Sunday, June 28, 2009


Jehovah's Witnesses materialized on our front porch one blazing hot summer day, while my mother was sick. I glimpsed them through the screen door, framed by a gravel road and cotton fields. Pamphlets in hand, God on their side, they inquired after my mother's salvation.

"Mother," I yelled toward her bedroom. "It's the Jehovah's Witnesses, asking if you're saved." After days of sickness, her voice came back suddenly strong, "Send them in."

The Witnesses had no inkling they were about to face an uncommon spiritual adversary.

My mother, pale and weak from the double assault of a migraine and back trouble, propped herself up on pillows. The two women and a man filed into the small room, standing respectfully at the foot of the formidable old oak bed that had belonged to my maternal grandmother. Pink began to seep into my mother's face. I peered around the edge of the doorway, wary but excited. The Witnesses were too confident. This was going to be good.

The visitors hurled the opening salvo, asking my mother whether she understood that their religion was the true way to salvation. My mother belongs to a Church of Christ in rural Alabama. There's an old joke about that church. The pope passes away and is welcomed at the Pearly Gates by Jesus. The pontiff asks what is the austere little white structure way off by itself. "Shhhh," says Jesus. "That's the Church of Christ. They think they're the only ones up here."

My mother countered the Witnesses' tactical mistake with biblical verses supporting her beliefs about the "one true church." That her church members do not follow any man's beliefs or accounts, but model their lives after Christ. And that the Bible is the only text for a Christian. Period.

Then the combatants locked horns over the Bible. Scripture verses flew in the room like racks of arrows. Some careening and crashing with an avalanche of noise, others falling in distant silence.

My mother felt disdain for the Witnesses' New World Translation, since they brought the matter up. She was civil. No amount of interpreting about contents and explanations about inserts could change that fact for her. When the Witnesses quoted one Bible verse, she quoted three. When they summarized an entire New Testament book, she brought up a raft of others, followed by words said to have come directly from Jesus himself.

My understanding of the arguments was hazy. I was a child caught up in the excitement of the encounter. I kept thinking of the words "when two or more are gathered together..." But this wasn't a worship session. This was an epic. My mother, ailing, warring against three in-perfect-health Witnesses looming over her bedside.

My mother had lived her beliefs, carefully studied the Bible, attended church every time the doors were open. Her scholarship was not casual. She had been on track to become valedictorian of her high school graduating class. Extremely shy, she was horrified of making the primary speech, so she purposefully messed up final tests so she could finish with the second highest grades. She should have gone to college, studied the math and science she excelled in, but there was no money. Her brothers paid for six months of secretarial college.

She worked for years for a man who was barely literate. But his correspondence showed no sign of this. Because it was written by her.

She put up with his condescension. And put her faith first in all things. With her intelligence, unshakable faith and refusal to be talked down to, in her own home no less, she did battle that day. I had been in houses of friends where Witnesses had stayed for hours, extracted promises of church attendance, contributions even. But they stayed no more than 15 minutes at my house.

That's because the Witnesses understood after a few minutes that they never had a chance. They put up a token fight. Then shaken to their doctrinal foundations, wished my mother well and quickly filed out the front door.

Rejuvenated, my mother rose from her sick bed, bathed and began tidying up, working in the kitchen. She hummed and sang old gospel hymns, her usual routine.

I'm not sure of it, but I can well imagine one of them. "Up from the grave he arose; with a mighty triumph o'er his foes..."


  1. I do like this, heathen though I am. Finding strength through engagement in combat. Amen to that.

  2. Ditto, Ms. Shelia. I do know what you mean.

  3. Great story. Astonishing mother.

  4. She gets stronger as she ages, Maggie. I've decided she has a "direct line" to the source, whatever that is, something powerful and mysterious.

  5. Glad that your mother held her own. The debate obviously got her adrenalin going.

  6. Word to the wise, Syd: Never try to out-Bible this woman.