Thursday, August 30, 2007
‘God hath made of one blood all the people of the earth’
Would you be surprised if I told you that a very great influence on my desire to enter the Presbyterian ministry came through the influence of a Baptist minister’s wife? I speak of Wanda Delle Perrault, the wife of the Rev. James A. Hurt, of Cleveland, Miss., in whose funeral service I was honored to assist at the First Baptist Church of Clinton last week, their retirement home. The occasion gave me time to reflect upon and assess the lasting impact of her life.
The last time I saw Mrs. Hurt I told her that my enduring memory would be of her folding clothes at her great dining table in the pastorium in Cleveland. For a family of four boys as well as herself and her minister-husband — it was an unending task. But somehow it seemed to “center” her being. Much motherly advice was dispensed while engaged in that occupation.
Of course, I sat at that table many times to enjoy the wonderful meals she prepared for her family and friends. I particularly remember her homemade pound cake with the orange sauce. But I digress…
I say “motherly advice,” was dispensed from that table because the Hurt household was a second family to me. Having no siblings, I took the four brothers as my own. Their mother, when the occasion called for it, meted out guidance and discipline to me — as my parents did to them.
And so, are you surprised that a great deal of my own sense of call to enter the ministry, came from the day-in and day-out associations with that family which lived exactly nine houses down the street from our house?
There were the hilarious moments, as when Mrs. Hurt forgot to pick up my friend Richard one day after school and he sat (and the operative word in this story is “sat”) swinging on the swing set until supper time, confident, as he told his exasperated mother, that someone would eventually appear to drive him home.
There were the more serious moments also, as when we kids sat on the back seat of the big green Chevrolet station wagon, Mrs. Hurt helped us articulate a more progressive view of race-relations than we were hearing from our schoolyard mates.
The Hurts were among the few families in Cleveland during the 1960s who were willing to “go public” with a progressive viewpoint. Bro. Hurt bore much criticism and loss of members for his insistence that the church doors be opened, but Wanda Delle Hurt was adamant that “God hath made of one blood all the peoples of the earth.”
I am sure that this came from a chapter of her own upbringing that we would hear about on Christmas Eve. You see, her father was Roman Catholic, and though she was reared in the Baptist Church in Canton, she always went to mass with her father on Christmas Eve.
So all of us were given to understand very clearly that God has a wide place in His heart — far beyond the particular Baptist (or in my case predestinarian Presbyterian) parochialities of our time and place.
Bro. Hurt was without doubt the most courageous minister in our town during the turbulent 1960s. But I think that her example and practical admonitions are as much responsible as any for the wide and outreaching sort of Christianity that was lived before me in the unlikeliest of places up there amid the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. From the time I was five, when the Hurts came to Cleveland, until I went off to college a decade and a half thereafter we were in contact every day.
In the afternoons there would be a stop by after school to eat some of her good biscuits and butter, prepared fresh for breakfast every morning and always a few extra for after-school snacks.
There would be the aforementioned conferences around the dining table while clothes were being folded, to discuss the great questions that lie on adolescent minds.
I observed from the inside some of the petty indignities that ministerial families have to endure.
Many times I have thought how very fortunate I was not to have gone off to seminary with the “rose-colored” glasses that so many preachers have to struggle to remove. For if I am a clergyman, it is with the full knowledge of both the glory and banality of life in the ministerial household — for I was part of one for a very long time.
My friend Richard told me that they were reading one of Catherine Marshall’s books as they spent time together each day here at the end. That did not surprise me, for it was her tie with the revered Presbyterian cleric Peter Marshall (Mrs. Hurt having grown up in the same hometown, Canton, as Catherine) that I found so fascinating. And every so often when the movie “A Man Called Peter” would come on television, Mrs. Hurt would become uncharacteristically sentimental and would assume that air that only those who have grown up around women of French ancestry can understand, and she would shoo us children out of the den so she could watch that wonderful picture and shed a tear or two.
I think she saw herself and it renewed her own sense of call to be a pastor’s wife.
Suffice it to say that my congregation in Holly Springs where I have served for twenty years knows all about the Hurts from my frequent citations of their household in sermons.
She would probably be surprised and perhaps a little embarrassed. But the example of a faith lived well, and not for outward show, is perhaps the most worthy religious legacy that a human being can leave. I know I received in double portion, and I am certainly grateful and will always be so for my adoption into this good family just down the street.
I know we shall all be together again. And somehow I just believe I will recognize her, up there in God’s house — folding clothes!
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