Thursday, December 31, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
Mrs. Elam Davies, the epitome of ministerial wives
Grace Davies passed away last November. Though only one or two who will see this column in The South Reporter will have known her, I want to write about Grace because she represents one of those “Unforgettable Characters” — what anthropologists call a “universal personality type,” so I think you may find her story interesting.
Grace was the dignified, elegant wife of our preaching minister at the big church I served in Chicago as a young minister. By her insistence, she was always styled “Mrs. Elam Davies” in print. The era when ministerial wives acted as unpaid assistants to their husbands had already passed when Dr. and Mrs. Davies moved to Chicago in 1960. She did not run the choir, or direct the ladies’ circle, or perform secretarial duties.
But she did act as the family chauffeur, because Dr. Davies did not drive. You see, this engaging, highly-intelligent couple represented, in a quite literal way, the transition between 19th and 20th century concepts of ministry.
They both came from Wales. Dr. Davies always gave the impression that, with Grace, he had “married up.” I do not think this was really so, but in Wales there were two kinds of churches — those which conducted services in Cymraeg (properly so-called, in preference to ‘Welsh’) and those where the preaching was in English. Grace was reared in an English-speaking church; Elam spoke Cymraeg.
It was great fun on Sundays in Chicago when the one member of our congregation who was a Cymraeg-speaking person would come to the chancel steps where Dr. Davies greeted worshipers, and the two would have a lively conversation in the language of their mother country. Now, by the way, the situation in Wales has almost reversed. Cymraeg is much in vogue again, and people no longer think the way up is to bury the melodious language of their ancestors.
The congregation encouraged Grace to lead her own life — which, by her choice, was that of a wife and mother. Her own mother, Mrs. Owen, also moved to America and lived in the manse with Grace and Elam during the early years of their Chicago ministry.
I will always recall the way Mrs. Davies entered the church on Sunday. The manse was next door to the church, connected by a beautiful covered walkway constructed of cut stone, covered with ivy.
At precisely one minute before eleven, Mrs. Davies would walk across this passageway where an usher would meet her, and the two of them would sweep down the very long aisle to the manse pew, eight rows back from the pulpit. She was always the last to be seated, exactly as the mother-of-the bride at a wedding.
No special flourish was connected with this; you had to know who she was to realize what was happening. But the little ritual happened every Sunday, as regularly as clockwork. Then the organ’s music would rise and the congregation would stand and sing the Doxology. She always dressed with beautiful simplicity, exactly as people would want their minister’s wife to appear.
Dr. Davies was very solicitous of his wife’s health. She had experienced several falls, and Chicago winters were icy. One Sunday when she did not appear, Dr. Davies dispatched one of us sitting in the chancel with him to see what was the matter. As I say, you could set your watch to the exact moment of her arrival for the service.
If the room was crowded (it usually was) and there were latecomers seeking a place, Grace would beckon them to come into her pew, and after church, she would warmly greet friend and visitor alike. She was not an old-fashioned ministerial wife, but then again she was!
One of my responsibilities was to work with the tutoring program for needy children from a nearby housing project. The tutoring program was one of the ways Dr. Davies led the congregation into a fuller concept of ministry, and not all the members liked it. Three hundred children came every Monday and Thursday evenings and were matched one-on-one with an adult volunteer.
I ate so many hot dogs at those tutoring program suppers that even one more would be too many for this life!
On a particular afternoon, I was coming back into the church office and beheld a pretentious church lady berating the tutoring program and its children to the church receptionist, whom she was holding captive to her tirade. “Such children do not belong here” was the gist of her complaint, although she was using a good deal spicier language to make her case.
Her words “went all over me” as they say, and I lost the little internal battle that momentarily arises in me in such situations, between my father’s quick mercurial explosions and my mother’s “life is too short, can’t we all live in peace?”
I confronted the woman with a good deal more temper than is usual in my interaction with church members. I said something to the effect that Jesus called the little children and that these were His little children, and that they had as much right to the church’s ministry as she did, if not more. I think my language was also a little spicier than what I am writing here! “Well, I see how my views are received!” the member said, and left in a huff.
Anyhow, my mother’s juices kicked in and I immediately felt I would be in trouble. I was sure Dr. Davies would be getting a call!
The next thing I saw was Mrs. Davies. She had been waiting for someone in a corner of the reception area. All her reserve melted and she threw her arms around me and said, “I am so proud of you!”
I have an odd little reminder of Grace that I am sure would make her laugh. But sometimes our connection to those we admired in the long ago is kept by the strangest of associations.
When Dr. and Mrs. Davies moved out of the manse in preparation to his retirement, they told me I was welcome to any of the furniture they left behind, for I was still in a tiny apartment, virtually living on egg crates and lawn chairs.
I scavanged several useful items, including a small side-table of the sort that in an old-fashioned house would have been used for an end table or a lamp. When I moved to Holly Springs I needed a simple, small table to place by our altar to hold my hymnal and service book and other items for conducting the communion service.
Grace’s little table was just the right size, shape, and height, and so, now for twenty-three years, it has performed that function — a small piece of cast-off domestic furniture pressed into the service of the Lord’s House!
My successor will certainly do away with it. An antique dealer would not have it. But it reminds me of Grace, and when I come to the communion, I like to think of those who have represented the highest and best to me. Grace surely did that, and my life is richer for the worthy example she set. Her little table reminds me of one of the finest people I have known.
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