Magazine article The Christian Century

'Keep on Climbing Up.' (Spiritual Mentors) (Column)

Magazine article The Christian Century

'Keep on Climbing Up.' (Spiritual Mentors) (Column)

Article excerpt

WEAR A SMILE on your face, a prayer on your lips and hope in your heart. This food for the spirit helps you keep on climbing up." The lives of two generations of black women taught this to us children. My grandmother and my mother, Christian churchwomen who lived their whole lives in the segregated South, gave us this blueprint for joy, faith and hope which sustained us in time of trouble. These two women are my spiritual mentors--today my mother more than my grandmother, who died some years ago. In accord with Langston Hughes's poem, I can say that life for these women was no crystal stair. Plenty of times their stairs had tacks in them and places with no carpet on the floor. But all the time they kept on climbing up.

At 82 my mother, Gladys W. Carter, is a prosperous, self-sufficient woman who climbed from poverty to be one of the most respected women in her community. When I ask her where she got the strength to raise her three children without their father and raise us all up from poverty, she answers with one word: Jesus. This one word holds all her faith. For my mother there can be no human spirituality without God. Neither can there be long life for one's spirit without moral commitment to one's neighbor. So for more than 15 years Mamma, in her retirement, has been operating her own after-school program to tutor black children, many of whom the integrated public schools label uneducable. Her success rate with these children has been phenomenal. She attributes all her success to Jesus.

My mother's life has taught me that a spiritual mentor models courage and stamina without trying. Many times memory of her fortitude through the years has encouraged me to perservere. When my husband died unexpectedly five years ago, I suddenly became a single parent of four children. A salary we depended upon vanished. I was writing my dissertation and did not have a permanent job. Two of my children were in college and the third was about to graduate from high school and expected to go to college. One daughter had married a fine young man the year before. Decisions had to be made. Should I give up my Ph.D. program and take a full-time job somewhere? Should I leave the East Coast and move back to my mother's house in Kentucky? Should I take the children out of college and tell them they have to go to work full time?

In the midst of what I now recognize as panic I remembered what my parents--my mother and my stepfather--said to me at my husband's funeral: "We know it's going to be hard, but don't let your dreams die." So I decided to go the way of the dream. I would stay in my Ph.D program and finish my dissertation. The children would stay in college. The youngest child would finish high school and go to college. And I would do this the way my mother and grandmother taught me: with a smile on my face, a prayer on my lips and hope in my heart.

Today my children and I are climbing up, not down. I've finished my Ph.D. program and am teaching in a seminary. One child has graduated from college and is in graduate school. Two others are in college and are about to graduate. Everybody works. Two of the girls have started a small import-export business that is growing. One daughter has won an award at her unversity for a play she has written. …

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