Monday, March 4, 2013

Sophia: A favorite story from Mom's life.

A blog posting really isn't usually this long but Mom told me this story from her life for the Senior ministry newsletter at our Church. It's such a heartwarming story, I'm just gonna post it here too. The story is a story from her many cherished memories working with the Balboa Church of Christ in Panama. Above is a picture from the Balboa Church of Christ Reunion a few years ago. Those who can still get together every 2 years. It was a special time in all our memories.  They are wonderful Christian people. 

My mother, Nancy Wright is 89 years old and lives in the Wesleyan Nursing Home in Georgetown TX. The Senior Ministry at our Church asked for a favorite story from her life.  In the 1970’s she and my father, John Wright served as missionaries in Balboa, Panama. During the years they were there, the Balboa Church of Christ grew in leaps and bounds. This is a story from that time.


One evening, when John and I were in Panama, we were just about to sit down to dinner and we heard a quiet knocking on the door. It wasn’t surprising, we often had unexpected visitors at dinner time. Sometimes it bothered me a little, mostly because I never felt comfortable about how much to cook.  Our home was open to anyone who wished to visit, eat or even stay the night. 

Hearing the soft knocking and knowing I had only made enough for two, I sighed, “Uh-oh, who could that be?”  John walked to the door and peeked into the peep hole. He spied a woman there, turning around quickly to leave. He opened the door and called out to her, “Hello, yes we’re home. Can I help you?”  The attractive middle aged woman was wearing a cotton bandana skirt, a ruffled sleeve blouse and brightly colored headscarf made from calico that mostly covered her black afro.

Looking somewhat embarrassed, she responded “Ella dera.” Obvious by her dress and her accent, she was Jamaican.  John and I were friends with many Jamaican’s in Panama. Their ancestors came to live there as laborers for the Canal. Many of these workers died of malaria and suicide. Most of those who survived continued to live in Panama for life.
“Ella dera, my name be Tamila. I’m sorry to disturb ya, I don’t even know ya but I been told to ask ya.” Always a generous man, John introduced himself and reached into his pocket for some cash. “Nuh, nuh, I don’t come here for no money.  Ma mudda made me come hera. She heard about you and dat Church.” 
John warmly invited her in and shook her hand, “Come right on in Tamila. We’re so very happy to meet you.” Tamila explained the reason for her visit, “My mudda told me to come hera and ask you to come see her. She’s can’t come and talk to you, she’s got 98 years. She just keeps tellin me to come and get ya. She says she gotta see ya. She can’t wait anada day to talk to ya. Not one mo day mon.”

John was curious so he asked, “Do I know your mother? Have I ever met her? What is her name?” Tamila shook her head and said “Her name be Sophia and you never hear of her. She heard about you and dat Church from some of her old friends.” With tired eyes Tamila looked at John, sadly shrugged her shoulders and turned back for the door. “You don’t have to come. I’ll tell her.’’
John was never the kind of minister to hold regular working hours. He wasn’t the kind of person that would turn anyone away. I knew he wouldn’t just let her walk out the door. So of course he said, “Well now, hold on a minute, I’ll go and see your mother if that‘s what she wants.” Since Tamila said her mother was 98 years old, John considered that possibly she was planning her own funeral or felt she needed some kind of last rights prayer. Who knows?  What else could it be?
“Did you walk here?” he asked. “I don’t have no car” Tamila said. “We live in Rio Abaho. De bus come in about an hour” John, looked at his watch and said, “We’ll take my car. I’ll go get my keys.”  “ Would you like me to go? “I asked but didn’t really want to. He probably knew that I didn’t but replied, “No, it’s alright, I’ll be right back, don’t worry, it won’t take too long.”
Rio Abajo was a West Indian neighborhood in Panama City filled with Caribbean people who relocated there centuries ago. The little shanty wood houses in Rio Abaho were painted only on one side and the fences were often covered with tropical purple and white passion fruit flowers.
 When John arrived at Sophia’s house, he smiled as they pulled up. This place reminded him of his childhood in Louisiana. He grew up in shanty wood homes as well but his childhood home memories were on cotton farms, not Panama City. He got out and stepped around all the brown and white skinny looking chickens running at his feet, clucking, hoping to be fed.  It was quiet outside other than the chickens. It was getting dark, he wondered if he was visiting too late.”Do you think your mother is sleeping?” Tamila rolled her eyes at John as if she were a teenager, sick of having to obey her mother’s will. “Nuh, nuh, she wait for you to come. She wait all night.”

Tamila took John’s hand and led him into the house. Sophia was sitting on the sofa with her legs crossed like an Indian.  John looked at the old woman and thought she certainly was limber for her age but she couldn’t possibly weigh more than 70 pounds. Her eyes and cheeks were hollow and sunken in, most likely from age and weight loss. Her white grey hair was pulled back from her black little wrinkled face.  Sophia uncrossed her legs and said, “There you are! You be John Wright? I woulda come myself, but I can’t get around nuh mo” 

Sophia picked up the Bible from her lap.  The old Bible was falling apart and matched its owner perfectly. It was worn and tattered and it looked like the chickens outside had scratched all over it. It looked as if it had been Sophia’s favorite book for a long, long time. John and Sophia talked for a while about her Bible studies. She turned to Matthew 3, Acts 2:38 and John 3:16 as well as others verses. Sophia would go through the pages of the Bible and find the verse she wished to discuss. 

John could see that Sophia had studied a great deal. In fact, she knew and could recite the Bible by heart. He smiled and complimented her Biblical knowledge. “Sophia, you know the Bible better than most people, in fact, you know the Bible as well as I do.” He continued, “I can also see that you love the Lord with all your heart and soul.” “I sure do, Mista. John, I love Jesus.” she said.
Still puzzled as to what was so urgent about this and why she called him there, he took Sophia’s feeble little hand in his and he looked into her soft brown eyes through her old reading glasses, “What can I help you with?”  Sophia responded with a long sigh,”uuuhhh, oohh Mista John. I have studied the Bible through an through. I understand it. I hear about you and dat Church. I hear you believe what deh Bible says!” John was happy to hear that because that’s the very best compliment you can give a minister and a Church. Sophia continued “And den I hear you follow it. What deh Bible say, you and dat Church?” she asked. “Why yes we do! We do believe the Bible and we’re not always perfect but we try our best to follow it just as it says.” John leaned back and wondered what was next?
Sophia could barely hold back her excitement. She pressed on the side of the sofa and rose up out of it carefully.  Her tiny body shook to hold itself up. She lifted her hand to her heart as if she were saying the pledge of allegiance and declared, “I believe dat Jesus Christ, is da son of God. I want to be baptized; I wanna wash away my sins. I wanna go undah de wadda…all the way undah ..Like in de Bible.”
John leaned back astonished by Sophia’s request.  She’s too old, she’s too frail, she’s too thin, he thought. I’m not sure we could even do that for someone this age and in this state of health? Not really knowing exactly what to say, he said “I don’t know, Sophia, I just don’t know.”

Sophia carefully sat back down and her daughter came to her. Tamila sighed, shook her head at John and got right down to her mother’s eye level, “Mama Nuh! We already talk about dis. You too old to go in deh watah. Mama you can’t even walk.” Looking over at John, she explained, “You not the first one Mista John. She been askin others. They tell her over and over it’s not necessary” Tamila turned to her mother and sighed,” Mama, its ok …God knows your heart.” In response to this, Sophia started to cry.
John aghast by this predicament, sat there contemplating what a wonderful world it would be if everyone was as urgent as this sincere woman to follow and obey God’s word! Wouldn’t it great if we were all that concerned about our soul? Being the man that he was, he understood her sincere compassion for the word and her deep desire to be with God. He was certain of all of this but unsure if this would be good for Sophia right now.

What can I do?” he asked out loud. “Are you ill? Are you afraid?” “Nuh, I just got da old age.” she answered. “Everybody gonna die, Mista John, nobody knows when de gonna die. You dying, we all dying”
Sophia wiped her tears with the white cotton hanky John offered her from his pocket. John was one of those gentlemen that carried a white hanky at all times just in case someone needed it, a crying baby, a kid with a runny nose, an adult with a cold, or most of all for those who needed a caring listener and a good cry. Sophia waited for an answer. John bowed his head and silently asked God for guidance. After a few moments, he looked at Sophia and winked. “Let’s go get baptized” he said.  The feeble old woman smiled at John with such joy, you could even see a few little teeth still there. John looked over at Tamila for support and said, “God help us.”

That very night, the resolved missionary carried the little old Jamaican woman out to his car and with her resigned daughter, in tow; they went to the house to pick me up.  John decided they needed me to come along as well to help. He walked in our house, and pointed out to the car. “Look out there. You’re not going to believe this.  I’ll explain it all later. I’m going to need your help for this baptism and she wants to do it right now.”
At the church, Tamila and I changed Sophia into the smallest white cotton gown we could find. She looked sort of like a swaddled baby as her wrinkled thin ashy legs, about as big around as your wrist, hung out the bottom of the gown.  John came in and as quiet and gentle as ever, he picked up his new friend into his arms and headed toward the small church baptistery. 
John took a deep breath and sighed as he went down into the water. He kissed Sophia softly on her cheek and asked her tenderly, “Sophia, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” “I do.” she said. “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” John was shivering with love and emotion as he lowered this precious Christian woman into the water, oh so, so, very carefully.
Tamila and I and watched in tears.  When John lifted Sophia out of the water, she started waving her hands in the air rejoicing. She looked so full of energy! It was as if she wasn’t old at all. Like a happy child, she clapped and wiggled around in John’s arms. Then she started to sing, “Oh Happy Day! Oh Happy Day! When Jesus washed my sins away.” She knew all the words to the song and sang all the verses. We all just started to laugh and cry and we sang the song right along with her.

Sophia said it was like she was in heaven already. I’ll never forget it. When all was cleaned up and finished, we left the Church, feeling as though Sophia wasn’t the only one born again. We all felt born again with her. John dropped me off about midnight and took Sophia and her daughter home. Two days later, we got a phone call from Tamila. Sophia had died peacefully in her sleep.
I felt so blessed to have been there that night. I’m so thankful I got to share this precious memory with John. I think of Sophia every time I hear that song and I’m reminded of her sincere desire to be a Christian and not to wait until another day. Oh Happy day! When Jesus washed my sins away.


OH Happy Day.
Written by Philip Doddridge
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
and live rejoicing every day;
Happy day, happy day,
 When Jesus washed my sins away!