Mama Esther Fields. Sis. Marie Cobb. Sis. Agnes (formerly Bailey) Gilmore. Sis. Patricia Grier.
These women… my God, these women…
These women were my (pre-high school) Sunday School teachers at St. John AME Church. But my God, my Lawd—my spirit affirms that they were, are, and will forever remain so much more.
I thought, think, and will think of them… Their names and faces come to mind intermittently.
Mama Fields and Mrs. Cobb have gone on to glory. They are with the mighty cloud of witnesses, the ancestors who poured their soul and love in the generations to come. And if you listen closely, they still speak to us.
The other two are sisters. Sis. Bailey (whose last name is now Gilmore) and Sis. Grier. Those ladies, those sisters…. maaaaan, I have so much respect, love, and appreciation for those ladies. I would not be the man I am, the writer I am, the Christian I am, the Sci-Fi Theologian I am without them…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mama Fields was my first “teacher” in life, in the technical sense. It was in her Sunday School class, as a 3-4 year old, that I learned the most fundamental aspect of my spiritual walk and theology: God is love and Jesus Christ—not dogmatic, status quo, Anselm, Augustine, or Calvin’s “Jesus”—but Jesus Christ—bridge over troubled waters, friend late in the midnight hour, heart fixer and mind-regulator Jesus(!)—this Jesus, wrapped up in patchwork Wesleyan garments—-this Anointed Jesus reveals God’s Love. Open communion table and all.
I can still see the style of glasses she wore, the circular shape, where they sat on her nose, how they led down to her mouth that could be both pensive and smiling. Those glasses complimented her face so well. She had these Sunday school lessons that were the size of cards and I was always looking to read and recite something and so it was oftentimes in Mama Fields class that I did my first routine public speaking and recitation. I called her “Mama” and “Mrs.” but now… she’s forever Mama Fields.
(Side note: don’t ever have Sunday school teachers and folk who work with young people who don’t like young people. And don’t ever have a beginner Sunday School class taught by folk who are more stern than nice. It’s amazing how church folk, in particular, can forget this…)
I didn’t know ‘nam about doctrine. But I remember Mama Fields love. A love so thick and amaranthine you could spread it over a loaf of freshly baked bread and still have a great deal left over. A love so thick, yet so effortless, it was like eating communion wafers and creamy peanut butter. I mean that Widow of Zarephath oil in a jar kind of love. That love that don’t quit and don’t run out. I mean that. Even to this day, when I think of Mama Fields, I feel warm, affirmed, loved on, protected… I feel good.
And then… then there was Mrs. Marie Cobb. Lawd have mercy. That woman did not play. Do you hear me?!? She. Did. Not. Play. She was sweet, but she would come for your butt if you ain’t act right. Mrs. Cobb taught me many things, but more than anything she taught me what it meant to have receipts. Before receipts were “receipts,” Mrs. Cobb taught me what it meant to have other resources besides your own words to show you knew what you were talking about. And every Sunday, we were charged with quoting a different bible verse.
My boys and I thought we were slick. We would recycle scriptures. That stopped. Mrs. Cobb started to make us give a different scripture every Sunday. We complied. But we were sloppy with our delivery. So then she made us give the Book, Chapter, and Verse each scripture came from. In other words, she wanted receipts, King James Version, Jesus’-words-in-Red-Letters-Receipts.
Oh wait… and did I mention, we COULD NOT use the old faithfuls…
“The Lord is my shepherd”—nope
“In the beginning God created…”
“For God so loved the world…”
Naaaah Son. Go on somewhere with that mess, kid… no sir. Receipts! Show me that you read. New scriptures.
Mrs. Cobb AINT PLAY.
She has since passed, but my Lord, I love that woman. She taught me that quoting scripture wasn’t the point, studying scripture was. She taught me that exploration of the text—not memorization—was the better way to gaining an understanding about who God is and who we are in relationship to God. But more than the text… she displayed the truth: God’s love supersedes any text and is experienced in community. She also put in my spirit another reality: God’s love is multidimensional. God’s love doesn’t just affirm like Mama Fields affirmed—God’s love also demands the best from us and will challenge us. God’s love holds us—accountable. You can’t be a practitioner of God’s love without some receipts. Nor can you practice God’s love trying to get receipts. But if you commit yourself to God’s love… oh… you gone have some receipts.
This is becoming longer than I intended. But love makes you linger.
The Grier Sisters, Agnes and Patricia. Or as my mama call ‘em, “Ag” and “Pat.” I cannot express my deep appreciation for them. Mrs. Cobb and Mama Fields had Grandmama vibes. The Grier sisters had straight up Mama/Auntie vibes.
Do you understand the love you must have for children to teach them week in and week out, knowing that some of those rascals—like me—while full of promise are also gonna cut up for no reason in particular? And week in and week out, these two sisters braved the antics of me and my cohort and TAUGHT us about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God’s love—and self-restraint.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Thank God for restraint.
Those sisters taught me some things I’ve never forgotten. And every time I’m blessed enough to return home and see them… I am reminded of how God works through people. I am reminded of how God seeks out relationships that are not bound by custom, family, or ideology. I am reminded that God’s love is a force to be reckoned with. And that to become a wielder of this a Force requires apprenticeship and humility. Sis. Gilmore and Sis. Grier remind me that I am somebody and that God is no respecter of persons. Those sisters remind me that Mahalia Jackson sang the truth… if I can help somebody as I travel along, then my living shall not be in vain.
I can still see myself at the long tables in the fellowship hall. I can see Sis. Gilmore and Sis. Grier looking at me thoughtfully, sometimes shaking their heads, sometimes with pride, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a frown, sometimes with expectation, sometimes with frustration, but always with faith, hope, and most definitely love.
To this day, I remember when I was promoted out of Sis. Grier’s class. She shed tears.
I need you to understand something. She shed tears that her students were being promoted out of her Sunday School class. That’s the kind of love these folk had for us.
I didn’t understand. I think I asked my mom about it. I remember awkwardly laughing. I was what we sometimes call a “dumb kid.” My mom told me, “she’s proud of you, Joe.” Luckily, ignorance need not be a lifelong condition. I was also and still remain a deeply sensitive human being—when I’m not self-absorbed. Days passed. Months passed. Years have passed. Decades… but I still remember Sis. Grier’s face and the tears of pride and the tears of loss she shed. She cried because we would no longer be her students and she would certainly miss us. Yet, she also cried because she was happy for us, proud of us, and invested in us.
She showed me that love can display two different emotions at the same time. It’s the cry-laugh, the tearful smile.
I can picture Jesus doing the cry-laugh. I can picture God giving the tearful smile. Love will make you do that.
These women gave me the gospel. These teachers taught me the gospel. These saints lived the gospel.
I met God’s love because of those women.
I know there’s a God because of those women…
Because of those women, I can…
My brother, Mike, is right… I need to write a book about these experiences…
Faith, Hope, and Love
©️ 2020 MJ Sales