‘Sister Keeble’ stayed strong in mind, faith
I never got to meet Marshall Keeble or hear him preach.
I was a baby when Keeble, the famous traveling evangelist who started hundreds of Churches of Christ, died 50 years ago.
“I wish you would have had the chance of meeting him,” Daniel Harrison, minister for the Chatham-Avalon Church of Christ in Chicago, said as we discussed Harrison’s experience as one of Keeble’s “boy preachers.”
I wish that, too.
But I was blessed to interview Keeble’s widow during my time as an Associated Press reporter in Nashville, Tenn.
Laura Keeble was 104 years old — and still strong in mind and faith — when I profiled her for AP in 2003. (Even though I didn’t begin work at The Christian Chronicle until 2005, the tip for the story came from Lynn McMillon, the Chronicle’s president and one of my former Bible professors at Oklahoma Christian University.)
On weekday afternoons, Keeble sat in her nursing home room, content to watch Oprah Winfrey on television. But at 3 p.m. on Sundays, she expected someone to wheel her downstairs for worship.
“I’m going as long as I’m able,” said Keeble, who lived to be 108.
Baptized in a Mississippi creek in 1913, this gentle woman known as “Sister Keeble” boasted a spiritual strength that belied her wrinkles, white hair and wheelchair.
For much of her life, she lived in the shadow of her husband. But Sister Keeble, who also became “Mama” to dozens of young girls, had her own story.
Born Aug. 6, 1898, Laura Catherine Johnson was one of seven girls and three boys in her family. Her father, Luke, worked in an iron foundry. Her mother, Susan, was a nurse.
Laura attended No. 2 High School, the black school in Corinth, Miss. Her great-granddaughter Gwen Cummings asked her one time if she resented the segregated education.
“We weren’t taught that way,” Cummings, an elder’s wife who attends the Jackson Street Church of Christ in Nashville, recalled her saying. “We stayed busy, and we stayed circled in Christianity.”
When Marshall Keeble came along, he was already a well-known minister. Laura was 35, working as a nanny and wondering if she might die an “old maid.”
Keeble, the son of former slaves, was a recent widower and 20 years older than Laura. His first wife, Minnie, a Fisk University graduate, helped teach the preacher how to read and write. In 36 years of marriage, the couple had five children, two of whom died in infancy.
“Some of you ought to find me a good wife,” Keeble told friends after Minnie died from an illness. “I can’t live single the rest of my life as young as I am.”
A relative suggested Laura, and Keeble initiated the courtship with letters. To see a preacher “flirting around with a woman” disgusted him, he said, so he never spent more than five minutes alone with her before they married. Keeble later said the relative “told me I’d get the best rose in the Johnson flower garden, and I think I did.”
When I visited with her in 2003, Sister Keeble’s love for her husband still shone through.
“Ain’t he a dandy?” she said, holding a black-and-white photograph of her husband of 34 years. “He loved to dress and go preach. He’d say, ‘Come on, Mama, let’s go to church.’”
She chuckled as she recalled their drawn-out honeymoon: a three-month tent revival that he preached in California.
While the minister spent weeks and even months on the road, Sister Keeble stayed home.
“There was plenty to do at home to keep her occupied,” author Willie Cato wrote in the book “His Hand and His Heart … The Wit and Wisdom of Marshall Keeble.” “She became a very loving mother to his three children and also to the grandchildren.”
Later, when the minister served as president of the Nashville Christian Institute, a school for black children, Sister Keeble kept up to a dozen girls at a time in her home. She never gave birth to a child, but she became “Mama” to many.
However busy their days were, the Keebles always knelt and prayed before going to bed — and prayer remained an integral part of Sister Keeble’s life when I met her.
When she fell and fractured her back a few years earlier, Sister Keeble insisted on thanking God before she sipped a cup of soup.
“She was in such pain … but she said, ‘Righteous father, I most humbly thank you for these blessings that you’ve given me,’” Cummings told me in 2003.
Sister Keeble’s favorite song was “Faith Is The Victory.” The song fit how she lived — by faith.
When I was working on the AP story, she was suffering from a nasty cough. Still, Sister Keeble had a relative roll her wheelchair to the nursing home lobby for worship.
She wore a purple dress and a diamond ring that her husband gave her — and a blue, decades-old church hymnal rested on her lap.
About 40 nursing home residents sang “O for a Faith that Will Not Shrink.” Then men prayed and offered communion.
As the collection plate approached, Sister Keeble pulled out a $5 bill.
“Nobody’s expecting her to give,” Cummings said.
But Sister Keeble saw it differently.
“The Lord is,” she said.
Bobby Ross Jr. is Chief Correspondent for The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]
Editor’s note: This column is adapted from the story that appeared originally on The Associated Press wire.