Nothing Can Stop Us
Compendium No. 6: Mary McLeod Bethune
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” -Paul of Tarsus,
It isn’t ours to choose the story. We’re born into a story that began long before our birth. Our challenge is to choose the way that we participate in the story we find ourselves in.
Mary McLeod was born in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina. Before the Civil War, her hometown was made prosperous through tobacco and cotton farming. But after the Union army’s victory and the slaves were freed, life in Mayesville was hand to mouth. Mary’s first five years were spent in this postwar poverty. And it shaped her.
One day, while still a child, Mary read a passage in the Bible that changed everything.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 1
This passage redefined the way that Mary, the daughter of freed slaves, lived the rest of her life. As she later wrote:
“With these words, the scales fell from my eyes and the light came flooding in. My sense of inferiority, my fear of handicaps dropped away: ‘Whosoever,’ it said. No Jew or Gentile, no Catholic or Protestant, no black nor white; just ‘whosoever.’ It meant that I, a humble Negro girl, had just as much chance as anybody in the sight and love of God. These words, stored up a battery of faith and determination in my heart, which has not failed me to this day.”2
When Mary McLeod passed away at the ripe old age of 79, this African-American woman, born into the struggles of post-civil war America was described by the New York Times as “…one of the most potent factors in the growth of interracial goodwill in America.”
Mary’s great-grandmother would have been amazed. Born more than a century earlier, she grew up raising cattle and farming in Guinea, West Africa. But in 1776, the same year that the United States adopted the Declaration of Independence, Mary’s grandmother lost her freedom. She later remembered, “In the fields, the grain was ripening but there was none to harvest when they took us away.”3 Mary McLeod’s great-grandmother became one of the 388,000 African slaves sold and forced to work in U.S. plantations. Without her consent, she found herself in the middle of the story of the transatlantic slave trade.
This was the family story Mary was born into. But she learned, as a child, that the message at the heart of Galatians 3:28 was her story as well. Christianity has regularly overcome the stories written by empires and ideologies. Throughout history, inhumane systems have given way to the story centered on Jesus. As another passage in the Bible says,
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.4
In October of 1904, after getting married and moving to Daytona, Florida, Mary McLeod Bethune started the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Located near the city dump, students would make ink for their pens from elderberry juice and pencils from burnt wood. She later reflected: "I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources. I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself, and a desire to serve."5 She had 30 students at the end of the year.
By the time of her passing, in 1955, Mary McLeod Bethune had, among other things, founded the National Council for Negro Women, been an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was the sole African-American woman of the U.S. delegation that created the United Nations charter. Today her home in Daytona Beach, Florida is a national historic landmark and she is honored by a memorial sculpture in Lincoln Park in Washington D.C.
Bethune’s participation in the story she had found herself in left many admirers. The Daytona Beach Evening News wrote, “The lesson of Mrs. Bethune’s life is that genius knows no racial barriers.” Columnist Louis E. Martin, who had known her personally, wrote, “She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she was some sort of doctor.”6
We all have access to the same “battery pack” Mary McLeod Bethune had. We can makegoodhappen in our lives, our relationships, and our community no matter what story we were born into. If we choose to participate in the story of the Scriptures, nothing can stop us. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”7
Make Good Happen is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Lerner, Gerda, ed. Black Women in White America, NY: Vintage, 1973, p. 136.
Sterne, Emma Gelders "Mary McLeod Bethune, p. 9
Straub, Deborah, ed., “Mary McLeod Bethune,” Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book II. Gale Research, 1992.
Wikipedia, Mary McLeod Bethune.