This is Part 2 of a three-part series of how two churches honored a retired Woodstock couple for their half-century of ministry. The couple receive limited financial assistance from Mission:Dignity, a ministry of GuideStone Financial Services. Mission:Dignity is funded through the generous gifts from Southern Baptist to help elderly ministers and their spouses live a life of dignity on a restricted income.
Saturday is the best day for some volunteers, so several show up to work in the yard. Armed with hedge shears they descend like a small army, trimming shrubs, planting flowers and generally freshening up the yard.
Bethea and Sandra welcome the opportunity to mix with the volunteers since they are not allowed downstairs when the work is in progress. The basement is completely off limits, so they enjoy this opportunity to thank the men and women who are giving their day off to work in Miranda’s yard. Their daughter appears now and then with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.
After good conversation, the couple returns to Miranda’s living room and discuss their ministry. As they talk a second team of volunteers arrive to continue their work in the basement.
On this morning Johnson, his teenage son Matthew, and Jeff Nevis begin framing a wall. Pow-pow-pow goes the sound of a nail gun alternating with the sound of an air compressor.
The hammering and pounding interrupts the upstairs interview, but they pause to resume the conversation as partial silence prevails.
Bethea and Sandra are neither used to, nor comfortable with, others interrupting their busy lives to minister to them. They are used to being on the giving, not the receiving, end.
The couple continue to tell their story.
Bethea and Sandra were married in 1960 in Philadelphia, MS, where he was serving as music minister at Beacon Street Baptist Church. They eventually had a daughter, Marketta.
The young couple served small churches in Piedmont, Gadsden, and Decatur, AL, with a second daughter, Monica, born in Alabama. Then they added Mississippi churches in Philadelphia, Stonewall, and Meridian.
Due to their first child, Marketta’s, worsening ear and sinus infections doctors recommended a drier climate. The family considered their options and settled on the Southwest, making contact with a director of missions in New Mexico.
They pulled up roots and began a new ministry in Hobbs where Bethea – once again wearing multiple hats in small churches – served as minister of music, education, and church administration at Northside Baptist Church.
The move was good for Marketta and her health improved considerably. The chronic infections became more rare and she eventually joined Bethea and Sandra’s pulpit duets.
“Marketta had perfect pitch and Bethea could play just a few notes on the piano and she could immediately tell the name of the song,” Sandra shares.
Bethea adds a few more memories of those good days.
“Boy, she loved the Lord and loved to sing. Sandra and I sang duets together, I the tenor and she the soprano … I’d lead the service and say ‘Marketta, come up here and sing with me and she would jump up and be right by our side,’” he recounts.
The family would sing something out of the hymnal such as “Hand in Hand with Jesus” or the popular “Heaven Came Down.”
Bethea pauses for a minute, wanting to think of another hymn from those days long gone by.
“I’m sorry,” he eventually says with a sheepish grin. “My mind’s getting younger and I can’t remember like I used to.”
A few days pass and Bethea, sitting in his easy chair, picks up the family story in the Southwest.
The family moved to a small church, First Baptist in Cashion, outside of Phoenix. The 45-member congregation thrived under Bethea’s ministry and they soon filled up their small auditorium and built a second one that would seat 80.
With about 80 percent of the residents being Hispanic, the church started a Spanish-speaking congregation so they could hear the Gospel in their mother tongue. The church – both Anglo and language congregations – baptized so many in one year that they were number 3 in the state.
The church would come to symbolize much of Bethea and Sandra’s ministry. He would serve as both music director (pulling from the days of his youth) and as pastor.
“I would open the service with prayer, lead a hymn, preach, and close with leading the choir in a special song. Those good people just ate it up and we did, too,” he says with a big smile that brightens his eyes.
Bethea then reflects on the financial situation that led them to where they are today.
“Those were good people but with very limited resources so Sandra and I were never able to put away any savings for retirement. I was in my early 30s which is when young people today are well into a retirement program. Eventually the Annuity Board, as it was known then, began a program which encouraged churches to budget $33.34 a month for their pastors so that is how I began to save for retirement,” he says.
As he talks about the past, his and Sandra’s future is fast taking shape beneath their feet. A new refrigerator stands to the side in the kitchenette, still in its factory packing; a shiny dishwasher resides a few feet away in its cardboard and Styrofoam-packed box.
Matthew, the youngest of the volunteer team at age 15, hefts 80-pound bags of concrete mix from the yard and carries them into the garage, stacking them in neat piles. There they will await the jackhammer breaking up the foundation to lay new plumbing lines for the bathroom.
Bethea, glancing over to the HGTV channel on the television, watches contractors renovate a basement and wonders aloud – the slight hint of a smile on his face – what is going on just a few feet below his chair.
Another hot summer day comes to a close as a team – men and women with varying skills – arrive in the basement. Beginning work in early evening allows some of the heat to dissipate and the large fans to pull some of the stagnant warmth out through the large open garage doors.
Volunteers empty from their cars and head to the tools, ready to continue framing walls and install kitchen counters and cabinets.
Bethea sits in his easy chair upstairs and continues his story. Sandra, unable to join the conversation, rests in her bedroom as she deals with another flare-up of fibromyalgia.
“You know they won’t let me go down there, don’t you?” he says with a degree of confession. “I really want to know how its progressing and one day I snuck down but they must have known me pretty well because they had put up thick black plastic sheeting over the windows; I couldn’t get even the slightest hint of how the work is coming along.”
Then drawing on a biblical reference, he adds, “It’s sorta like looking through a glass, darkly. I cannot discern much of what’s on the other side but it’s exciting to know that something good is waiting for us.
“Sandra and I hear the hammering and sawing so frequently that even the dog doesn’t get upset anymore. We did move some dishes to a safer place when the jack hammering began because we didn’t want them falling off the shelves,” he continues.
He jokes that at times he feels like he’s sitting in a dentist’s chair with all the drilling going on.
“I feel like I need to be down there helping but I’m no carpenter. Sandra and Miranda did give feedback on paint swatches but that is pretty much the limit to what we have done. We agreed not to go down there until we’re invited at the very end of the project, so we just use our imagination.
“I feel such a debt of gratitude for these good folks … just a sense of overwhelming gratitude. I thank the Lord for his goodness during all of this. Sandra and I have seen Him work miracles for others throughout our ministry so I am constantly asking ‘Why us? We don’t deserve this treatment. And we thank Him daily for His goodness to us through Mission:Dignity. I don’t know how in the world we would make it on just our small Social Security check; it doesn’t go very far.
Sandra then adds a little detail to the rarely-voiced struggles of small church pastors like themselves.
“One of the most important things I have learned is to trust God in all things. There were times when we didn’t have enough money for groceries or for a car payment. But somehow we would open our mailbox and there would be a check for the exact amount we needed from a friend who had no idea what we were facing.”