For about a year now I have been piecing together stories of saints I have met over the last 50 years. Of the dozen or more lives I have written about I met them all but one. That is because Lois Howard Mashburn died two months before I was born.
Lois’ father was a grocer in Brownwood, Texas, and his daughter finished Howard Payne in 1923 and went off to China with her new husband. What links her with me is one of her pallbearers was the doctor who delivered me into this world.
I met Lois Howard Mashburn’s niece, Lois Pate, a few years ago. Aunt Lois Pate was the one that sparked my research into a Brownwood “a local girl who made good.” The Coggin Avenue Baptist Church has a Sunday school class named for the missionary.
The rest of the book, titled Saints Alive, is sketches about real-life saints that it has been my privilege to meet. There are full-time missionaries, dedicated teachers, laborers, young and old, and a certain well-known football coach. Besides Lois, three others in the book also called Brownwood home.
There are many definitions to the term saint. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a saint as: (1) A person officially recognized by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as being entitled to public veneration; one who has been canonized. (2) Any person who has died and gone to heaven. (3) Any baptized believer in Christ, according to the New Testament. (4) A charitable, unselfish, or patient person.
The word saint is a much misunderstood term due to the many nuances that have been given to it through the ages by various cultures, languages and beliefs. I consider a saint to be what the Bible defines as a saint.
A saint is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s Son as expressed in the writings of the New Testament. Water baptism is the traditional symbol of entrance into church life, but it is not the water or the act which makes a person a “Christian” or a “Saint” (the terms are interchangeable). All Christians are saints whether they look like it or not. It is God’s call, not ours.
A saint I never met passed away last month. He was William Sloane Coffin, Jr. He was pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City and chaplain at Yale University among other things. As a World War II veteran he saw the Vietnam War as a mistake and helped spark the draft resistance movement of those years.
Dr. Coffin opposed the war in Iraq, calling the years following the invasion “morally and politically disastrous.” But Coffin was not one of those mud-slinging pundits or a critic of government in general. He had praise for the peace activists and the whistleblowers and was clear about the fact that “despair is not an option.”
Saints come in all colors, styles, sizes and personality. “Diversity” could be their middle name. Coffin was a man of courage and had his enemies, some within the faith. He was much like the Old Testament prophets who sometimes made more enemies than converts.
Once at a Yale commencement he prayed: “Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire.”
William Sloan Coffin, Jr., was one of many saints of our generation I wish I had met in passing somewhere along the way. To him the two great biblical mandates where “to pursue justice and seek peace.”
Britt Towery is a retired Baptist missionary. He writes for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas.