Years ago when I started attending writer’s conferences, I learned a valuable lesson. I’d stand in the doorway of a room full of people I didn’t know, and before I entered, I’d pray for divine appointments. I’d ask the Lord to send me to someone I could help, or to someone who could teach me something. And so often, God did exactly that.
I returned to my hometown for a class reunion this weekend, our first in about twenty years. Our last happened three weeks after my daughter was born, so I had other priorities and didn’t make it. This year’s reunion was held with three other classes, most of whom I hadn’t seen in decades, so how would I recognize the people I once knew, much less have the opportunity to speak to them all?
So, I prayed again that God would give me divine appointments.
And He did. Several. But I’d like to share an exceptional one.
While writing Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees, I was quite a ways into it, and still hadn’t named the fourteen-year-old protagonist. Names are enormously important to a story, so I wanted it to be just right. It needed to be southern, so I thought a two-word girl’s name would be great. It came to me almost immediately—Mary Helen.
When I was in the sixth grade, the winds of change were blowing through the south; segregation giving way to integration, bringing the first African Americans to our school.
“Be nice,” my mother said before the day of their expected arrival.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I pondered.
The first students of a color other than my own came in and took their seats next to the blackboard on the far side of the room. I can’t imagine how scared they must have been.
I hardly knew what integration meant in the sixth grade, but in the following years, it would mean race riots in our school that led to shuttering the doors on more than one occasion. I remember days of fear, when we all, both black and white, wondered about our safety.
But from those turbulent years, one face is so memorable—a face of color. She exemplified grace and dignity in the midst of what at times was simply chaos. She might have been the poster child for Martin Luther King Jr.’s goal of achieving change through nonviolent methods.
When I came to name my protagonist, I named her Mary Helen to honor this woman and others like her who faced those pivotal years with such bravery. In my own mind, it gave more weight to the character of this young girl in my book who’s trying to deal with her own set of serious challenges. The character Mary Helen is not in any way the real Mary Helen, but both of them found a way to embrace their lives, and allow the pain to make them stronger.
I searched extensively for Mary Helen when I wrote Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees, but could not find her. I had a longing to connect with her, but as the years have gone by, I wondered if I’d ever see her again in this life.
So, I’m standing in line with hundreds of others to get my tee shirt and tickets for the reunion weekend a few days ago. I introduce myself to the woman in front of me.
She says, “I’m Mary Helen.”
I squeal, hug her, grab my husband and introduce him. He says, “Mary Helen, I have a feeling you’re about to be in a blog post.” At this point, she still has no idea what’s going on.
So, as we wait in line, I tell her about the book and Mary Helen the character, and she tells me she’s been in ministry her entire adult life. It seems she graduated seminary about the time my husband left his law practice to enter seminary. She’s also married to a pastor.
Can I even tell you what a glad reunion we had?
The time was too short with her, as there were still many with whom we both needed to speak, but the next evening, I managed to slip her a book.
I marvel after decades of no contact, one special evening in a great crowd, God arranges for us to stand right beside each other. He reminded me that He connects us with people in His perfect time and always knows exactly where we are.
Definitely a divine appointment.
So, the next time you face a room full of unknowns, pray. Only God knows the possibilities.
“My times are in your hands . . . “ (Psalm 31:15).