By Minnie Lamberth
The ushers’ room at First Baptist is near the main entrance on Perry Street. If you’re there before the early service, come through the front door, take a right, then poke your head into a room, and you might see Burt Martin. He’s chairman of the 8:30 ushers’ crew, a responsibility he shares with fellow usher Pick Davidson.
Burt gets to church at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays, and he’s got a number of details to oversee. “When we first get started, we have to put out the (offering) plates… make sure we have enough ushers at the doors,” he said.
Copies of the order of worship will have been delivered in boxes to the ushers’ room, and Burt sets out stacks at each doorway for ushers to hand to anyone entering the sanctuary. Visitor information is also set out for ushers, for when they walk the aisles during the welcome on the lookout for the raised hands of visitors. And he has to make sure each door is covered by an usher.
“The main thing is get it rolling,” Burt said. “There are lots of people doing lots of little things to get you in the sanctuary.”
After the offering is collected, the ushers secure the contributions in a safe. The attendance tear-offs that are placed in the plates, along with prayer requests, are rubber-banded in stacks and put in Patty Roper’s box in the church office. “She gets them right away. She monitors them pretty quickly,” he said.
During the offering, Burt added, “We have to count everybody in the sanctuary.” At 8:30, he said the two ushers for each section count their sections as they pass the plates. When they report back, however, their numbers are usually different.
“Nobody ever gets the same thing,” Burt said. Maybe someone says 109, the other says 112. So it’s not an exact science but a reasonable estimate. At 11:00, one person stands in the sanctuary and counts everyone there. So you might want to remember that if you ever feel like moving from one place to another. You could throw off the count.
Burt’s been doing tasks like this for more than 40 years. “I can’t remember when I started ushering – ’71, ’72 – somewhere in that time frame,” he said. There are some notable differences between this sanctuary and the previous one, obviously.
“We could do the old sanctuary with six ushers, maybe four or five,” Burt said. In the current sanctuary, he said, “I like to have ten.” And he’s just talking about downstairs; the balcony level has a different set of ushers.
This sanctuary is also much more people friendly. “There are restrooms and water fountains everywhere,” he said. If you were a member or visitor before 2004, you may be aware that the closest route to limited restrooms was through the front of the sanctuary.
“People didn’t like to go through that door where everybody could see them,” Burt said. “You’d have to go outside.” In other words, if you wanted to go to the restroom during a service, but didn’t want to make that known to the whole congregation, you’d have to leave the building through the back, in any kind of weather, and walk around.
Burt doesn’t officially attend the 8:30 service, as he’s much too busy and distracted with ushering details. He comes back to the 11:00 o’clock and sits with his wife Carolyn and whatever family joins them. Between those times, he’s in Sunday School.
Burt is a member of the Poundstone Class, a place of renown or infamy, depending on your point of view. This class got its start in the 1960s, two preachers ago, when a group of men who couldn’t tolerate the frills of Sunday school – such as devotions and singing and stuff – used to drop off their wives and kids and head down to the Elite Café to drink coffee and wait it out. Pastor J.R. White found them there one day – as the story goes – and said, “We have enough here for a men’s class.” And the class that now has more than 120 of First Baptist’s finest men on its roll was launched.
Burt joined a few years later, after he and Carolyn came to the church in 1968. Today, the class has four different teachers, and they teach once a month. “We don’t want to get tired of anybody,” Burt said. They bring in another teacher whenever there’s a fifth Sunday, so the risk of teacher fatigue is reduced even further.
Burt is 73 years old and in good health after a recent bout with colon cancer. Actually, this past year is one of the few times he wasn’t able to usher for the Living Christmas Tree performances because of his diagnosis and surgery. And as you’d mark time only in the SEC, he said, “This was the week of the Alabama-Georgia game.”
Burt saw his doctor on a Wednesday, a surgeon on a Thursday, had pre-op on a Friday, watched the game on Saturday, then the surgery was Monday. “How fast it moved got my attention,” he said. “Things don’t usually move that fast.” Fortunately, he’s been declared cancer-free. He also noted that, with the addition of an oncologist and urologist, “I’m building my team.”
In a sense, Burt’s early life was spent very much as a team activity.
“The most unique thing about me is that I was raised at the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home in Troy,” he said. “I went there when I was eight years old.” He stayed until he graduated from high school. The youngest of four, when he and his siblings took the bus to the campus, he said, “It was the first time I’d ever been out of Birmingham.”
Looking back on his experiences at the Children’s Home, Burt said, “I wouldn’t take anything for it. If I could wave a magic wand and create an Ozzie and Harriet family, I don’t think I’d do it.”
There was much that was good. “We lived in nice homes, were fed, educated,” he said. “We were part of the community, very well accepted. We had ball players, band members, cheerleaders.”
After high school, Burt worked his way through Troy State College as a barber. “I learned to cut hair at the Children’s Home. Actually, I was in junior high school when I learned how to do it. I started working in a barber shop when I was a senior in high school.”
When it was time for college, the head of the Children’s Home wanted Burt to attend the Baptist-affiliated Samford, but Burt chose Troy. “I had a job lined up. I had my clientele. I could have been a professional barber.” But he took another route. Or two.
After graduation, Burt joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Not too long after, he said, “I saw that was an error in judgment.” While he stayed in the Marine Reserves for 20 years, his career has been one of self-employment. He was in the school furniture and equipment business for a while, then transitioned to window coverings.
When mini-blinds were first introduced, Burt said, “I thought that was the best thing since sliced bread. Then the next thing you know, a lot of people were in that business with me.” Now he mostly does plantation shutters.
This was not his original plan. “In 1957, the Russians shot Sputnik in the air. The talk was how far ahead they were in science and math,” Burt said. Accordingly, he majored in math at Troy with the intention of transferring to Auburn to study engineering. The Marine Corps interval intervened. And then the window coverings.
“So the guy with the math major is out hanging shutters now,” Burt said. He has at times had everyone in his family involved in the business. “The whole family has helped me hands-on through the years,” he said, acknowledging, however, that “some hated it.”
The father of two and grandfather of four also served eight years on the board of the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home and Family Ministries. Things are different than when he was a boy.
“When I was there, we probably had 200 children on campus,” Burt said. The campus has since been sold to Troy University, partly as a result of a court decision about the distance children could be placed from an original home. By the last year the number of children on campus had been reduced to eight, Burt said, and he feels that the sense of the connection to the community that he once knew has been lost. On the other hand, the ministry now has more facilities, more physical locations, more services. “Last year, we probably ministered to 3400 children and family members,” he said.
Knowing what children’s ministries have meant to Burt Martin, and what Burt Martin has meant to so many, it doesn’t take a math major to recognize an excellent investment when you see one.
In the Ushers’ Room with Burt is part of a continuing series by Minnie Lamberth called People I Met at Church. Originally posted March 2013 at www.minnielamberth.com.