By Dawn Wiggins Hare
“We’re thankful for Your wonderful Providence in raising up among us those who cast bold visions and who hold grand hopes, who live with unbashful expectations and who seek a better world for all Your children, who rise above petty concerns and who give themselves to noble causes, who pursue high standards of justice and who kindle in all of us the highest and noblest and best…”
Thus began the prayer of the Reverend Doctor Gorman Houston, Jr., when Alice Finch Lee was honored by the Women’s Section of the Alabama Bar Association in 2003. This month the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women of The United Methodist Church celebrates Women’s History Month by sharing stories of women and men who have made our church and world a better place for all God’s children. We hope that you will follow our blog and be inspired to live a life given for noble causes, pursuing high standards of justice, and kindling in your heart the highest, the noblest, and the best.
Women’s History Month dates back to March 8, 1857, when women from New York City factories staged a protest over working conditions. In 1909, the first International Women’s Day was observed, but more than half a century passed before the United States Congress established National Women’s History Week in 1981. In 1987, Congress expanded the week to a month. Every year since, Congress has passed a resolution and the President of the United States has issued a proclamation establishing March as Women’s History Month. In celebration of the worldwide nature of our church, we are expanding this recognition to celebrate inspiring women and men from around the world.
Alice Finch Lee was born September 11, 1911. She is 102 years old with such a strong work ethic that she continued to practice law until her ninety-ninth year. She is a wisp of a woman with a brilliant mind who practiced tax and real estate law and worked in her community with the American Red Cross and her local hospital board. Her greatest love and where she gave the majority of her time, her talents, and her service was to her church, The United Methodist Church. “Miss Alice” (as she is known) has held every position of lay leadership at the local, district, and conference level of the church, and jokingly says that she has held every position other than that of “preacher.” Just as Saint Francis of Assisi once said to the monks in his order, “let us go into the city and preach, and we will use words if necessary,” Alice Finch Lee may never have preached, but her sparse words have bellowed like thunder from the mountain top when she has shared them.
For decades, Miss Alice served as a delegate to the Alabama West-Florida Annual Conference. During one of these meetings in the mid-1960’s when the rhetoric of racism was loud, a committee report seeking to acknowledge and mend the problems of the racially divided church and society came to the floor of the annual conference. Amendments were made and debate started. The advocates of continued racism were poised and ready to drag the church deeper into institutional racism by defeating the committee report. Before their leader could get to the floor, this wee woman from Monroeville, Alabama, was recognized by the convener and she went to the microphone and uttered the simple phrase, “I move the previous question.” She then sat down. The conference applauded, adopted the committee report, and the advocates of racism were left holding their long prepared speeches. Miss Alice became the hero of the conference and the enemy of the racists. She has always been a person of few words but “important words said at the right time and the right place.”
Miss Alice’s commitment to justice did not stop at the annual conference level. She bravely took the same position in her home church. During the turbulent civil rights era, Miss Alice left a standing order with the ushers at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, Alabama: Any African-American who chose to worship at the church was to be seated by her. Miss Alice was determined that her church be welcoming to all God’s children, no matter what tension waited outside the sanctuary doors.
Miss Alice’s courage and leadership did not go unnoticed. She was elected as a General Conference delegate in 1976 and 1980, serving as head of the delegation (she was the first woman to do so) and secretary of the Episcopacy Committee for the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
Miss Alice was one of the few women to serve on the Tri-Conference Committee on Merger, which ultimately brought about The United Methodist Church as we know it in the combining of two predominately white and one black denomination. The problems of racism did not end with this merger. Miss Alice was a trusted friend and counsel to the bishops through these struggling times. She told the bishops of the Alabama-West Florida conference in confidence that if any church withheld the salary of its clergy because of the minister’s stand on civil rights, she would raise the difference. During those years, she did a lot of fund raising behind the scenes and received many calls from the bishops saying “Alice, I need your help.”
In 1984, Huntingdon College gave her an honorary Doctor of Laws and in 1987, a local civic club gave her the “Citizen of the Year” award because the men in the club had not yet admitted women to their membership and could not give her the “Member of the Year” award. In 1992, the Alabama-West Florida Conference through its Commission on the Status and Role of Women established the Alice Lee Award to honor women who have given outstanding leadership to The United Methodist Church. Miss Alice has been described as “Atticus Finch in a skirt” because her courage, integrity and ethics are without blemish. It is fitting that her sister Nelle Harper chose to dedicate her master work to Alice Finch Lee.
So imagine being tapped on the shoulder by a little woman with a great smile and told that you need to take a position of leadership in the church. That is what my woman of courage did for me. In 2004, I was elected as a delegate to Jurisdictional Conference, and for the first time, the delegates of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference elected two women to the episcopacy. Robert Powell, one of the outstanding United Methodist Men leaders for the Alabama-West Florida Conference, ran over to me and said “Dawn, you’ve got to call Alice. She has got to know that history was made today.” And I did. Such is the impact of “Miss Alice” on the women and men of The United Methodist Church.
Dawn Wiggins Hare is an attorney, a former judge, and the General Secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She served as a delegate to the SEJ in 2004 and to General Conference in 2008 and 2012. She is the 2012 recipient of the Alice Lee award.