My new novel Destiny is drawn from my family’s heritage of explorers, settlers, soldiers, cowboys, and pastors. The sweeping family saga spans four centuries. ~ Randy Willis
August 22, 1841
Spring Hill Baptist Church on Hurricane Creek
Near Forest Hill, Louisiana
William Prince Ford rode up and tied his saddle horse to one of the hitching rails next to Ole Sally. He smiled and said, “Mornin’, Pastor. We missed you last night. Looks like another great day at Spring Hill. You look rested this mornin’.”
“Yes, William, sorry we did not make it to your place yesterday, but thank you for the invitation. I decided to sleep under the stars. It was refreshin’!”
The men started to walk toward the church, but then Pastor Willis stopped abruptly. “William, I’ve done more thinkin’ about our talk. I need to ask you why you went ahead and bought Dradey when you knew she couldn’t be with her children?”
William shrugged. “Well, sir, Freeman didn’t want Dradey, just the girl. And the boy was already gone by then. I felt I could at least provide a decent place for Dradey to live and work. Would you have done it any differently?”
“I like to think I would,” said Pastor Willis. “I would like to believe that I would have mounted Ole Sally and followed those children wherever they were taken, and I would have gotten that money to buy them and bring them back to their mama. You acted on what you thought was a charitable way of behavin’, but it still led to the breakup of a mother and her children.”
William was about half a step behind the parson as they walked up to the front door, and it was obvious William wanted to make a reply in his defense, but a crowd of well-wishers assembled at the door.
“Nice to see you, Mr. Ford,” said a neighbor.
Peter Tanner came up and shook Brother Willis’s hand. “Can’t wait to hear your sermon, Pastor.”
Another added, “Isn’t this a nice day!”
Joseph smiled at the folks, but William didn’t respond to their interruptions, and his red face carried an expression that was hard to interpret. He caught up to Brother Willis, who was working his way down the aisle greeting folks.
William tugged at Joseph’s coat and whispered, “Pastor, you’re beginnin’ to sound like one of those abolitionists from the Northern churches. You’re not ‘gainst slavery, are you?”
Joseph turned and replied over his shoulder, “You might be onto somethin’ there, William.” He moved forward, getting ready to sing the day’s hymns. Silently, he prayed, If ever I needed to be in the Spirit, it’s right now.
The preacher scanned the sanctuary for Solomon and Eliza and was happy to see they were there. Solomon was seated with the men slaves, and Eliza was seated with the women slaves at the back of the church, for there was no balcony.
After the singing concluded, Joseph rose and asked, “Which of you children can recite the Golden Rule?”
A young boy sitting next to Peter Tanner stood and said, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
“That’s very good. It actually says, ‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.’ I just spoke yesterday at your school. ”
All the children clapped. “Can you tell me what that verse means?”
Another young boy raised his hand and stood. “Pastor, it means that however I treat others is goin’ to come back on me, like if I’m mean to someone during recess, they’re gonna be mean back to me.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Well said, young man. That’s one way to look at it.” The boy sat down. “Now, let me ask you adults, how many of you believe in the Golden Rule?” All hands went up, and everyone was looking around.
“Good. My next question is, ‘Who’s your brother?’”
Peter Tanner stood and said, “Bible says that everyone is our brother. Jesus taught that in the story about the good Samaritan”
“You have answered correctly, for Jesus’ own half-brother, James, wrote in the Word of God that we are to treat everyone the same. My father told me many times that the test of a man’s character is how he treats those who can do nothin’ for ‘im. Those who know me often hear me tell stories about my mama, who was a Cherokee slave. When I was facin’ a big decision, she would always give me the same advice: ‘Joseph, ask yourself the question, “What would Jesus do?’ I had to ask the Lord that question yesterday on Barber Creek.”
Joseph paused for emphasis, then explained, “ I fell to my knees and I asked Him, ‘What would You have me do?’ I then said, ‘Lord, You don’t have to answer that, because You gave me that answer already when I was a Cherokee slave many years ago, in my own family on my own property.’ I grew up on the Cape Fear River in Bladen County, North Carolina. My father would often tell me, ‘Joseph, see ‘em boats? A risin’ tide should lift all boats.’ That’s how he described the Golden Rule.” Again he paused to give the congregation time to weigh that.
“The Lord then spoke to my heart yesterday, saying, ‘My question to you, Joseph, is what are you going to do?’ I’m now goin’ to call a few men up to the front. Peter and William, would you mind comin’ forward.” Peter came forward quickly, but William was slow to cooperate.
“Gentlemen, would you mind showin’ us your backs? Nothing immodest, please, but just lift your shirts a little.’ The two men stood there stunned and did not do it. Pastor Willis then pulled out a whip from his travel bag. “Who would like to volunteer to lay one hundred stripes on the backs of these men?” The people gasped, and Joseph saw a few women put their hands over their mouths.
“Do I have a slave who wants to whip these men for disobeying my request?”
No one moved. Not one person came forward to take the whip from the preacher’s hand. He stood there, looking at the faces of the men and women he had known for a long time. “Gentlemen, you may sit down now.” Slowly, they did so.
“I came here in 1798, and I have watched this sin called slavery grow, and I have done nothin’ to stop it. I have not spoken out against the horrible treatment of my brothers and sisters. I have allowed God’s Word to be used against ‘em. I have heard the tragic stories of families being torn apart and of lost children, and I have sinned by my silence. I was once a slave, but never again, and neither should any other man be!”
With that, Peter Tanner stormed down the aisle and pulled his wife out of the pew. In his anger, he proclaimed, “This preacher is senile and has lost his mind. I am not staying for any more of this nonsense.” Several more got up and walked out after him. But, to Joseph’s surprise, most did not. He continued to stand there, holding the whip.
The thunder that suddenly boomed outside was not as loud as inside. The
storm clouds had opened, and the rain pelted the church building and the church body. Needing to say no more, Pastor Willis bowed his head and closed the service in a word of prayer. When he opened his eyes and looked at Solomon, he could detect a nod of affirmation, and when he looked upon Eliza, her eyes were dry, and she had one had raised and seemed to be praising the Lord.
The news of that day’s sermon spread throughout Rapides Parish like a wildfire. Brother Willis was one of the most talked about men in Central Louisiana, but he didn’t care. He was at peace.
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Destiny is available February 14, 2019
Randy Willis is the author of Destiny, Beckoning Candle, Twice a Slave, Three Winds Blowing, Louisiana Wind, The Apostle to the Opelousas, The Story of Joseph Willis, and many articles.
Award-winning Master Storyteller Randy Willis…novels about adventure, family, faith, and the character of men and women that touched generations.