This sermon was delivered by Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on March 17, 2009.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Psalm 23 (NRSV)
Today is my father’s birthday. Dad died nine years ago of cancer but he would have been 74 today. Because I’ve been thinking about my father and this psalm all week, I’ve found myself mulling over a warm memory from my childhood. Part of my story has to do with a very particular piece of God’s providence at work in my life, even before I was born.
I come from a family of coal miners. Both my mother’s father and my father’s father mined coal in Alabama for Republic Iron & Steel. One terrible day in August of 1943, both of my grandfathers were burned to death when a series of explosions ripped through the Sayreton mines near Birmingham. In all, thirty mine workers died, including William Pennington and Staples Bailey, my grandfathers. My mother was four at that time and my father was eight.
Dad’s family was desperately poor, poorer than my mother’s family, largely because there were so many of them to feed. My father was one of eleven Pennington children and the only one who finished high school. Some years later in 1956, four years before I was born, it became clear to my father that he was not going to be able to go to college because he needed to work to help support the family. Dad was faced with a decision: either work in same mine where his father had died or go downtown to the Air Force recruiter’s office and sign up. Dad’s decision to enlist pretty much changed my life, though I wasn’t even yet born, because it had the effect of taking our family out of Alabama. I don’t have a thing in the world against Alabama; it was a great growing-up place for my parents. But Birmingham in the 1960s was, as you know, a broken city. And so while my cousins were growing up in that place with the fire hoses and bombings and everyday segregation, my brother and I were out in California, living in base housing next door to the Schwartzes who were Jewish, and the Washingtons who were African American, and sharing a courtyard with the Awohis who were native Hawaiian. Their children were my playmates and I loved them.
That experience shaped my life in powerful ways. What’s more, besides the broadened racial perspective, I also perceived a delicious freedom in California from a lot of the gender stereotypes that I’d observed in the South. In those days Helen Reddy was singing, “I am woman, hear me roar!” and in my young heart a seed was planted. The years we spent in the San Joaquin Valley of California when I was in junior high and high school were some of the most formative of my life. Memories of that time later drew me back to the West Coast when I decided to go to seminary.
Somehow, God took that colossal disappointment for my father, the closed door to college, and used some of the broken pieces of his dream to make a path for me that to this day feels beautiful beneath my feet.
“You lead me along the right paths…”
Julie Pennington-Russell is senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C.