By Minnie Lamberth
Patty Roper was one of the first people I met when I came to First Baptist Church in 1988, and, of those first people, she’s one of a handful that I still see.
I don’t remember meeting Patty specifically. But I do know that I came to First Baptist through the sanctuary choir, and I was in the alto section; Patty was the minister of music’s wife, and she was in the alto section. Everything I’ve known of her since tells me she would have made a point to say, “Hi, I’m Patty Roper. It’s nice to meet you. We’re so glad you’re here.” And she would have been smiling when she said these things. So even though I don’t remember it, I know it – you know what I mean?
Patty’s no amateur greeter. She’s actually a professional in this role. She is the Minister of Inreach, Outreach and Special Ministries at the church. But I’m pretty sure she’d be greeting anyway because Patty does things that need doing, and greeting needs doing. These days, I give her no choice about greeting me because I walk past the registration table between the 8:30 a.m. service and Sunday school, and that’s where she sits. This is her first official duty of the week: to work at the registration table on Sunday mornings, greet visitors and help them find where they need to go. Also, she has to greet me because I walk past.
Everyone attending the services is asked to fill out a perforated card attached to the order of worship and to turn it in to ushers at the conclusion of the service. On Sunday afternoons, Patty goes through all these cards and separates the first-time visitors, second-time visitors and out-of-town visitors into different piles. She emails the list of first-time visitors to a church member who calls them on Sunday afternoons. Then she gets materials ready for Sunday afternoon visitation, when staff and volunteers head out to visit prospects, but sometimes she gets things ready for ABCs of Evangelism, a discipleship training course conducted periodically that teaches people how to witness to others.
Every six weeks, the church hosts a Membership Information Class, known as MIC, that includes a luncheon and orientation for new members. Patty makes the calls to invite people to attend, and then works with the kitchen for the luncheon.
Patty does any number of other things during the week – prepares visitor packets for the next week’s visitation; gives new member information to the staff member most appropriate to make a connection; prepares new member names for inclusion in the Beacon; and prepares the list of people with prayer concerns for Wednesday night prayer meeting. She works with the kitchen during the fellowship supper, assisting those who need help getting their trays to the table. Thursday is her hospital visitation day. And on Friday, her day off, she often comes in for a wedding rehearsal – because she’s also the church’s wedding coordinator, which often brings her back to the church on Saturday. On Sunday, it all starts over again.
Also, Patty makes homemade bread continually. “I make it primarily for people that have had a death in the family or have gotten out of the hospital,” she said. “There something about bread that it’s easier to go down than some other rich foods.”
So that’s a lot of what Patty does. But there’s no telling how many people she knows. Or, that is, how many people know her. You can do part of that math by counting 31 years of youth choir tours. As the wife of the late Bill Roper, the church’s minister of music from 1972 to 2004, Patty was actively involved in the music ministry.
Each June for about 10 days, the youth choir went on tour, and Patty went too. “That was my very favorite thing we ever did,” Patty said. The trip destinations included New Mexico, Seattle, Canada, Puerto Rico, Baltimore, Cape Cod and many other locations. Sometimes they went by bus; sometimes by plane. “The most fun trips were on the bus because you get to know people,” Patty said.
A part of the trip would involve singing at churches to or from the destination, with a home concert on the return date to the church. The trips also involved a mission project, such as a backyard bible club. “It was never just a singing tour. There was always a mission aspect to it,” Patty said.
Youth choir tours during summer started at the church in 1971, the year before Bill and Patty arrived, and they’ve continued to this day.
You can sometimes tell at what point in their lives someone in the music ministry met Patty. If they were first introduced to her through the youth choir, they may still be calling her Mrs. Roper. If they met her through the adult choir, it’s Patty.
Patty grew up in Breeman, Kentucky; Bill was from outside Hopkinsville, Kentucky. “We actually met in a speaker’s tournament,” Patty said. “The Baptists had a young people speaker’s tournament. I had won my region in high school, and Bill had won his in college. The next year I went to the same junior college in Kentucky.” They later graduated from Austin-Peay University.
After Bill and Patty married, they lived in Louisville, where Bill was attending seminary. When he completed his degree, he became full-time minister of music at a church in Louisville where he had served part-time while he was a student. He also became an adjunct professor at the seminary. During these days, their daughter Kathy was born and their daughter Beth was adopted, both within a short time frame.
“Then we moved to Montgomery,” Patty said. This was in 1972.
In addition to the youth choir, Bill also grew and developed the adult choir. The sanctuary choir prepared for many types of performances and concerts over his 32 years as minister of music for First Baptist Church. But there would be one continuing event that would become an enduring legacy: Montgomery’s Living Christmas Tree.
The idea came in the spring or summer of 1981, Patty said. “He had heard about a Living Christmas Tree, and he had seen a picture of one in a magazine,” she said. “He and Dale thought it would be a great idea because it would get people inside the sanctuary who would never come for anything else.”
Dale Huff was the pastor at that time, and he and Bill approached the deacons about this idea. As Patty explained, “When Bill and Dale went to the deacons to ask about doing this, they said, ‘We think it will last four or five years. By that time we will not have wasted the money on the frame and everything.’”
Some people objected, calling it things like – oh, you know – sacrilege. Some thought it wouldn’t work. But a lot of people gathered behind the project, and the response that first year was quite telling. The sanctuary at the time seated about 650 people, and this limit called for crowd-management practices.
“We had two performances on Sunday, one on Saturday and one on Friday,” Patty said. As the time came for these inaugural performances, the church began to distribute complimentary tickets. Members could get 15 per family.
“They did the formula of how many people might not come,” Patty said. But they didn’t account for the size of the response. “There were so many people in the hallway it wasn’t safe.”
The Friday night performance had been a full crowd, but the next day brought a heavy rain. As Patty explained, Bill didn’t think anyone would come in the rain, but he told her as he left for the church, “I’m going to go on down. I can’t imagine we’re going to have a crowd today.”
When he got to the church, however, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He called Patty to say, “People are standing in line in the rain waiting for the doors to open. I felt like God just reached out and said, ‘I’m with you in this.’”
If you know the program today – how tightly organized and efficiently most things run – you’d find it hard to believe that the Living Christmas Tree could shift on a dime as they did that first year. Because the response was so large for these four performances, Bill asked the choir to do another performance the next Wednesday night, and the sanctuary filled again by word of mouth.
Indeed, the demand for tickets in those first few years was so great that people went to unusual measures to secure them, as well as to distribute them.
“When we started it, people wanted tickets so badly the ticket committee got a roster of church members,” Patty said. That way they could check off the names of members as they received their tickets. In one case, someone must have taken a page out of voting-booth history by turning in the form of a deceased church member.
Other times, tickets were offered for sale in the Montgomery Advertiser, just like Alabama and Auburn tickets were. One office used them as door prizes at their Christmas party. The church also gave tickets to prospects. Patty said, “One lady called me and said, ‘That’s why we haven’t joined. We’re afraid we won’t get tickets if we join.’”
The most notorious ticket caper, however, occurred in the second or third year. It seems someone had created a counterfeit ticket by running it through a copier on colored paper, then placing it on a poster board stock to make it the weight of a real ticket. Later, as the ushers counted tickets to determine how many people had attended, they discovered this counterfeit ticket. “I think it was Fred Waldo that brought it to Bill,” Patty said.
From there, someone sent the story to Paul Harvey, the renowned radio storyteller, and he included it in his broadcast, ending with a punch line like this: “And they could have gotten the ticket … for free.”
In 1982, more performances were added – one on Thursday, one on Friday, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. “By that time, it had ceased to be First Baptist Church’s Living Christmas Tree and had become Montgomery’s Living Christmas Tree,” Patty said. “It was a community event.”
In subsequent years, even more performances were added: one on Wednesday, two on Thursday, two on Friday, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. The sanctuary still held a crowd each time, but with nine performances now, ticket availability was sufficient enough that untoward practices for sneaking into a church service had become unnecessary.
Bill’s selection of music for the congregation was in keeping with his calling. Patty said, “He believed they could hear secular music anywhere. Bill’s philosophy was that they needed to hear sacred Christmas music to present the Gospel.”
There was always a solo at the top of the tree. This role had changed hands over about three people in the first 15 years, until it came to Bill’s daughter Beth, who sang “Bethlehem Morning” for the remaining years of his direction.
In the initial years, the tree frame used live greenery. “When we started, they had to keep the sanctuary so cold because of the greenery,” Patty said. As the tree was assembled that first time, Bill called Patty to say that about 30 people were sitting in the sanctuary with their coats on, just watching it being built. No one had ever seen one of these before.
Actually, Bill hadn’t either. He had seen photos of Living Christmas Trees in magazines, but not live. “He did the first tree without ever having seen one,” Patty said. “After the first tree, he would go somewhere and see what others were doing.”
As the program became established, the Montgomery LCT was the one often featured in magazines that advertised Millard Heath, designer of the choir riser that was the tree’s frame.
The annual Living Christmas Tree production continues under the leadership of Chip Colee in the current sanctuary that holds almost three times as many people as the former one did. And tickets for the now-five performances are still in demand.
Bill Roper was diagnosed with a carcinoid of the liver in 1995, a battle he fought for nine years before passing away in January 2004. His legacy is not just the Living Christmas Tree as a production, but as a Christian witness he always intended for the tree to become.
Sometimes that witness happened in ways he didn’t expect. Bill was allergic to the live greenery, and in one of those early years, he had gotten sick. He made an appointment with an allergist in Birmingham that Wednesday of the first performance. “They said they would work him in,” Patty said.
So he drove to Birmingham, then he drove back. Patty asked how the doctor’s visit went. “He said, ‘I didn’t get to see the doctor. I sat in the waiting room. I sat as long as I could, and I had to get back.’ So he approached the window and said, ‘I’m sorry. I have to leave.’”
Patty was upset, asking things like, “Why didn’t you tell them what you had going on this week?”
Bill explained, “Patty, everybody there was sick. I was no different than anyone else.”
Then that Saturday night, a man came up to Bill after the Living Christmas Tree performance. He said, “I have to tell you something. I was at my allergist on Wednesday. I saw you, and I heard the kindness with which you said, ‘I have to leave.’ I said to my wife, ‘That’s a true Christian.’ And I came in tonight, and I see you leading the tree.’”
That was the kind of man Bill was and the kind of witness that endures.
As I think about it, just as Bill and Dale had told the deacons a long time ago, I wouldn’t have come inside the sanctuary for any other reason than to see the Living Christmas Tree. I would have gone inside a sanctuary, but probably not this one, probably not a Baptist one. I was making plans for another church in another denomination. But once I came inside, my plans changed.
“Inside the Sanctuary with Bill and Patty” is part of a continuing series by Minnie Lamberth called People I Met at Church. Originally posted June 2013 at www.minnielamberth.com.