By Vera P. Swann
This is not just a biographical story. It is the story of a remarkable Presbyterian woman who became a mission coworker at the age of 56. The story of how she encountered God and of how God worked in her life is a story of faith excelling. We who know Maria Fearing's story are reminded of the "can-do" spirit of people who "make a way out of no way."
Maria Fearing grew up a precocious child absorbing knowledge like a sponge. She had a deep desire to read Bible stories, which she heard daily from Mrs. Winston, the mistress of the plantation, as she helped prepare the Winston children for bed. How exciting were the stories of Moses, Noah and Jesus! You can imagine Maria in the slave quarters at night telling stories that she remembered Mrs. Winston telling the children, and how these stories became meaningful to the slaves who sat in the balcony of the church on Sunday.
In Alabama, there was a law that forbade any slave to read. This must have disturbed Maria greatly, for what harm could come from reading such wonderful stories? She became obsessed with learning to read. That was the first thing she did after emancipation. After she learned to read and write, she was able to search the scriptures for meaning and direction for her own life. Perhaps that is how the story of Jesus' answer to the rich young ruler's question about how to attain eternal life—"Go and sell all you have and give to the poor. Then come and follow me" (Matt. 19, Mk. 10)—may have had a great influence on her at a time of urgent decision in her life.
The story of Maria Fearing was, at one time, included in the textbooks of Alabama public schools. The Historical Society of Sumter County, Alabama, published a brochure regarding her accomplishments, and she was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame at Judson College in Marion, Alabama.
Her story begins on the Winston Plantation near Gainesville, Alabama, in 1838. That year, a very special child was born to Mary and Jesse Fearing, slaves of the Winston family. As was the custom, a midwife delivered the baby, announcing to the parents, "It's a beautiful, healthy girl-child." They named her Maria (pronounced Ma-ri-ah). Her surname was taken from the first slavemaster of her parents, the Fearings. Thus, she became Maria Fearing.
During the period of slavery in the United States before the Civil War, families were often split up. Fathers, mothers, even children were often separated from one another. They could be sold to debtors or given to other family members as gifts. Records do not show how the Winstons, owners of 7,000 acres, became owners of Maria's parents.
Yearning to learn
The baby Maria grew strong and was very bright. As a child, she played with the Winston children. Her mother worked as a house servant, a work assignment generally considered more desirable than that of working in the fields from sun-up to sun-down. As Maria grew older, she began to care for the Winston infants. As she cared for the children, she listened attentively to the Bible stories that Mrs. Winston, a devout Presbyterian, read to her children. Maria knew quite early that there was something special about the book from which Mrs. Winston read, and she wished with all her heart that she could read for herself about this Jesus whom Mrs. Winston was reading about.
Alabama, like other southern states, forbade slave owners or anyone else to teach slaves to read or write. It must have been confusing to Maria. What could be wrong about reading such wonderful stories? But slave owners considered such knowledge dangerous, for it gave slaves a means by which to communicate plans to escape or revolt. Still, Maria yearned to read. And you can imagine how amazed her family must have been as she memorized the stories of Jesus and told them as she and her family gathered in their quarters at night.
As Maria grew older, she helped her mother in her work in the Winston home, learning to clean, launder clothing, sew, mend, cook and prepared the dinner table. All these skills were useful to her in later life. She was a thoughtful child, a dreamer. As she listened to the breezes blowing through the pine trees on the Winston plantation, she recalled the stories that Mrs. Winston told—stories of how Jesus could help the poor little children of Africa. She made a commitment while still in her youth, declaring "Someday, I will go to Africa." She did not know how she could help the children of Africa, or teach them about Jesus, when she herself could not read, but she knew that knowledge was the key to a different life for her. How she longed to be able to read and write the things that she felt in her heart. She carried this burden secretly and prayed that God would show her the way, if the opportunity ever came.
Learning to read at 33
The opportunity did come. Maria was 27 years old when slavery was abolished. Maria had learned of a Freedmen's Bureau school in Talladega, Alabama, where one could earn her expenses by working at the school. She gathered her small savings, which was enough for a few items of clothing and her train fare. She was cordially received at the school, assigned work and placed in a beginners' class full of children. This was uncomfortable at first, as by this time, she was 33 and the children wondered why a woman of her age was just beginning to learn to read. They made fun of her, but she learned quickly and was soon helping the children.
Maria learned rapidly and soon completed ninth grade. This made it possible for her to teach in a rural school in nearby Calhoun County. Her meager salary allowed her to buy a little house in Anniston, Alabama. What a thrill it must have been for a woman who had only toiled in the home of others. But providing for her own security was not her main goal. She wanted to help others. During that period, she sent a girl to Talladega College and paid all her expenses.
After several years of teaching, she was called back to Talladega. She accepted a position as matron in the boarding department. Thus it happened, providentially, that Maria was at Talladega when William Henry Sheppard visited in 1894 to tell about his work in the Congo mission field and to recruit other African Americans for service in that field. As Sheppard told about his exciting work and the need for others to join him, the memory of a childhood vow sprang to Maria's mind. God was opening the door for Maria to go to Africa. Certain that this was God's call, Maria offered herself for mission service in the Congo.
Five African American recruits prepared to return to Africa with Sheppard: H.P. Hawkins from Tuscaloosa College, Althea Brown and Lucy Gantt (who became Sheppard's wife) from Fisk University, and Lillian Thomas and Maria Fearing from Talladega College. Their applications for mission work in the Congo were sent to the Executive Committee of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. After careful scrutiny of their applications, the committee accepted all of the applicants except one—Maria. The committee informed Maria that, because of her advance age, they could not send her. This was a crushing blow to her spirit. She had never considered age as a factor. She was healthy, vigorous and felt that she could do as much work as a teenager.
A way out of no way
At first, Maria was deeply despondent, but she did not despair. Her faith in God encouraged her to search for the meaning of this turn of events. She firmly believed that if God was calling her to the mission field, there had to be a way. With prayer and meditation, she must have remembered the story of the rich young ruler. She sold her house to Judge Lapsley, the father of Samuel Lapsley, whose son had been a missionary with Sheppard in the Congo. With gifts from teachers with whom she had worked, and her meager savings, she approached the committee again, asking if she might be permitted to travel with the Sheppard party, provided she pay her own expenses. Judge Lapsley had written a letter commending her character and her dedication to service. Teachers with whom she had worked also wrote of her accomplishments as a teacher. Others offered financial suppport. Women of the Congregational Church in Talladega pledge $100 for her support. The mission committee reconsidered Maria's request and, after a few years, knew this was one of the best decisions they could have made.
The Sheppard party began its journey on May 26, 1884, first to England and, from there, 12,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to the mouth of the Congo River. At that point, they were still 1,200 miles from their destination. The next 200 miles had to be traveled by foot since the rapids of the river at this point were not navigable by boat. Sheppard made arrangements for a hammock with four native guides to carry each missionary, traveling 15 to 20 miles each day. They stopped in villages along the way for food and rest. After 13 days, they reached Stanley Pool, where the river became navigable again. Here, they boarded a steamboat and, after another 30 dyas, reached what was to become home for another 20 years.
A gathering place
The journey had come to an end but it took months to recover and prepare for the work. First, a home of sticks and mud with a dirt floor and thatched roof had to be build for the living quarters of Maria Fearing and Lillian Thomas. Study of a language that had not yet been put in writing ensued. Sheppard assisted as translator and paved the way for the newcomers. Maria, however, fashioned her own way of telling the good news. She visited nearby villages and taught Bible lessons that she had used each Sunday in Alabama. In less than a year, she was able to converse in the local language. Her front veranda became a gathering place for women and children.
Lillian Thomas, writing for the mission newspaper The Kasai Herald in 1908, gives the background for Maria's compassionate ministry—the Pantops Home for Girls. A poor, sick woman came into Lillian and Maria's yard with a sick baby on her hip. She was so weak that she could hardly stand. The baby cried the entire time they were there. She said the people for whom she worked had driven her away because she was sick and could not work. She could not nurse the child because her milk had dried up. Lillian and Maria examined the baby and found his feet and hands swollen and a sore on his back. They asked how the child got the sore. The woman explained that while she went for water, she left her baby with a woman she was staying with. Because the child cried so much, the woman had taken a stick from the fire and burned the baby's back. Maria and Lillian cleaned the baby's sore and fed him. They called in older girls to help watch over him. This was the first.
Maria soon developed a reputation for saving children who had been kidnapped by the notorious cannabalistic tribe in the area. Maria and other missionaries rescued many children by buying them back for an absurd price, such as a cake of soap, some salt or a pair of scissors. The number increased until there were 40 or 50 girls under Maria's care. These girls grew into women of faith, stature, grace and intelligence. When they reached marriageable age, they were united with Christian men and established Christian homes. Many of them married young men who became pastors and officers of the church.
It was indeed an epiphany moment when the Reverend Leonard Illunga Kadishe stood up in a crowded hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia, to interrupt a presentation on Maria Fearing's mission work in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was there to share his ministry in the United States as a third-generation Presbyterian pastor, called to a new immigrant church in New York City.
He could not contain himself on discovering that we were presenting our book on Maria Fearing. With exuberance, this tall, handsome black pastor stood up, waving a book in his native language and shouting, for he had no microphone; this was clearly unplanned. He said, "Praise God! How wonderful! You are speaking of Mama Wamputu [which means 'mother from far away' or 'foreign mother who loves children']."
Rev. Kadishe came forth and told the story of how children were brought to Mama Wamputu, some starving, some weak and sickly, some abused, abandoned, frightened by tribal wars, some not expected to live. Maria took them all in. She built a home for them. She wanted them to know about Jesus and his love for them, so she taught them, she nurtured and nourished them into healthy and robust children. "That is how I am here today," he said.
Maria Fearing had been a pioneering Mama Wamputu. She so entered the life of the people with whom she worked that just two generations away, she had entered the saga of mission work in the Congo, a blessed mother from far away. There, standing before us, was a witness to her life, a young pastor whose family had a personal relationship with her. She had raised his grandmother, Tatu Ka Bamgo, in the Pantops Home. Later, he proudly shared the marriage certificate of his grandparents in French and English.
Vera P. Swann is coauthor of The Maria Fearing Story with Darius L. Swann. Order from The Maria Fearing Fund, Inc., 12198 Cathedral Ridge Dr., Lake Ridge, VA 22192. $10 each. Checks payable to the Maria Fearing Fund, Inc.