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Kathleen Darby, far right, enjoys a niece’s birthday party with family in 1946.
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Photos provided by Kate Hooten

‘Where two or three are gathered …’

In a time of pandemic, a Christian draws strength from her great-grandmother, who often had to worship at home as she cared for a daughter with multiple health challenges.

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — I Zoom to Bible studies and YouTube church. It’s the longest I’ve gone without attending worship. 

Kate Hooten

Kate Hooten

And every Sunday I think of my great-grandmother — how she would have loved to be able to see and hear her preacher while she was at home alone with her daughter. How she would have loved to follow along with the Scripture, songs and communion, knowing friends were following along, too. 

My great-grandmother was Cordelia Ruth Barnes Davis Darby. Her grandfathers were ministers in Tennessee, and Ruth grew up in Texas picking cotton, chasing cattle and going to school when time permitted. 

She was not well educated, but she regularly submitted religious poems to the newspaper. She was a hard worker and an extraordinarily gifted artist. If you’ve ever gone to an older, country church in North Texas, you may have seen her work above the baptistery. She made extra money painting baptistery pictures. 

She worked hard when women had few employment options. Her husband, Clarence, was a tenant farmer, and they had four children. Ruth supplemented their income by taking in laundry, nursing sick neighbors and sewing — all jobs that allowed her to stick close to home. 

She had to be at home. Her second daughter, Kathleen, needed her. 

When Kathleen was born, her spine was twisted. She had a cleft lip and a bulge where her skull should have closed. Today, a few surgeries would have fixed most of the problems, but in 1916 a farmer’s family didn’t have the money, and the doctors didn’t have the knowledge to perform the necessary procedures. The doctor told Clarence that no one would think less of him if he just let her go. 

Don’t feed her, the doctor said. It won’t take long. 

“Mama D” and Kathleen

“Well, of course we’re going to feed her,” Clarence said, appalled. But in reality, it’s likely no one expected Kathleen to survive.

She didn’t walk until she was 7 years old. Her cleft lip made it difficult for people who didn’t know her to understand her. Her scoliosis and the adjustments her body made to accommodate it meant she was in pain, which made her short-tempered. 

She didn’t go to school because the other children were frightened of her and made her feel bad. And she wasn’t healthy enough to attend regularly. 

She loved going to church, but many times she couldn’t. 

On many Sundays, Clarence would take the other children to church, where he was an elder, and Ruth and Kathleen stayed home. Ruth took Matthew 18:20 to heart: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” 

They had their own communion cups, and Ruth was well versed in Scripture. Their worship was genuine, doctrinally sound and probably pretty inspiring. 

Toward the end of her life, Kathleen told her mother, “I think Jesus is coming after me soon.” 

When Kathleen died at 43, Ruth wrote in her diary, “It was like giving up my right hand! But nothing could help, and it had to be, because I had prayed to God often to let me live longer than she, so I could take care of her. And I am thankful for that.”

As I watch church on YouTube, I think of Ruth and Kathleen and everyone worshiping the Lord in unusual circumstances. 

Ruth Davis, known as “Mama D,” stands with her three oldest children in 1923. Kathleen, born in 1916, had multiple birth defects. “People said that if you looked at Kathleen from her right side, you would never know she was different,” said Kate Hooten, Davis’ great-granddaughter, “so in many pictures, that’s the side that’s showing.”

Ruth Davis, known as “Mama D,” stands with her three oldest children in 1923. Kathleen, born in 1916, had multiple birth defects. “People said that if you looked at Kathleen from her right side, you would never know she was different,” said Kate Hooten, Davis’ great-granddaughter, “so in many pictures, that’s the side that’s showing.”

As a child, Ruth walked to church on roads so muddy, it sucked the shoes right off her feet. 

As a mother, she ensured her daughter worshiped God regardless of her physical limitations. 

As I stream the sermon, I think of Ruth filling her glass communion cups with grape juice, preparing to meditate with her daughter on the Lord’s Supper. Like many of us, she thought it was important to keep it every Sunday. 

She wrote, “So let us never forget our date each Sunday with Christ to eat supper with him on his day, the Lord’s Day, for when we miss, our place at his table is empty. The Lord will miss our presence.”

And our presence, whether remote or in person, is important, not just to God but to one another.

KATE HOOTEN lives in the Washington, D.C., area and worships with the Church of Christ in Falls Church. 

Filed under: Church of Christ Coronavirus covid COVID-19 Kate Hooten Opinion Top Stories Views worship at home

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