Mary McLeod Bethune: Faith in service

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)

Sometimes you just don’t want to add too many words to a woman’s stunning list of accomplishments.

Mary McLeod Bethune is one of those people.

She was born the 15th child of a former slave on a farm near Mayesville, South Carolina in 1875. Mary worked hard in the fields with the rest of her family – some stories say she could pick 250 pounds of cotton a day by the time she was nine years old.

Her life started to change when she was 10.

A black missionary came around to invite the children to enroll in school. The family could only afford to send one of them, and Mary was selected to make the five mile trip to school daily. She then passed those lessons on not only to her siblings, but also to her parents.

Thus began a life of education and influence of which her family could only have dreamed.

The list of highlights and accomplishments includes the following:

  • She attended Moody Bible Institute.
  • She became a teacher first at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, and then at the Kendall Institute in South Carolina.
  • She opened the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls.
  • In 1929, the school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute and became today’s Bethune-Cookman College.
  • She opened a hospital in Daytona after a black student was turned away from another hospital.
  • She served with the American Red Cross, and worked for the integration of both that organization and of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps
  • She held voter registration drives after women were given the right to vote, and conducted anti-lynching campaigns.
  • Mary founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935.
  • She served on commissions under the presidencies of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
  • In 1936, Mary was named director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
  • She served as president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from 1936 to 1951.
  • She became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) in 1940, and held the office for the rest of her life.
  • During World War II, she served as special assistant to the secretary of war and assistant director of the Women’s Army Corps.
  • She attended the founding conference for the United Nations.

All of these accomplishments only happened because her dream – and what she had believed to be her calling  – was denied to her. Mary attended Moody Bible Institute with the goal of becoming a missionary to Africa. The mission board, however, denied her request because she was black.

Yet her faith compelled her to continue to work.

There’s a quote attributed to Mary that is sometimes incorrectly cited as “Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”

The correct quote reveals the importance Mary placed on faith.

Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.

Though disappointed that she could not serve as a missionary, God clearly had a different plan for Mary’s life. It was a plan that took her from the classroom to the halls of government to the streets of cities and towns struggling with civil rights issues.

And, one day, it took her to Africa. Finally.

In 1953, Mary served as an American delegate to Liberia for that country’s presidential inauguration.

In Ruth Tucker’s Extraordinary Women of Christian History, Mary is quoted recalling the experience.

Ever since my student days at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, in the ‘Nineties,’ when I so much wanted to find happiness as a missionary to Africa, I had seen myself doing just this—counseling and praying with the native people in the far-away land of my ancestors—and here I was. It was wonderful.

Mary died only two years later.

***
This is the 23rd post in my Write 31 Days series for 2017 in which I am taking a devotional look at key women in Christian history. For more information, or to start the series from the beginning, visit the introductory post.

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