Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will.be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).
This post is the eulogy I delivered for my mother, Betty Marshall Jenkins, at Shandon Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC on January, 21,2023. She lived from April 2, 1925 until December 31, 2022.
A Spirit That Shone Through Until the End
“Well, here we are!”
My wife, Wanda, did not meet my mother until about nine years ago. But in her fresh experience of Betty Marshall Jenkins, Wanda pointed out Mom’s endearing mantra so familiar to me that I scarcely before noticed. Mom began visits by gleefully exclaiming, “Well, here we are!” And she punctuated the conversation with it several times before we said goodbye.
Wanda came on the scene as Mom pushed 90 and started easing into dementia. Qualities faded that most of us gathered here recall fondly: Mom’s listening with full attention to whomever engaged her, offering words of wisdom that grounded us, careful Bible study and delivery of Sunday School lessons, cooking sumptuous meals, and following the news and framing the events of the day according to biblical faith, to name a few. Sometimes it saddens me that my dear Wanda never met my dear mother at full capacity. They are, after all, the two rocks of my life.
Yet, the person Wanda knew always greeted us with a radiant smile even if she had to recover from momentary confusion after forgetting the plan to visit. Whether my mother really understood our news, she always exclaimed over our children, talents, and undertakings and praised the liveliness of our lives. She could not hear bad news very clearly and forgot for a moment her edema, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, and other medical issues, but she always expressed gratitude that we were all well.
Granted we colluded with her in keeping a pollyanna narrative going. Why trouble her? Dementia pared down her faculties to the bare sense of joy in presence, just being with us, just being. Not that she was a Zen master, serenely aware at all times. She slept a lot. But when awake, she got to the point. In keeping with Louis Armstrong’s observation when he sang, “Friends shake hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’/They’re really saying, ‘I love you,’” Mom said, “Here we are!” because more than any of the information we could no longer convey, Mom celebrated the connection. And the connection, the “ I love you,” is what it’s all about for all of us in whatever role we play, whatever words we convey.
The Faithful Mother
Wanda saw the loving mother from a fresh perspective. Rees, Jane, and I knew her love on the long road from the dependence of childhood through the pseudo-independence of adolescence, the interdependence of maturity, and finally the responsibility of taking care of her – a responsibility with which my sister, Jane, by the way, took the lead with the love and energy she learned from the woman for whom she cared. But as we grow older, we see Mom’s great love more clearly in retrospect. Speaking for myself, she took the phone call when the bottom fell out of my life and assured me that God was doing something good through it, which God did in ways neither of us could foresee.
But especially in the everydayness of things before or after crises, Mom did what good mothers do, making sure our needs were met, gently orchestrating an order to our days without controlling every inch and moment of them. Having done our fair share of that ourselves in our families, we see more clearly how she loved us. But if you ask for what gift we feel most grateful, we will tell you it was the example of her faith, a friendly, approachable faith. We always felt we could talk with Mom about God, could raise our questions, could trust that an answer would come even when it was not readily available.
Moreover, we learned from her example. Again, there was the example in her everyday life, her unselfish care, her Julian of Norwich-like confidence in God that, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” even when she understood the news and the trials of life as intimately as anyone else. Yet, when she listened to us, she did not brush youthful anguish aside but respected it.
Furthermore, she set her example in the church, and, well, here we are, here we are at Shandon where she took that first job to which she felt called. She heard that call in her youth when she sensed that God had something for her to do in the church somewhere beyond her father’s farm. At Shandon, she served as Fred Poag’s secretary and as a youth leader. She got there via a self-supported college education at Montreat College where she majored in Business and Religious Education, which as Jane points out, marks a pioneering journey for a woman in that era.
Brown vs. the Board of Education shook the South back then, and Fred Poag took a bold and open stand in favor of school desegregation not only as the pastor at Shandon but as a leader in the denomination. Lewis Galloway told me that after taking that stand at the General Assembly, Posg asked the session if they would welcome him back home, and they assured him that although many differed with him, they wholeheartedly wanted him to continue serving as their pastor. Having heard Mom’s glowing words for the pastor who baptized Rees and me, I know this relieved her.
Maybe that helps answer a question Rees, Jane, and I always asked: How did a white girl who grew up on a family farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia become a behind-the-scenes race relations pioneer in places like Montgomery, Alabama and Lumberton, North Carolina?
Our parents met and married here at Shandon as Dad got his early experience in banking. He took a job at a bank in Montgomery and got along fine except Mom and Dad did not support George Wallace. Mom told me that at a social gathering of bank officers and their wives, amid exchanges of suspicion and fear of black folks infiltrating white families and seizing white privileges, she commented simply that God would someday lead folks of all colors to get along as neighbors. By saying that, Mom innocently, perhaps naively, made good trouble, and the bank sent my Dad on his way to a bank in Lumberton, North Carolina.
Shortly after authorities finally carried out school desegregation, I came home in the seventh grade and told her my day included teaching Native American classmates their ABCs. Soon she met with school officials, and they started a volunteer tutoring program.
A United Methodist Church and Community Center developed in Robeson County for dialogue and cooperative work across racial and economic lines. Our mother attended meetings faithfully and reported, “Our meetings made peace because people got to know each other and spoke honestly about their biases, hurts, and fears.” They did not solve the county’s problems overnight, but they built a stronger foundation of peace by sharing concern for each other’s plight and raising awareness of needs throughout the area that people of faith cannot ignore.
Soon she became a source of wisdom and solace to racially diverse religious leaders. The sole African-American on the City Council, Rev. E.B. Turner, had Mom preach one Ladies Sunday at the large Baptist Church he pastored. For a day, she stepped out from behind the scenes.
While she did it for the church and community, she told me that most of all, she did it for her children. She said, “I wanted you to make friends among children of other races and economic situations and not join in the fear and suspicion.” She succeeded.
Mom offered her behind-the-scenes social justice ministry in service of the God she worshiped and served in church, not only as an elder and Women of the Church leader at First Presbyterian Church in Lumberton, but as Office Manager at Trinity Episcopal Church a few doors down the street. She did good clerical work but also good spiritual work as a listener to parishioners and the rector, Garland Teasley. My sister, Jane, maintains a friendship with Garland’s daughter, Jeannie, who commented that Mom quietly became Trinity’s “heart and soul” while she served there.
So when retirement time came for Dad, they retired not to a sunny beach or mountain cabin but to Columbia because of this church, Shandon Presbyterian. And here we are, here we are, at Shandon, where the ministry continued. As Lewis Galloway, the senior pastor at the time, reports, Mom the Sunday School teacher once said she did not see how a person of faith could read the Bible and adopt racist attitudes. Lewis knew Mom well and said her biblical grounding laid the foundation for that remark as well as her quiet, behind-the-scenes service to church and community. That biblical grounding traces back to studies at Montreat and to life on the farm where the family gathered regularly for Bible reading and singing hymns around their little pump organ.
So here we are, here we are in this sacred space, setting of such a watershed in the life of Betty Marshall Jenkins. Here we are after most of her friends have passed. Here we are, friends and family who remain and pause because from time to time while she lived, my mother prompted us to pause for a moment when God answered yes to the petition Christ taught us, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Mom showed us how to hear that yes in just being together, young and old, black, brown, and white, frightened and optimistic, saying I love you in so many words just by gathering and remembering as we do here, now. Here we are.
I thank God that Wanda experienced that with Mom for that is Mom’s witness really, a presence that turns our attention to our loving, welcoming, God who rejoices in our being here with God and each other no matter, really, who we are or what we say or do. Here we are gathered to remember Betty, and in gathering, loving God and one another. Here we are.
To read the obituary for Betty Marshall Jenkins, click here
To view the memorial service for Betty Marshall Jenkins, click here