It was the summer of 1965. It was very hot down in the bayous of south Louisiana. I was a college student summer worker with a missionary in Creole country, sixty miles south of New Orleans, about a thousand from my home in north Georgia. The missionary, Miss Edrie Hatton, was all of four feet eleven, wore extenders on her shoes so she could reach the accelerator and, hopefully, the brakes. She was little but she ruled her realm, the Triumph Baptist Mission, firmly and steadily. I wrote Mama about the Louisiana gumbo feasts, blue crabs some youth brought to the mission, about how mosquitoes lined up on my knuckles as I played the piano. But I didn’t tell her about Miss Edrie’s driving, how she made up for her size with her speed. As it turned out, I was to experience a faster, scarier ride than Miss Edrie would have imagined.
My main responsibilities that summer, divided between Triumph Mission the Buras Mission a few miles away, were to teach children in Vacation Bible School, play the piano for Sunday meetings and visit folks. Visiting was by car (with Miss Edrie driving), by foot, or sometimes by boat, inviting folks to church and building relationships. Building relationships can take some odd turns. Trying to be friends with young people and children in the neighborhood, I became involved in an unexpected activity on the levee that stretched between us and the Mississippi River.
When I told children the story of the five thousand Jesus fed with one little boy’s lunch, I learned that these children had no concept of what a mountain is. I wanted them to picture the crowd of people on a grassy slope but I couldn’t feel they grasped the vision. Having grown up in the foothills, I couldn’t imagine not knowing what a mountain is. Finally, I pointed to the ever present levee. “Like the levee,” I explained, “except much, much higher.”
The levee hid the mighty Mississippi from our view. I would like to have been able to see the water from the mission, the expanse of rolling river about to dump into the Gulf of Mexico. But of course I knew why the levee was there. I’d seen the water level left by hurricanes in homes I visited, a dirty mark just shy of the ceiling. The levee was there to protect the residents, though sometimes even that barricade wasn’t enough. And then there was another use for the levee that even the sharp-eyed Miss Edrie didn’t realize.
One Saturday afternoon while Miss Edrie was fully focused on studying for a Sunday Bible lesson, some children and young people came to the door to see if I’d like to come “do some things” with them. I wanted desperately to be their friend, not only just to be friends but to be able to point them to Jesus. And, besides, I was ready to go outside and “do some things.”
We followed the sandy shoulder of the road down the street several houses, then around one small house with its two banana trees and its clothesline hung with a week’s wash of bright skirts and heavy fishermen’s jump suits. Chickens scratched in the bare yard. I had no idea what we were about to do and, I think, the young people didn’t know either. We stood about awkwardly talking about fishing on the Gulf, catching blue crabs and such. One guy told with enthusiasm how he might be going to New Orleans with his father the next month. He’d never been so was very excited. We played a couple of games like “Rover Red Rover.”
About then a boy from farther along the levee appeared, pushing himself along on an old rusty dismantled motor bike. Before I knew what was happening a new game had developed, one I knew nothing about. A kid would laboriously push the bike to the summit of the levee, turn around and position himself, then push off allowing the bike to rush pell-mell down the slope while all the children screamed with glee. As the bike leveled out, the rider would turn slightly and use his feet as brakes.
My heart raced as I watched them. What if one of them broke a leg right here in front of me? At the same time, I was impressed with their inventiveness. I clapped and laughed with the others, glad to be sharing in their fun even if it was a little wild.
Suddenly my twelve-year-old friend Jocelyn climbed on the thing. Everyone cheered her on as she pushed her way up the slope. At the top she waved, adjusted her skirt, and climbed on. She plummeted down the embankment giggling and squealing in delight.
To my horror, Jocelyn then said, “Sister Brenda, it’s your turn. Try it, it’s fun!” (This was largely a Catholic oriented community, though few actually practiced Catholicism. Still, the children connected me with the terminology they were familiar with so I was “Sister Brenda.”)
I turned down the offer. One by one each youth and child, even the youngest ones, took a turn never having any trouble and obviously getting a swishing thrill out of their ride. As they continued to plead with me to try it, I admitted I’d never even learned to ride a bike. That wouldn’t matter, they insisted. The bike would go so fast I couldn’t fall off. What about my skirt, I asked. The girls, all dressed in skirts as well, laughed at me. That was no excuse.
As I pushed that surprisingly heavy bike to the top of the levee my heart began to pound. Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing here. Please help! But they had all done this so easily and I’d watched each one. Surely I, too, could safely arrive at the bottom. At the summit I looked out at the muddy Mississippi. I wished I could just sit up there for a while and watch the water go by. But the children were beginning to chant “Sis-ter Bren-da, Sis-ter Bren-da.” I positioned the bike as I’d seen them do, promising myself it would all be over in a minute. Then I pushed off.
The ride down was a terrible thrill. Indeed, I was going too fast to turn over. The trick came when I hit the flat. I forgot how they’d swerved and put their feet out. I can still remember the thud as I crashed into that house. My knees throbbed and burned from the collision. As I lay in a heap of skirts (mine and some from the clothesline) and wheels, it was my pride that suffered the most. With all those children standing over me in great distress, adults from inside the house rushing out to see what had happened, all I could think was “What in the world is Miss Edrie going to say?”
I managed to keep my skirt down over my knees so Miss Edrie never knew how badly I’d skinned them. But there was no keeping her from knowing about my foolish ride. She admonished me severely, telling me I was supposed to be a leader of the children, not a follower. How could she trust me after such a stunt?
That summer was full of so many experiences–riding the ferry across to a charming island where several of us helped with a Bible class, making visits by boat to a French-speaking village named Venice, approached only by canals, drinking coffee that marched it was so strong. It was the summer before I would marry my sweetheart so I volunteered every single day to go to the mailbox. The baptistry at the Baptist mission was used that summer after many months of being quiet. My friend Jocelyn prayed to receive Christ and she, along with several others in her family, was baptized. Every morning Miss Edrie prayed beginning with the words, “We come boldly to the throne of grace.” Yes, she did forgive me for my foolishness.
I learned that summer that God protects the foolish and uses our weaknesses for His glory. And never do I hear of a hurricane headed for the Gulf that I don’t think about and pray for my friends along the levee.