By Bishop Linda Lee
As I thought about the theme for Women’s History Month 2014 — “Women of Character, Courage and Commitment” — two women came to mind. One is Tabitha (also known as Dorcas, Acts 9:36-43). She was a successful businesswoman of her time and a disciple of Jesus known for her good works. A seamstress or garment maker by trade she was so loved and respected by her community that her name was known in both Aramaic and Greek. This was a testimony of her ability to relate to and care for people across language and culture and — as the grief of the widows attested after her death — across class. As I remembered Tabitha, another woman I know who was a seamstress came to mind.
Her name was Lillie. She was born to a sharecropper and a school teacher in Mississippi in 1922. She was a lively and hard-working young woman on the family farm. She taught herself to sew because the family didn’t have extra money to buy pretty dresses for her or her younger sister, Ida, or ‘fancy’ shirts for their four brothers. The first dress Lillie made was from a flour sack that she transformed into a beautiful garment. Lillie took this gift and skill of garment making with her as she finished high school, married and had two children. She worked in clothing factories and was an active member of the Garment Workers Union, becoming one of the negotiators for workers rights at the factories where she worked. But Lillie also made garments for women in the community. Like, Tabitha, women from all walks of life came to Lillie for beautiful garments. But they also came to confide, to pray and to dream. I realized these two women, one then and one now, were not too different. Both were followers of Jesus, known for their good works. Both of them had character, courage and commitment. Some of the women who came to each of them were not otherwise able to buy new dresses. Some of them had families, husbands, children. Some were widows or childless. Others just needed someone to listen to them , to pray with them or to remind them that if they kept their trust in God, everything would be all right. All of them were marginalized by the context in which they lived, socially and economically oppressed.
I didn’t know Tabitha. But when I read her story and how the widows wept when she died I thought about Lillie and the women who mourned when she died. And though Lillie was not brought back to life like Tabitha was, her memory and witness live on in the people whose lives she touched – like me. Her witness and courage, her teaching and advocacy for African American women and for others inspired and uplifted many.
Lillie Williams Lee was my mother (1922-2003).
I write today as a tribute to her and other unnamed women of character, courage and commitment in our congregations and communities, who minister to the souls of other women and men as they live out their faith in day to day tasks. This is a tribute to those who share their God given gifts and their faith so that others can have hope and find God for themselves.
Bishop Linda Lee is Bishop in Residence and Student Life Pastoral Care Team member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is an affiliate member of the Church Relations and Vocational Formation Committee of the Board of Trustees. Lee made history in 2000 when she was the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction. She is editor of the book “A New Dawn in Beloved Community: Stories with the Power to Transform Us.”