By Minnie Lamberth
Around 4 p.m. on a Sunday, Miss Pat sat in a chair next to the salad station in the hallway outside the church kitchen. This was her second day of preparing and serving meals for the choir and crew between performances of the Living Christmas Tree, the 32-year tradition at First Baptist Church in Montgomery where choir members fill an oversized metal tree in the center of the sanctuary and sing songs of the Savior’s birth.
“How are you doing?” I asked Miss Pat.
“How am I doing?” she asked in return. “Not good right now. The weather’s changing.”
“The weather is changing?” I hadn’t heard the forecast. Plus, even when I do, I often forget to listen.
“Yeah, it’s going to rain,” she said. “My bones start aching when it’s going to rain.”
Pat Stewart is 81 years old. She had been at the church since 7:30 a.m. This particular Sunday she would stay until around 7 p.m.
One of my earliest encounters with Miss Pat was in the preschool hallway – the previous preschool hallway, that is, before the new children’s wing was constructed. This was 2006. I had walked with a friend to pick up her young daughter after Sunday school, and I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned and Miss Pat said, “I liked your cookies.”
The cookies. That’s how I know it was 2006. This was my freelance ministerial experience from that time, where – as someone who’d never made cookies before and doesn’t like to visit strangers or meet new people – I had decided to deliver cookies to in-home members, unannounced.
Brunies was one of my first visits. I had gone to see her the day before. As my visit ended, Brunies told me she didn’t eat much and asked if I wanted to take some of the cookies back with me. When I declined, Brunies said, “Well, I’ll give them to visitors then.” Sure enough, when Miss Pat went by for a visit, Brunies gave her one of my cookies, and the next day Miss Pat tapped me on the shoulder in the hallway.
Later, as someone who doesn’t typically prepare or serve meals, I began to apply that lack of skill in the church kitchen on Wednesday evenings. That’s where I began to see Miss Pat more frequently. During the meals, she works in the hallway either with the drinks or salads. I’m on the inside, handing out desserts over the counter.
I don’t often do daytime events, but one day last winter there was to be a large church luncheon, and I said I’d come. Miss Pat was working the drinks. I happened to mention to her before the event, that, it being lunchtime, I could drink sweet tea when the workers ate their meal. I always drink water at night – no caffeine. But in the daytime, I could drink tea.
As the meal was being served, I heard the word filter into the kitchen, “We’re out of sweet tea.” It didn’t seem like a big deal; I would drink water after all. But when our work was done and I went to the drink station for my own meal, Miss Pat pulled from behind a large tea container the cup of sweet tea she had saved for me.
“You saved me tea?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
I was surprised, but people who serve do things like that.
Sometime later, I was wondering about my Sunday school experiences. I had had a number of these experiences, and I was noticing that I was the common denominator in my reasons for moving from one place to another. So I started thinking, “Maybe I am in the wrong department.” Then I had another thought. “Maybe I should try preschool.”
Now, what did I know about preschool? Not much, but I knew someone who stood in the preschool hallway. Miss Pat was not only in that hallway that one time I saw her in the old area, but every time I walked through the new area when I went to pick up my great niece from her class. I was pretty sure I could do something like that – stand in the preschool hallway – but how would I find out if they’re hiring? The next Wednesday, I told Miss Pat, “I was thinking about preschool. How do you get a job standing in the preschool hallway?”
She said, “Well, you have to have been doing it 50 years.”
Oh. I couldn’t meet that qualification.
“You need to be in a room,” Miss Pat continued. “I used to be in a room. Now I go get things for the teachers.”
She asked me what age I was interested in. I wasn’t thinking nursery or bed babies; maybe ages 4 or 5.
Miss Pat told me to go to Donna Hoomes’ 4-year-old room. Later, she told Donna Hoomes I was coming to her room. She told the preschool minister I was thinking about preschool, and that Sunday afternoon, Sheila Hinds gave me a call and said Pat Stewart said she should call me. So pretty soon, I was in a room – mainly because I kept seeing Miss Pat in the hallway.
Miss Pat has worked in the preschool ministry at First Baptist for 41 years, dating back to when her late husband, Alvin, became the church’s minister of education. Including two other churches, she’s worked in preschool ministry nonstop for 55 years.
“I started working in preschool when Michael (one of her two sons) was 7 months old at Dauphin Way Baptist Church,” she said. She then worked at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Montgomery before her family came to First Baptist.
On this particular day – the day the rain was coming in and the choir was singing – I asked her what she had done at 7:30 a.m. I knew this already, but she is something of a snack facilitator for the 4-year-olds. “I checked to be sure if we had enough juice and crackers, then came to the kitchen at 8:00,” she said. She had worked in the kitchen, preparing for the late-afternoon choir supper, until Sunday school started. So I asked her what she did during that time.
“I took juice to the classes, visited in the classes to see if anybody needed anything, collected attendance.” The 4-year-olds are on the first floor, but she said she also goes up to the third floor to collect attendance for the kindergarten classes.
Forty-one years ago, she’d been in a 5-year-old room. She recalls that the preschool area at that time was near where the reception desk at the Scott Street entrance. Miss Pat told me, “One of the things I always remember is learning that preschoolers are very literal minded. I asked, ‘Can you tell me a time that Jesus helped someone.’ And the answer was: ‘About 10:30.’”
In the months since Miss Pat helped me get into a room in the preschool department, I too have learned some interesting things. I have learned that during the prayer time for the 4-year-olds, it seems like a good idea for the teacher to keep one eye open. One morning, despite my germaphobia, I ate a biscuit that preschoolers assisted in making. But as I watched the process, I did wonder if the prayer should be introduced: “With heads bowed, and eyes closed, and every hand washed, and mouths covered when coughing, and sneeze guards to protect us…”
I have also noticed that when I run into 4-year-olds on a social occasion, they don’t say things like, “Hey, how’s it going? Busy week? See that game? Whew. Man.” They just come stand next to me and without speaking wait to be greeted and hugged. The fact that they’re utterly adorable makes that an easy conversation.
Every Sunday, the children gather for the Bible story about 10:30. And I was thinking, I bet that’s just the time that Jesus comes in and helps someone.
“In the Hallway with Miss Pat” is part of a continuing series by Minnie Lamberth called People I Met at Church. Originally posted December 2012 at www.minnielamberth.com.