Around the Corner
Neighbors and Providence
By Joy Corn
Pal Marshall. Not a name you hear every day. I think “Pal” was short for Palmyra, but she was a pal to many. I knew her as a grandmotherly figure, a fixture in my home church, Horton Heights Free Will Baptist in West Nashville, Tennessee. Her hallmark ministry was sending postcards to everybody who ever missed a service. That included my family.
For us, missing church was a rare occurrence, usually tied to the 450-mile trip to visit grandparents twice a year. Still, I was deeply impressed by Mrs. Marshall’s consistency to let us know our church family missed us when we were gone. But God used Pal Marshall in a much more significant way in my life, totally without my knowledge or awareness until many years after the fact. Let me explain.
Pal and her husband Ed lived on Osceola Avenue in West Nashville in the late 1930s with their two young daughters, Joyce and Loyce. They faithfully attended East Nashville FWB Church. It was a natural thing, then, when new neighbors moved in down the street to invite them to church. These neighbors had two young daughters about the age of their girls, and the girls hit it off. Their friendship made it easy for the neighbors’ busy mother (not a stay-at-home mom) to agree the girls could ride to church with the Marshalls each week, though the mom felt her work schedule would not allow her to attend.
This arrangement continued for years. The Bass girls, Joyce and Helen, rode with their friends, Joyce and Loyce Marshall, to East Nashville Church almost every Sunday. They enjoyed Sunday School and heard the preaching of pastors like Clarence Bowen, Damon Dodd, and Henry “Pop” Melvin. Over time, both girls gave their hearts to Jesus. Pal and Ed consistently provided the means for these girls to be under the sound of the gospel, and it bore fruit in their lives.
Though in their late high school years, the Marshall girls moved to Charlotte Park, and the Bass girls moved to the country, the two families remained close. Tragically, Joyce Marshall died of leukemia when she was only 21, and the Bass girls grieved with the Marshall family as though she were a blood relative. Helen Bass and Loyce Marshall maintained their close friendship far into adulthood, a relationship strengthened by their common church experience and their common faith.
When Helen Bass married at age 20, Ed Marshall performed the ceremony at East Nashville FWB Church. Because of Helen’s close connection to the East Nashville Church, her husband Gilbert was not opposed to attending there once they started their own family. (Though the church was across town from where they lived, and they passed at least three other Free Will Baptist churches en route.)
After Helen and Gilbert’s first two sons were born, Charles Thigpen and Leroy Forlines (members at the East Nashville Church) came to their home on visitation, and through their presentation of the gospel, Gilbert accepted Christ as his Savior. The young family continued to make the weekly trek across town to East Nashville Church. They added two more children over the next ten years, and the four children grew up in church and were saved and baptized at East Nashville FWB Church.
When the middle son, Randy, graduated from high school, it did not surprise his family when he announced he would be the first in his extended family to go to college, but what did surprise his parents was his request to attend Welch College (then Free Will Baptist Bible College). Having grown up attending church with men like L. C. Johnson (first president of the college), William Henry Oliver, and Henry Melvin, along with countless others in the “Who’s Who” of Free Will Baptists, it seemed a natural next step for him. His parents agreed to pay for the first year, which turned into four, at the college. God called Randy to preach his junior year.
A freshman girl at the college caught Randy’s eye about that time. And this is where the stories begin to merge. I was that freshman girl. Our first “date” consisted of a walk around the block before supper, where I learned that Randy was a Nashville native, so we shared a hometown, and I heard a little about his home church.
When we were married at Horton Heights FWB Church four years later, I began to get the fuller picture of how our steps had been ordered of the Lord. Randy’s mother’s childhood friend, Loyce Marshall Holloway, was the organist at my church throughout my childhood. In fact, she was also my mother’s good friend, since together they accompanied our church services at the piano and organ. The Marshalls, Basses, Corns, and Kettemans had overlapping layers spanning three generations.
Our stories were intertwined from the start. The fingerprints of God were all over our families. God used Pal Marshall and her heart for her neighbors to set in motion the events that led to our paths crossing in this big world. But the intricate details of how they crossed continue to amaze me. Randy’s desire to attend Bible college, his call to ministry, our courtship and marriage, and our pastoral ministry together could have taken a different course if not for the influence and actions of a Christian neighbor more than a decade before Randy and I were born.
We recently celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. As we reflect, we see God’s hand of protection and direction in countless ways throughout our marriage and ministry. The Bible makes it clear God’s ways are past our finding out, He leads us for His name’s sake, and He is in control in the affairs of men.
That causes me to think of times in Scripture when God orchestrated “coincidental” intersection of individual timelines. Think of how unlikely that the paths of Ruth and Boaz would cross. But in God’s providence, Boaz took note of Ruth’s diligence in the fields and her respect for her mother-in-law; then, critically, he took action as the near kinsman required to meet Ruth and Naomi’s needs. Ultimately, God used this foreign woman in the lineage of Christ.
Think of the Hebrew maid whose captivity led her to Naaman’s house at the time he needed a good referral for treatment of leprosy. God, in His providence, directed the steps of the maiden in a way that allowed her to become the ultimate good neighbor who introduced a man of power and influence to Elisha and the power of his God.
Or, think of God’s providence in bringing Esther to the palace for “such a time as this.” Or think of God’s hand in Joseph’s winding steps to his role as second-in-command over Egypt. On and on the examples go.
In each case, God connected the pieces in such a way a beautiful tapestry could be formed. But, of course, He used willing people. An act as small as inviting a neighbor to church can have eternal ramifications beyond what we can imagine. God can and does work through ordinary people every day.
I am thankful for God’s providence and for the neighbors who have been His willing servants in shaping my family’s path.
About the Writer: Joy Corn teaches at Pleasant View Christian School. She is president of Cumberland Association Women Active for Christ. Learn more about WNAC at www.wnac.org.