societies. “My strength is made perfect in weakness, and I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” she prayed, “and not my will or that impolite pastor’s will, but Thy will be done.” (To be continued in Part II tomorrow)
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