Mission:Dignity couple served others for a lifetime, now are served by Georgia churches (Part 3)

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Bethea and Sandra Fielding of Woodstock relax in their newly-finished apartment constructed through volunteer labor from Woodstock Baptist Church and Johnson Ferry Baptist Church last fall. They are among 135 Mission:Dignity recipients in Georgia. JOE WESTBURY/Index

This is the final installment 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.

This series of interviews was conducted from May 11, 2016 through the dedication on August 25, 2016. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of their journey. 

June 29

A week later the couple gather in the upstairs living room to share their sojourn. The sound of a jackhammer breaks the silence, sending ripples through a glass of water sitting on a tabletop near Bethea’s chair. The conversation comes to a halt until the silence returns, the compressor slowing to a halt.

Sandra Fielding explains the long history of the family through photos on her bedroom’s “portrait wall,” a dominant feature of every place she and Bethea have lived. JOE WESTBURY/Index

All was going well and the family was called to First Southern Baptist Church of Phoenix, AZ, where Bethea served as minister of education and church administration. The family, now joined by daughter Monica, had become well known for their singing skills. That is where Bethea used his skills to help relocate the church across town to accommodate its growing congregation.

As time passed the family began their ministry with Westown Southern Baptist Church in Glendale, where their final daughter, Miranda, was born.

But clouds began to gather on the family horizon as Marketta’s health began to fail at age 12. But the time she turned 13 she was in far more serious condition with a weakened immune system and was in and out of the hospital. The family used some of their meager retirement savings – all the savings they had – to buy their first house as they looked to a brighter future.

One night Marketta complained of a painful headache followed by poor breathing. She was taken to the hospital and ended up in the intensive care unit where doctors diagnosed a rare case of meningitis. She was stable for a few days before passing away.

Bethea Fielding takes stock of his new study, complete with his pastoral desk, Coca Cola collection, and other memorabilia. JOE WESTBURY/Index

The family was destroyed. They sought what comfort they could find in prayer, scripture, and close friends. It was the kind of devastation that only time could heal, and eventually the pain began to ease.

As the healing continued, they discovered that Marketta’s 13 years and sudden passing opened doors to increased ministry among those encountering similar loss.

Sandra pauses deep in thought and says, “The majority of people who lose a child eventually divorce. The pain is just too great. But somehow her passing drew us closer together.

“This is the greatest tragedy we have ever shared. The loss of a precious child is just …” her voice fades off.

“I don’t know how to describe it.”

In Marketta’s final days she insisted that the couple find out if the young boy dying in the next ICU room knew Christ.

“That’s the kind of child she was, a blessing to us and still ministering to others through her own dark days.”

August 10

Time heals all wounds, and slowly the family began to recover. After a successful ministry at Westown, the family started Moon Valley Baptist Mission in nearby Phoenix. The congregation, which averaged 120 members, was faithful to continue Bethea’s $33.34 retirement contribution.

The surviving tableware and vases are displayed on the living room wall that leads into the master bedroom. JOE WESTBURY/Index

The soft-spoken retired pastor then briefly diverts the conversation, openly wondering once again how the work beneath his feet is progressing. “Not knowing is really getting the best of me,” he admits as a reluctant confession.

Unknown to him, much of the work has been completed and painting is well underway as the teams continue their push to the Aug. 25 dedication. A large hole in the basement floor where new plumbing was laid is now being filled with dirt and the concrete mix.

Bethea eases out of his easy chair to continue talking while walking around the backyard – but a safe distance from the construction. He relates how the family moved to Immanuel Baptist Church in El Paso, TX, and then to Bel Aire Baptist Church in Hobbs, NM. At that church, where he served as pastor and choir director for 13 years, the church received the Eagle Award for exceptional Sunday School growth from the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources).

The couple stand in their new kitchenette, which is attached to the living room. The living area once housed an automobile in one of the two bays in the former garage. The other bay remains as a storage area. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Then as Sandra’s health began to flare up with fibromyalgia the couple decided it was time to move closer to their two daughters in Georgia. Her pain forced her to miss too many church events and she found herself bedridden with greater frequency. She was serving as New Mexico Woman’s Missionary Union president and finding it harder to travel.

In 1998 they moved to Marietta and shared the residence with daughter Monica and husband Keith. Daughter Miranda, who lived not too far away in Woodstock, was searching for a home that would accommodate herself and her parents in their retirement years.

The couple still ministered as Bethea accepted the call as pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Canton and Union Hill Baptist Church in Alpharetta, from which Bethea retired in 2010.

After the end of the three-month project, the couple stand outside their new apartment which previously stored all their earthly possessions. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Then one day Bethea learned about Mission:Dignity. After explaining their limited income and years of service, began receiving a small monthly stipend.

“It has paid for medicine we could not have afforded and helped with our groceries; I’ve taken a little bit of it now and then to get a haircut. Most of our Social Security goes for health and life insurance and utilities and such, so Mission:Dignity really is a blessing,” Bethea says.

Then Sandra explains how it provided dental work she needed and other medical bills.

Bethea quickly jumps into the conversation to say the only thing he has not had fixed is replacing a broken tooth.

“Well, you just try not to smile too big,” Sandra says with a laugh.

Few things say “Home, Sweet Home” better than your name near the front door. JOE WESTBURY/Indwx

One fall afternoon, after moving to Woodstock to live with Miranda and share her home, they received a visit from Jim Law, executive pastor at First Woodstock. As a board member at Guidestone Financial Services which oversees Mission:Dignity he learned about the Fieldings living near the church. He delivered a Thanksgiving turkey to express his appreciation for their decades of service to Christ.

That’s when he learned about Sandra’s increasing problem with negotiating the many stairs in the house and began to think about offering to renovate the basement into a single-level apartment. Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, also a strong Mission:Dignity advocate, wanted to join the project.

And now, barely two weeks from its dedication, the dream of privacy, dignity, and greater mobility is coming true for the elderly couple.

August 25

Surrounded by family and volunteers who invested themselves in the Fielding’s lives – just as the couple invested in the lives of others across a half-century –Sandra and Bethea participate in a brief ceremony dedicating their new apartment. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Cars lined the street in the Woodstock neighborhood as team members from the two churches gathered to turn the keys of the new apartment over to Bethea and Sandra. Brief tributes to the Lord, the Sunday School class volunteers, the two churches, and the Fieldings flow freely on the special day.

First Woodstock Pastor Johnny Hunt called the construction project “a miracle come true. What a joy to be a small part of a God-sized adventure through which we had the privilege to honor a Man of God and his wife for 53 years of selfless service. I love to honor those who have spent their lives honoring Him.”

Peggy Fulghum, who oversees the Mission:Dignity outreach at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, thanked the Fieldings for their half-century of service and for the opportunity to serve them now in the same way they served others.

John Ambra, director of development/Mission:Dignity at Guidestone, referred to the couple as “great examples of those we assist through Mission:Dignity. I’ve loved the Fieldings ever since my first visit in their home. They have such a great testimony of how God worked in their lives as they pastored churches in six different states during 50 years of ministry.

First Woodstock pastor Johnny Hunt expresses the congregation’s appreciation for being able to minister to the couple after their 53 years in service to others. JOE WESTBURY/Index

“But you can’t help notice their tender hearts for the Lord and for others. Whenever they talk about God’s blessings and the care and compassion they’ve received from fellow Southern Baptists, their eyes tear up and you can see their heartfelt gratitude.

“First Timothy 5:17 tells us that the elders who rule well are worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. We can certainly honor the Fieldings and others like them through a financial gift but there is something special about rolling up our sleeves and investing our time and labor to make sure they are well cared for.

“The Fieldings are blessed and the Lord is pleased.

“We are so thankful for the partnership of churches like First Baptist of Woodstock and Johnson Ferry. These two congregations not only support Mission:Dignity financially every year but also are personally involved in the lives of our retirees in Georgia. This remodeling project on behalf of the Fieldings is just one of many ways our Baptist family is reminding these faithful servants they are loved and not forgotten in their later years.”

Bethea Fielding thanks Johnson Ferry Baptist Church representative Peggy Fulgham for her church’s generosity in the project. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Bethea and Sandra, in their brief remarks, were visibly moved as they thanked the Lord for his faithfulness through the years.

‘We were never without a church throughout our entire ministry. God has taken care of us every step of the way and has opened doors I never imagined possible. Today I am reminded of one of our favorite verses: ‘Call unto me and I will answer and show you great and mighty things.’

“Sandra and I and our girls have leaned on that and other verses throughout our years as a family. Today is another example of His never-ending goodness and graciousness to us.

“To Him be all honor and glory.”

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