“I will not cry; I will no cry; I will not cry.”
I silently repeated the mantra to myself, but in spite of my determination not to cry, a solitary tear slowly made its way out of my right eye and down my cheek. Grateful for the hairstyle that almost camouflaged that one tear, I did my best to dab at it without calling too much attention to it or myself.
I came to the “Breakfast of Champions” that morning with the full intention of celebrating the story of Sheila Bailey and Stephanie Carter, two generations united through one experience in that place known as the pastor’s wife. Sheila Bailey is the widow of the founding pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Stephanie Carter is the wife of the current pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Dallas, the successor to the internationally known pastor, Dr. E. K. Bailey.
The two women, former first lady and current first lady, sat on the platform before the pastors wives gathered in that place to share their story of the passing of the baton after the death of Dr. Bailey. I listened as Sheila B. (her ministry name) spoke of the conversations she and her husband had before he became ill about what she should do if something happened to him and at some point it became untenable for her to stay at Concord. I listened intently as she spoke of the plans he put in place for his successor during his illness. I listened as Stephanie shared her surprise when her husband told her he would be Dr. Bailey’s assistant with the understanding that the assistant would become the pastor in the event of Dr. Bailey’s death. Dr. Bailey did die and the baton was passed to Pastor Carter. It has been eight years and Sheila B. is still at the Concord Church and the Pastor and First Lady Carter honor her person and her presence.
I do not know when that solitary tear showed up, but it did. I did not want to cry, but during the course of the women’s conversation, a sadness was triggered in me that I did not know was still there. Unlike Dr. Bailey, my husband’s death was sudden, an unexpected happening in an otherwise uneventful day. In my mind, when he died the concept of me as “First Lady” died with him. I fully expected that the only difference in the ministry would be a new pastor with a new vision. The people were well taught, and the people of God, given the facts, would normally do the right thing, wouldn’t they?
My journey on the path of “Life after Death” does not run parallel to Sheila Bailey’s. During the Q & A following the conversation between the two women, one woman stood and declared that their story needed to not only be shared with the pastors wives, it should also be shared with the church at large, for “I have heard the horror stories out there about what happens to the pastor’s wife after the husband dies.”
I have never thought of my story as a horror story, but it certainly did not turn out the way I expected. Within months, the church took on a persona that was the antithesis of what had been in place for most of the twenty years of my husband’s ministry. Changes were made and promises were discarded. To this day I do not know exactly what happened behind the scenes, but I do recall that “Ah ha” moment one Sunday morning when a member asked me, “Sis. Williams, why do they want to make you the bad guy?”
I had no answer then. I have no answer now.
The women, with whom I sat that morning, know my story. I met them six months before my husband died. They were there six months after his death when I returned to the Conference more than a little dazed. The church had not yet changed drastically and I had not yet experienced all that would eventually transpire. Those ladies walked with me through that valley and have seen me come out on the other side with a stronger sense of self and a more confident voice. Still, I can only imagine what they were thinking that morning. Did they wonder what I was thinking as I listened to the story of the two women? Did they wonder how I might be feeling as the room celebrated the story of a transition that had to be Holy Spirit driven? The woman to my right put her hand on my shoulder. She did not need to say a word. I felt her compassion.
Life, or the new normal as I call it, is nothing like it was in those twenty years of ministry. I no longer belong to the church. I rarely see or speak to those members who were so much a part of my life back then. I have no longings or nostalgia for those days. It was a time of spiritual growth for me, as well as a time of learning how to move out of my comfort zone. It was a time of refining for me as God prepared me for such a time as this.
I celebrate God’s grace and mercy in the life of Sheila Bailey, the smooth passing of the baton from predecessor to successor. I can also celebrate the woman I have become in Christ simply because God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to transition me in a different way. The women who surround me today, women who never knew my husband, have showered me with love and acceptance. They have challenged me as well and encouraged me to “Do you.” I never would have had reason to get to know them had my transition been smooth and without challenge.
The single, solitary tear that made its way down my cheek that morning was not about my mourning for what used to be; I mourned for what should have been and the loss the Church suffered because it chose not to do the right thing.
I am the better. I am the stronger. I harbor no bitterness. I have no regrets. I will not cry.