For 53 years Bethea Fielding and wife, Sandra, served Southern Baptists in churches across the West and Deep South. They spent countless hours counseling, celebrating life’s milestones in births and deaths, giving of themselves in selfless service in the name of Christ.
Today a newer, slightly younger generation is returning the favor, serving them through gifts to Mission:Dignity.
This is their story, told through the sawing of boards and jackhammering of concrete flooring in the basement beneath their feet in the home of their daughter, Miranda, in suburban Atlanta. Woodstock First Baptist Church, where they attend, and Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in nearby Marietta, offered to build out the basement for their retirement years to live in dignity and more privacy.
Due to its unique writing style of telling two stories in one – the actual construction and the couple’s life in ministry – this story will be posted in three installments this week. This series of interviews was conducted from May 11, 2016 through the dedication on August 25, 2016.
The heat index may have been 100 in the sweltering Atlanta summer, but it sure looked and felt like Christmas to Sandra and Bethea Fielding. That’s because they were about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime.
Declining health had brought them into daughter Miranda’s home about a year ago, sharing the main level living area and an upstairs bedroom. Now there would be totally separate living quarters with more privacy – and just as important, no more stairs to climb.
This afternoon finds Bethea going through a half-century of ministry memorabilia, some collecting dust in the garage which they would soon call home. He sits down at an old wooden desk which, in many ways, served as the heart of his ministry.
He runs his fingers gently across its surface, past the stacks of Jack Chick evangelistic tracts bearing the title of classics such as “A Demon’s Nightmare,” “Soul Story,” and “This is Your Life.” A picture of Christ that hung on the wall of his minister father’s home now rests on the desk next to some of Bethea’s extensive Coca Cola collection.
“This desk is perhaps one of my greatest companions over the years. From it I counseled young couples considering marriage, church members in a variety of crises, young children asking what it meant to accept Christ. It has been a friend like few others,” he says.
Bethea was born outside of Decatur, AL, and responded to the call of Christ on his life while 16 years old. Now at 76 the memories swell around the desk and the other mementoes of more than a half-century of service.
During his senior year in high school he accepted the call to Austinville Baptist Church in Decatur as a choir director and youth minister, “though I didn’t know a thing about either. But the people were patient and good to me and we had a good time together. I was young with no experience but a love for both. Those kind people must've seen something in me that I didn’t see myself.”
In a strange, providential sort of way that early ministry set the course for the rest of his life. Small churches, good people, limited funds, but a group desire to serve Christ together. During those years he also mentored nine men as they prepared for the ministry.
“Much of my early years was spent in music and youth ministry, and later I moved in and out of the pastorate and church administration as the needs dictated. You have to be flexible when you are called to small churches,” a gentle smile crossing his lips.
A week later Bethea’s wife, Sandra, is having a good day – a respite from her fibromyalgia which can be debilitating and require bed rest. But on this occasion she’s going through the family dishes in the basement, deciding what to keep and what to give to daughters Miranda – in whose house she and Bethea share – and Monica and husband Keith, who live in Ballground near Canton.
Both doors of the double garage remain open in the summer heat. One side will be enclosed as their apartment with the other serving as storage. Today both sides are being used to spread their memories on long tables to decide what to keep, what to hand down, what to give away.
Sandra is nearly overwhelmed yet composed as she picks up the dishes from church dinners, wedding receptions, and Christmas socials long past.
“These are the goblets we used to reenact the Lord’s supper,” she says as she lifts a glass. “I don’t know where the larger goblet went that Bethea used; it must be here somewhere” she says as she casts her eyes down the long table. There, her eyes pause briefly on her mother’s dinnerware set.
Fifty-three years of ministry, 56 years of marriage all sit neatly stacked awaiting final distribution. Some will stay. Others will be passed down to the next generation.
She fondly picks up a vintage 1950s Santa Claus that came out every year for Christmas open house. Sitting next to it is a punch bowl and milk glass snack plates for church wedding receptions and baby showers for children now in their 40s.
For her entire marriage Sandra wore as many hats as Bethea, serving not only as nurturing mother and faithful pastor’s wife but as his personal secretary, church secretary, and church and state WMU president. She even led the ministry of a New Mexico association when it was without a director for two years.
He does not hesitate to call her the backbone of his ministry.
“So many memories, so many good friends, my goodness,” she says as the years float by in her mind.
“We always shopped at outlet malls for our dishes, and I learned how to ‘bargain shop.’ We had some really nice dishes for little or nothing,” she adds.
Within days the fragile glass memories will be packed up so the Sunday School class from First Baptist Church of Woodstock can begin their work of transforming the garage.
Dishes used to commemorate Christmas and Easter, church socials and family holidays are just some of the precious items that will live again another day for another celebration of love and faith.
After the end of a long day at work, church member Jim Johnson walks into the basement with a few of the 15 volunteers who will perform the work. This first day of demolition will launch a 60-day project based on First Woodstock’s popular Love Loud outreach.
Virtually none of the volunteers are trained construction workers, but all come equipped with a spirit of service as willing volunteers to tear out walls, pour concrete, lay flooring, and paint walls. The group is composed of members of the Digging Deeper Sunday School class, with Johnson as project foreman. Church Executive Pastor Jim Law, who serves as class teacher, will be slinging a hammer as well.
As Johnson surveys the work and makes assignments, he recounts the church’s longstanding commitment to Pastor Johnny Hunt’s vision for community ministry. Love Loud has been a highly successful program adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention during Crossover and other evangelistic outreach efforts.
“This will be one of several of First Woodstock’s projects this year,” he says as he pushes a Love Loud sign into the soft grass outside near the curb.
Walking back down the driveway he describes the work to be done: there will be a bedroom, sitting area, closet, kitchenette, laundry room, and living room. One side of the two-car garage will be used in the project with additional partially finished basement incorporated into the design.
Adding some plumbing will be a challenge, he admits. But he and the volunteers and a licensed plumber and electrician – also volunteers – are up to the task.
“We see this as an opportunity to give back to others as God has blessed us. When God saved me I underwent a radical change. I was a real troublemaker,” he admits.
“I’m basically a very stingy person at heart but He has blessed me so much I cannot help but share His love with others.”
Co-volunteer Chuck Currin echoes the sentiment.
“I’ve worked for 44 years and was never able to find the time to help in a project like this because I operated my own business. But now that I’m retired I can’t find enough time to do all the ministry I want to do. I have no skills for this kind of work at all, but I can volunteer my availability.”
The commitment is shared by each volunteer, men and women alike, with slight variations but with a heart to serve.
Sleeves rolled up, assignments clear in their minds, they go to work. Hammers come out as the sun goes down.
Bethea and Sandra Fielding receive limited financial assistance from Mission:Dignity, a ministry of GuideStone Financial Services of Dallas, TX, and Southern Baptists' individual gifts to help elderly ministers and their spouses who live on restricted income. The construction featured in this story was provided through the generosity of Johnson Ferry and First Woodstock churches and is not a part of the Mission:Dignity benefit. Part 2 of this series will be posted tomorrow.
Nationally, Mission:Dignity assists almost 1,800 retired Southern Baptist ministers, workers, or their widows in need. Individuals who meet guidelines for income, assets, and years of paid Southern Baptist service are eligible for $225 per month; couples receive $300. The amounts are $450 and $600 for the neediest persons with at least 25 years of SBC ministry.
Thanks to an established endowment that pays for administrative costs, 100 percent of money given to Mission:Dignity benefits a retired pastor, worker, or his widow in need.
For some recipients, it means being able to stay in the familiar surroundings of their own home. For others, it covers the cost of groceries, utilities, prescriptions, and other necessities. But for each of them, it’s an expression of the love and care of their Southern Baptist family.
To share a tax-deductible gift or for more information, visit MissionDignity.org.