A Little White Church

My daughter, Maryann, grandsons, and I explored Yosemite Tuesday, the day before school started when David’s a freshman, Austin’s a junior and Ethan’s a senior. I can relive the births of all of them, and they seem just moments ago. Yosemite, though as grand as always, was sad for me because Ethan and David wanted to see the Miwok village, but we couldn’t find a parking place. People were everywhere, on a weekday, after most kids are back in school! Bridal Veil and Yosemite Falls were dry. I’ve never seen them dry in my life, and I first saw them 50 years ago and every year after that except for about three (gone to Oregon to seminary). It is so dry in California, in Yosemite, that a bobcat sauntered about ten feet away from us on his way to the river, which the boys crossed without getting their chests wet, for a drink and didn’t even try to avoid us. Father, please send us snow and rain! All that said, we had a lovely day. You can’t go to Yosemite, no matter what, and not have a lovely day.

On the way back to Modesto, I purposely drove by the church where I met Jesus so I could show them. It’s in a place called Wawona and it used to be named Usona Baptist Mission. We walked down the old drive overgrown with weeds and looked at a little building that is now being used for storage. The new church is over the hill, out of sight.

My family lived on a 1,600 acre ranch called the Circle 9 then. It was like being on vacation all the time – horses, swimming pool, tennis court, lake, blackberry picking, apples. The mission was about ten miles from the ranch. Anyway, a friend of my mom’s invited us to come to the mission. I thought she wanted me to play the piano for them since they didn’t have anyone.

The mission was in a little hollow in the mountains, a one-room building with a trailer behind it and an outhouse. It had a vestibule where they kept tracts on a table, and there were windows all along the sides where you could look out at the pines while Pastor Jim, a skinny little preacher who first explained the Gospel to me, preached. It was heated by a butane stove, so in the winter, everybody clustered on that side of the room.

My high school principal and his wife, Carson and Oreda Wilcox, went there. He looked like a neanderthal, black hair, square jaw, bushy black eyebrows on huge brow ridges. When I first started at Mariposa High, I was afraid of him. He’d come down the hall, and I’d turn and rush the other way. Oreda had a natural white stripe in her hair, and she led the singing. Mom and Pop Martindale were what made me keep going, though. Mom smelled like vanilla and Pop wore overalls to church, clean ones. I’d always thought church was a fashion show, and I’m not much into that. Pop let me see what church was really about. Pearl, the lady who invited us, was my Sunday school teacher. My class met in her car, and I was the only one in it. When she realized how little I knew about the Bible, she said, “Read the New Testament. Call me on Wednesday and tell me your questions. I’ll answer them on Sunday.” Nirvana! Later, Mr. Wilcox became my Sunday school teacher, and he would play devil’s advocate with us to help us figure out our faith. He lost his scariness. On the way back to the ranch every Sunday, my sister, Becky, and I would stop and get a Mountain Dew and a candy bar and then sing the Mountain Dew song the rest of the way home.

Time passed. On New Year’s Eve of 1967, when I was in the most trouble in my life, I said, “Jesus, I don’t know whether all the things the people at the mission have told me about You are true or not. But I am in trouble, alone, and the only One who can change this is You. If You will take my life, and clean it up, I will live the rest of it for you.” Classy, huh? I fell asleep in peace. In the morning, He urged me to begin the process that led me out of that pit. On Sunday I told Oreda that I needed to “go forward” (Baptist thing) because I’d prayed to ask Jesus to be my savior, but I was worried about the music stopping. She said, “Jane, we’ve been praying and praying for you. NOBODY is going to care if the music stops playing.”

About two years later, we filled the little mission to overflowing when my husband and I married there. We decorated with little pine trees and candles, Mom made my dress, I made my cake, and my grandma played the piano, in the dark, my dad thought a candlelight ceremony would be nice. Lots of our college friends were looking in the windows from the outside because there was no more room inside.

I was talking to God this morning about how sad I feel to see the old mission deteriorating, paint peeling, used for storage. He said, “Jane, it wasn’t about the building.” Amen, Lord.

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