Dear Sean

DEAR SEAN:

I think I speak for many when I ask: What is a church lady? It is a genuine question, I read your recent column about church ladies, and while I understand the the two words, I do have a question. Is there a difference between a “lady who goes to church” and a “church lady?” Or are these the same thing? Is a church lady the one organizing the flowers or something? Please advise.

Sincerely,
CARL-IN-CALIFORNIA

DEAR CARL:

With everything going on in our turbulent world, I want to stop and personally thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. I’ve been getting a lot of unsavory emails lately from some people who seem upset about life in general. But your message took me back in time, it reminded me of matronly church folks in cat-eye glasses making coconut cream cake.

To answer your question: Yes, church ladies are their own breed. If you ask me, a proper church lady is not one who merely arranges flowers. A church lady has been chairwoman of the flower-arranging committee since 1938. She also prints the bulletins, runs the prayer emails, and manages to find time to change the oil in the pastor’s Chevy every 3,000 miles.

In my childhood, church ladies were the ones who hugged you so often that your shoulderblades hurt. They were dedicated affection rainmakers. They left lipstick traces on your cheeks. And after one hug, you’d smell like bath powder all week. They were church ladies.

And each day we lose a few more of them.

So earlier when I used the term, I’m sorry I didn’t pause to consider that some might not be familiar. I suppose this would especially be true if you were a fortunate kid who didn’t HAVE to go to church, but were allowed to stay home to watch cartoons, shoot craps, hijack cars, and rob liquor stores.

But for those of us who were forced into pews at gunpoint, a church lady was basically the mainstay of childhood. They were always there. They knew everything. Saw everything. Understood all. In essence, they were God, only with much taller beehive hairdos.

If your mama needed an emergency babysitter, she called Miss Lydia, who made tomato soup with the same pH content as hydrochloric acid and told great bedtime stories.

If your family caught the flu, you called Miss Beva, who delivered homemade chicken and dumplings to your home with an industrial tanker truck.

If your family lost a loved one, Miss Mel would deliver coconut cream cake. And if you were a boy whose cat, Rusty, had died, a coconut cream cake would magically appear on your porch along with a handwritten note.

At Christmastime, church ladies practically ran the church. And, in fact, it wasn’t “church” in the sense that you might think of church.

Because when I say the word “church,” many non-church people are already wincing. They’re thinking of a clapboard building where dozens of quiet, uptight people, with tucked-in shirts sit around weeping and speaking in tongues while singing “Amazing Grace” and dancing on the pews. This is flat out incorrect. We also took communion.

Although for many of us, church itself was less about religious stuff and more like a community center. In fact, church was the ONLY community center in some parts. If it weren’t for the tiny fellowship halls of my youth, I would’ve had nothing to do but sit on my thumbs and whistle. It was the church ladies who made sure that I had a life.

Without them there would have been no community plays; no all-night singings; no potlucks; no youth trips to Pigeon Forge; no fundraisers for new baptismals; no Fourth of July picnics featuring gospel quartets wearing enough hairspray to deflect small caliber bullets; no nothing.

What I’m getting at is that the church ladies are what made the whole thing possible. Our little world was manned (or “womanned,” rather) by their tender hands.

They brewed our iced tea, organized every major event in our lives, from christenings to weddings. They decorated the altar for my father’s funeral. They made sure I had no lint on my shoulders on the day of my wedding.

They took care of other people’s families. And when the day was through, they took care of their own families. They ran our nurseries, changed our diapers, brushed our hair, taught us the words to “Father Abraham,” and how to remove our hats indoors. A practice I cannot be broken of.

I know one church lady who adopted a 3-year-old girl whose mother didn’t want her. I know another who runs a foster institution where she teaches kids to cook. I know one who runs a free daycare in her house for single parents.

And the irony here is that to those of us who know these women, there is nothing unordinary about all this whatsoever. Because it’s who she is. I don’t know how else to define her except to say that she is human being who gives a dang about other human beings.

I realize I might have made the issue even more complicated by trying to describe these precious ladies in only a few sentences. But the truth is there is no way I could describe the uniqueness found within softhearted souls who were sent to touch a troubled and angry world.

Millions of columns could be written about them. And I firmly believe the stories deserve to be told often. Not just because this world is a mess, and not just because we could all use some kind words right now, but above all, because I could really use some coconut cream cake.

43 comments

  1. Linda - November 12, 2020 11:15 am

    Thank you for the delightful reminder of days gone by for so many of us!

    Reply
  2. oldlibrariansshelf - November 12, 2020 11:16 am

    It is my sincere hope that a church lady near you brings you the coconut cream cake you so desire.

    Reply
  3. Beth - November 12, 2020 12:04 pm

    Your column brought up all the feels today. My teenage kids would either be proud or embarrassed that I said “feels,” and it’s probably the later. I’ve spent all my years in church. My dad’s a pastor and my mom worked in children’s ministry as well. But I was sad this morning. Grieving, really. I haven’t been to church since the quarantine started. Frankly, recently, watching online just makes me sad too. I’m missing all the other parts of church that make it church. Like the church ladies. And friend chicken. I teach third grade, and I’m fortunate to work at a Christian school. I get to love kids, talk about Jesus, and hopefully teach them something along the way too. Yesterday, I took them banana bread muffins because one them mentioned he missed family gatherings and his grandma’s banana bread. As I type this I’ve just realized- Perhaps I’m becoming my own church lady!

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  4. Te Burt - November 12, 2020 12:16 pm

    I hate coconut cream cake, but that was an accurate description of the Baptist church I grew up in (from age 12, when Daddy became “enlightened”). These good ladies were the mainstay of the congregation, arbiters of who was worthwhile to know, who to avoid, and stern of eye. Some even provided the pastor with extra care by having an affair with him! My church was unique inasmuch as the pastor was a smartly-dressed little man I always addressed as “Pastor” even after he was awarded an honorary doctorate, which annoyed the hell out of him (I wasn’t the only one who thought it unnecessary to change, and besides, I was a rebellious child.) Turns out he was a barber from Mississippi with no formal education (church “fathers” weren’t even sure if he had a high school diploma). Needless to say, the “church ladies” were outraged! After all, the church lady he had an affair with was as overweight, rouged and upright as any of them! Life in the South! It’s a soap opera! “The Help” has nothing on my church!

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  5. Robert M Brenner - November 12, 2020 12:18 pm

    Well said Sean! “Church Ladies” are the backbone of communities all over America! I know this special person well. May they never disappear ❤️

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  6. Ralph Turner - November 12, 2020 12:37 pm

    Thanks Sean, I needed this one today.

    Reply
  7. Steve - November 12, 2020 12:41 pm

    We are all blessed because of church ladies whether we want to admit it or not!
    God blessed America!

    Reply
  8. Sheila Ahler - November 12, 2020 12:53 pm

    My dad as a Methodist preacher in 1960-70’s rural AL. We moved a lot and I’ve known 100s of church ladies. Thanks for a walk down memory lane.

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  9. Rhea Wynn - November 12, 2020 12:56 pm

    I pray I have the strength to become a church lady!!!

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  10. Elizabeth M. Bishop - November 12, 2020 1:16 pm

    Your comments about “Church Ladies” touched my heart. My mom was not a church-goer, but my siblings and I went to church for the fellowship with our friends and to be nurtured by the church ladies at Cook Springs Baptist: Miss Lois, Miss Peggy (who played the piano and organ) and Miss Lucille. How I miss all of them! Our little church continues to dwindle in membership, but there are still a few church ladies there doing the hard work to keep it going.

    Reply
  11. Myra - November 12, 2020 1:31 pm

    Wow, excellent description! Thank you!

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  12. Angela V Young - November 12, 2020 1:34 pm

    Dedicated to Rita Haggardt a church lady of epic proportions!

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  13. Bob Barnett - November 12, 2020 1:42 pm

    Bless Carl’s heart, he isn’t from around here! Church Ladies are like the ocean you have to see one to fully appreciate them. Our community has several and I love all of them. My mom (now deceased) had a pound cake ministry, if you were sick, you got a pound cake, if you had a baby, you got a pound cake, if you were down, you got a pound cake, if you were the UPS man who delivered her Watkins Vanilla, you got a pound cake, I could go on and on. She made 70 one summer to help a youth group. My sister has officially taken over her ministry now. I just wish she would make me one!!! Ok that was selfish, I apologize other people need them more than me.

    Reply
  14. Jan - November 12, 2020 1:51 pm

    So many memories of Church Ladies and the wonders they wrought. We still have Church Ladies at our Church but passing years and the Covid rules are making it difficult to continue your standard Church Lady behavior… God bless them!

    Reply
  15. Romona Robertson - November 12, 2020 1:53 pm

    Wow thanks for taking me back to my childhood church memories. A little church in central Alabama where on a good Sunday we would have 50 people in attendance, but boy did we have some wonderful Church Ladies.

    Reply
  16. Jenny Young - November 12, 2020 2:10 pm

    You know there is a story that has been lost to history…..we all know about the three wise men who were late to Jesus’ birth. Have you heard of the three wise women? They were on time & brought very useful gifts: diapers, wipes AND a large casserole. They were the original church ladies.

    Reply
  17. Bo - November 12, 2020 2:13 pm

    They are also the first to appear with that coconut cake when a family member dies and in record time. And after the funeral they are in the kitchen organizing the casserole chaos. They do it with selfless grace and a smile. God bless them all.

    Reply
  18. Dee - November 12, 2020 2:18 pm

    Church ladies are the glue that holds all church events together and makes things run smoothly. They are never given enough credit for everything that they do. Thank you for this column today!

    Reply
  19. Raydene L Kelly - November 12, 2020 3:24 pm

    One dear “church lady” was Alma Jones. She came to my grade school and would bring us to this house one block from my house to “church” for bible lessons, complete with felt boards. She then would have the Sunday bus pick us up for church. I was a Missionette and prayed fiercely along with my fellow church family for my mother who eventually went to church when I was 12 simply so I would quit bugging her to attend. She accepted Christ as her savior and never turned back. Alma Jones was my favorite “church lady”. My mother passed away at the age of 58 back in 1998 so she is missed dearly. Some would probably say my mother was a “church lady” (she worked every Sunday in the church library). Thanks for the fond memories.

    Reply
  20. Gwen Woodard - November 12, 2020 3:54 pm

    Thank you so much for this article! I grew up in a similar manner, and (before COVID) taught a Sunday School class of 80 year old church ladies. The class went from eight to two—they are moving to heaven and a much deserved reward.

    Reply
  21. Mary Guenther - November 12, 2020 3:55 pm

    You are such a gifted writer and human being. I look forward to your letters each morning. Thank you!

    Reply
  22. Connie - November 12, 2020 4:01 pm

    I love this. I don’t think I could have made it through childhood without the church ladies at our little church. They are truly the backbone and strength of any church. Hugs.

    Reply
  23. haileyhudson - November 12, 2020 4:46 pm

    I’m so thankful that I grew up with a couple dozen church ladies in my life!

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  24. Linda Moon - November 12, 2020 5:22 pm

    One church lady is known as Enid Strict. I liked “her”. A genuine church lady (not one played on TV) is like your descriptions, columnist. My mother was one of those, and she had lots of lady friends who were mainstays of my childhood. The church-man (Pastor) drove me to a hospital when I was comatose from something unknown because my Mom didn’t have a working car. You, Sean, are a one-of-a-kind human being who strings kind words together for us other human beings!

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  25. T.C. - November 12, 2020 5:28 pm

    God bless those “church ladies!”

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  26. Barbara TN - November 12, 2020 7:28 pm

    I fondly remember the church ladies calling on all of us for food for the funeral receptions and specifying the dishes that we were known for. And I worked with them in the kitchen on Tuesday to prepare the Wednesday night suppers. They’d dice, slice and roast, all the time filling each other in on who was sick, who was getting better, who was out of town, etc.

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  27. Debbie L Porter - November 12, 2020 7:46 pm

    I am so thankful for all the church ladies in my life. Your words brought tears of joy this morning. I so needed them. The thing about church ladies? No matter how old you get, if you need something, you can call up a church lady, no matter what time it is, and they will listen. Then they usually tell you God still loves you, and things are going to be ok.. Kinda like you Seen. Are you sure you are not a church lady??❤

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  28. MAM - November 12, 2020 8:36 pm

    My mother was a Baptist “church lady” without the rouge and hairspray. She, at 91, when she was in the hospital and couldn’t teach Sunday School that Sunday morning, was replaced by a 93 year-old church lady. Mom played the piano, taught Sunday school and sang with the choir while playing. She occasionally baked for church items, too. Miss her and her church lady friends.

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  29. Patricia Gibson - November 12, 2020 11:51 pm

    Well said!!!

    Reply
  30. Tammy S. - November 13, 2020 2:58 am

    I have been blessed beyond measure to have been loved, and disciplined a time or two, by more sweet, little “church ladies” than I can count. First, as a little girl in my home church down in the country of West Tennessee, then as a pastors daughter, again all over West Tennessee, and finally so loved and nurtured by these sweet “church ladies” as a young pastors wife in North Carolina. I would not be who I am today, as a woman, were it not for God and the precious “church ladies” God allowed in my life along the way.

    Another great one, Sean. Loved remembering these ladies, many who are fussing over people in heaven now, as I read your post! Thank you!!

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  31. Allen PhDude - November 13, 2020 4:01 am

    Amen. Church Ladies are God’s special servants. We’d all be lesser without ’em.

    PhDude

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  32. Christina - November 13, 2020 6:43 am

    God bless these church ladies and their coconut cream cakes

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  33. Cheryl - November 13, 2020 2:58 pm

    Wonderful post. This needed to be written and you were the best one to do it. What a tribute. Thank you for the memories.

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  34. Tom - November 13, 2020 4:48 pm

    You nailed my growing up in a small Baptist church in rural Alabama. I could name you bout 10 of those ladies to include my mother and my grandmother. Oh to go back 60 or 70 years to those days.

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  35. Linda Berry - November 13, 2020 5:02 pm

    I know those ladies and the are worth more tan gold!

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  36. Linda Puente - November 13, 2020 10:47 pm

    You clearly grew up in a southern church. I know the church ladies well, but up north they made saurkraut from scratch in the church basement so everything smelled of fermenting cabbage for a month, and then they boiled the rutabagas to go with it. No, sirree, no coconut cake for us northerners.

    Reply
  37. Rodger Smyth - November 14, 2020 12:24 am

    Amen to that!!! My Granny was the VERY best “church lady”. God bless her soul and the lives she touched. Thank you so very much for reminding us of these wonderful ladies!

    Reply
  38. Christie McRae - November 14, 2020 5:50 am

    It’s almost midnight and I am laughing out loud & thinking of the church ladies at my former church. You described them well, with humor, but also kindness. Indeed, they do it all and man, the food they made-from scratch! Coconut cake was a favorite!

    Reply
  39. Kathy - November 15, 2020 12:40 am

    I believe I am on my way to being a church lady. I’ve known many. Thank you.

    Reply
  40. Tommy - November 15, 2020 3:31 am

    Ah, Church Ladies. After our Dad’s funeral (just 12 years ago) we got back to their house to an organized FEAST put on by my brother & s i l”s Church Ladies – all the way from preparing meal to running the dishwasher & cleaning up. Thank God we still have some.

    Reply
  41. Sue Gold - November 15, 2020 6:58 pm

    Absolutely marvelous and right spot on!!’

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  42. Virginia Russell - November 17, 2020 12:10 pm

    They taught Sunday School, too, and had names like Miss Pearl.

    Reply
  43. Kaitlyn S. - November 20, 2020 2:14 am

    I’ve been blessed to grow up with church ladies, and the world needs more of them! There is definitely a difference between a church lady and a lady who goes to church. A big difference!

    Reply

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