Wesley Woods is a United Methodist retirement high-rise in my Atlanta neighborhood. For a long time, my deepest appreciation of it was related to the grounds that surround it: It's a safe and interesting place to walk my dog. Savannah likes to chase the squirrels, wade in the stream, and arrive around 7 o'clock in the evening. That's when the self-described "bread and peanut lady" comes outside to feed the wild creatures. My typically exuberant and affectionate golden retriever is enamored of her (mostly because she would feed Savannah an entire loaf of white bread every evening if I let her).
Some mornings I catch the Emory University shuttle at Wesley Woods and ride it to my classes at the seminary. A few weeks ago, while I was waiting, I met a woman whose husband had been a pastor in the area where I grew up before he retired several years ago. In the middle of Atlanta, we shared a string of nostalgic reflections about the First United Methodist Church on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
I've come to appreciate the rich texture of the older lives that exist behind the walls. I find I'm always learning something new. But no one took me more by surprise than Frances Pauley, whose 91st birthday party I recently attended.
BACK IN 1961, Frances was involved in the campaign to desegregate Albany, Georgia. She was arrested, put in jail, then released and told by the police to get out of town. She confronted her fear by marching right into the office of the chief of police, Laurie Pritchett. "Chief," she said, "they asked me to leave town, but I've got a few things I haven't quite finished yet. So I thought I'd tell you I'm gonna be here a few more days. If there's anything I can do to help you, please let me know." His mouth was still hanging open when she turned around and marched out.
In her years of involvement with the civil rights movement, Frances faced threatening law officers, ranting politicians, and racist mobsand she stared down the barrel of a gun more than once. She was an inspiring influence on young people. In Rome, Georgia, the public library was the target of desegregation. A young black man, a cook, volunteered to try to check out a book. Frances sat nearby reading, giving him moral support by her presence. He was frightened, and so surprised when the librarian asked him what kind of book, he hesitated and then said, "A cookbook." Frances proudly points out that he was recently elected president of the National Library Association!
In her nine decades of living, Frances Pauley has been involved in campaigns ranging from clinics and school lunches to heating assistance and AIDS research. In 1991, a Catholic sister concerned about disease among prostitutes called her for help. Frances later reflected, "I guess when you've got a nun who calls up an old lady in a Methodist high-rise to ask her how to get condoms, we've come to a pretty pass."
When she first moved into Wesley Woods in 1988, Frances got into the elevator and discovered that standing next to her was Herbert Jenkins, who had been the head of the Atlanta police department for many years. She remembered tangling with him years before over an incident in a housing project in which police killed a man and critically injured a young boy.
She looked up at him and asked, "You aren't by any chance Chief Jenkins?" He answered, "Indeed, I am!" At that moment, the elevator shuddered and the door opened a bit. Frances slipped out before the door closed again. Then the elevator got stuck. She recounts, "I got on the other elevator, I went downstairs, and I didn't tell a soul. I just smiled and went on out."
She says with a laugh and a twinkle in her eye, "I pray every night, 'Please God, take me 'fore morning.' But God says, 'No, you're too mean!'" Mean has nothing to do with it. I suspect Frances is talking to God the way she talked to Laurie Pritchett: "I've got a few things I haven't quite finished yet."
She admits, "It doesn't look like God's going to let me die any time soon, so maybe I will live to love my enemies!" If that learning is her obstacle to moving into the next life, I pray the lesson comes slowly. We need such a blessing of courage among us a bit longer.
Joyce Hollyday was in the master's of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta when this article appeared. She is the author of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).
Frances Pauley: Stories of Struggle and Triumph is available from the Open Door Community, 910 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA 30306-4212; phone: (404) 874-9652. A $10 donation is suggested.