Ruth Graham Speaks to Women of Vision Group, New C-N Organization
(Story by Mark Brown)
Months of dreaming, organizing and planning came to fruition Thursday with the launch of Women of Vision. More than 150 women, some from as far away as Chattanooga and the Tri-Cities, gathered at Knoxville’s Central Baptist Church Bearden to examine the organization and hear from Ruth Graham, president and founder of Ruth Graham and Friends.
The original discussion of what a partnership vehicle for women might look like began with conversations between senior development officer Vickie Butler and Kay O’Brien, wife of Carson-Newman president Randall O’Brien. As they examined philanthropic societies at other institutions and talked with a core group of supporters, Butler says it was clear those willing to invest time wanted something “a little outside the norm.”
While many support organizations are geared toward matching goals set by an institution’s administration or trustees, O’Brien and WOV partners are looking for a grassroots approach. In opening remarks during the inaugural lunch meeting, the president’s wife dismissed the notion of teas and white gloved vestiges of days gone by.
“I want to think of myself not as the first lady, but as the first volunteer for Carson-Newman,” she said. Her ideals for the group are admittedly open-ended. “All along, I’ve kept wondering what the possibilities are if we can get all of the women in this room, and others to engage and mobilize for the sake of our students?”
Noting the boy whose loaves and fishes were the basis of a meal that fed thousands, she asked those gathered to bring what they have, especially in terms of ideas and interests, to join the conversation. She said she hopes that WOV can match members’ “creativity, power and passion” to C-N, which, she praised, “has the most amazing human resources that I have ever seen.”
Graham, the organization’s honorary chair, is the third child of 20th century Christendom’s best known couple, Billy and Ruth Bell Graham. To articulate the traits of visionary partnership, she selected an example of stalwart service to Christ. She talked about her mom.
Using the words noted on Caron-Newman’s official seal, Graham spoke of her as one who knew “truth, beauty and goodness.” She said she could not have had a better example of vision, service and partnership than the woman who was born in 1920 to Presbyterian missionaries in China and married a fellow who would become one of the world’s most recognized figures and most respected personalities. She credited her mother with raising five children, nurturing them in the faith, and with being “the hub” that allowed the family wheel to turn.
Graham said her father told her more than 40 years ago that he realized that his wife’s commitment to Christ came before her commitment to him. The full revelation of the lesson came much, much later.
She was visiting her parents a few years before her mother’s death when a live-in nurse reported passing Ruth Bell’s bedroom on the way to check on Billy one night. Though wracked by degenerative osteoarthritis, the prayer warrior devised a way to kneel beside her bed. Ruth didn’t seem surprised by the report; she said that her mother daily demonstrated how “…to depend on God in every circumstance.”
Another lesson came in her youth when she tried to persuade her mother into rescuing her from boarding school. Miserable beyond explanation, she called home and used every tactic she could devise – all to no avail.
Finally able to edge words into the conversation, the mother said to her daughter, “Honey, find the one person there more miserable than you and make them happy.”
She regaled her listeners with laughter and moved them to tears only minutes later. She noted her mother’s commitment to Bible study, encouragement of others, and her love for the written word. She also noted the witness she was for Jesus.
Whereas her famous dad preached in bulk – to tens of thousands at a time, sometimes over consecutive weeks – her mom, Ruth Bell Graham, ministered personally to anyone she met. “Mother’s deepest core desire was that for everyone to have a personal relationship with Jesus.”
She closed her remarks by encouraging those gathered to partner with Women of Vision. Having noted her appreciation of spending time with Carson-Newman students, she praised that, “(They) are serious about their faith, serious about missions, articulate and serious about their studies.”
“You can make a difference for Christ in the lives of these students and they can make a difference in the world. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of that.”
“I came expecting a packaged speech, and it wasn’t,” assessed Dotty Vinson, a member of Central Baptist, Bearden. She seemed to speak for several when she said she had never considered that Ruth Bell Graham sometimes struggled.
She planned on adding at least one thing she learned to the front of the refrigerator as soon as she got home.
“Fear not tomorrow,” she quoted, “for God is already there.”