Miss Iola always sat in the second seat of the first pew at country Methodist church in the hills of Henderson, North Carolina. “Amen,” she’d affirm often as I, a young student Pastor from Duke Divinity School at the time, preached some of my first sermons.
“Amen!” she’d shout, spitting tobacco juice into a tin can that always accompanied her to worship, seemingly underlining her statement. Raising a mentally challenged grandson Tommy, Miss Iola claimed to be one of the original members of the backwoods church folks say had been established by Francis Asbury back when he first rode on horseback through Virginia and North Carolina. Miss Iola was an interesting combination. She looked all of her, “eighty…mmm,” years, her wrinkled face chiseled by the hard life she had lived while still maintaining a tender, Jesus-like heart. I could always count on my sermon rating as Miss Iola exited the church, usually giving me a hug and reporting an “eight” on a good day, and a “five” on a slow one.
I got to know wise Miss Iola as more than just another character in that little church. She had a knack for baking, especially for baking her own homemade cherry pies. While leading a Bible study entitled, “Servants of God to Our Neighbors,” I noticed Miss Iola’s eyes light up one evening. Every Saturday from that day on, Miss Iola would bake up one of her pies and deliver it to someone in the community she thought might be having a hard time. I enjoyed the times she’d ask me to go with her, marveling at this hardened lady’s incredible knack for using a simple act of service to sweetly minister to an elderly woman, a widowed man or a struggling family.
One afternoon, Miss Iola wanted to take her cherry pie to a young single mother with three children whom she’d heard was having a hard time. The young woman struggled financially and was sinking into exhaustion and depression. “My heart goes out to her. Lord, she’s havin’ a tough row to hoe, and ain’t nobody there to help her with it, neither,” she explained on the way. I waited on the sidewalk while Miss Iola approached the torn screen door of a dilapidated rental house. Noises from three little ones playing and crying came from inside, and we could hear the young mother cursing. Miss Iola knocked softly. The door swung open, and a disheveled figure grunted an irritated, “YEAHHHH?”
“Oh, Honey, I know you’re havin’ a tough time. God bless ya! I ain’t got much, but here’s a pie I baked for ya…Maybe it’ll help a little bit anyway,” Miss Iola said, patting Melissa on the hand and turning to walk away.
“Who…who are you, anyway?” the young woman burst out, “And why would you bring me a pie?”
Miss Iola stopped on the sidewalk, “Well, ‘cause I know what it’s like to try to raise young-uns on your own. And, well, ‘cause God loves ya…and I just wanted to let ya know that He’s rootin’ for ya.”
“Is that it? That’s why you’re bringin’ me your pie? You don’t want nothin’ from me?” she asked, her arms crossed.
“God loves you more than you know, Honey.” Miss Iola left it at that, and we headed for the car. The young woman’s face soon melted into a smile.
“Wait a minute!” she yelled. “I…I…got some coffee…if ya wanna…” We sat in her modest kitchen drinking coffee while Melissa tried to manage her three rambunctious children. “Really, why did ya’ll come here?” she asked, after awhile.
“The truth?” Miss Iola laughed. “God filled my heart with so much love that it just kinda…spilled over onto you.”
After a minute of studying Miss Iola’s lined face, Melissa asked, “Do you go to church around here somewhere? Is that why you came here?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” claimed Miss Iola proudly. “It’s the one right there down the street a ways.”
“Oh, I get it. That’s why ya’ll came…to get me to go to church,” she said defensively.
“Nawww…Honey. That’s your decision. Come or don’t come. I just wanted ya to know that you’re not alone. That’s all. Besides…this cherry pie had your name all over it.” Before we left, I could tell Melissa was being won over by Miss Iola’s blunt honesty, just as I had been.
My approach would have been different from Miss Iola’s. I would have tried to tell this single mother the reasons why she needed to come to church- for the support, the teaching, and the fellowship. But, Miss Iola did things in her own way. She offered to come back to Melissa’s house and stay with the kids, just to give Melissa some time to clear her head. About two weeks after delivering her that cherry pie, Miss Iola walked into the sanctuary with Melissa and the kids. She looked a little uncomfortable when I greeted her. “I ain’t much the church goin’ kind, pastor,” she said quietly.
“I’m really glad you’re here. So, why did you come?” I decided to ask.
“Well, ’cause anybody who’d take a cherry pie to somebody like me without askin’ for nothin’…And anyone who’d offer to babysit my kids without tryin’ to armtwist me to come to church…Well, I just come to say thanks to God for Miss Iola. Is that a good enough reason?”
Miss Iola had learned she had talents that she could use for God, as we all do. Hers were her honesty, her time, and her pies. A month after first meeting Miss Iola, young Melissa stood up at the end of the worship service, gave her heart to Jesus, and became a member of that little church in the hills of North Carolina. Guess who was standing right there with her? Miss Iola, who said, “Amen,” and spit into her tin can.