Called to Be Holy

The Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine focuses on “Old Friends: What we can still learn from the saints.” Read the issue online here. Below, the Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson reflects on a woman called to be a saint on an ordinary day last August.

by The Rev. Jane L. Patterson, Ph.D. 

            If I thumb the pages of the worn red leather Bible of my childhood, with my name imprinted in gold on the front, out will fall a cascade of saints’ cards. My family attended what I later learned was a “high church” Episcopal parish in Coconut Grove, Florida. Saints and their colorful stories were a part of the imaginative fabric of my earliest years. Cecelia and Agnes, Teresa and Clare: their bravery and devotion blended with that of the Little Match Girl, Thumbelina, and Donkey Skin in a confusing but inspiring mix. But over time my choice of saints as guides has come to focus on ordinary people who have taken seriously the call to holiness that falls upon all disciples of Jesus. When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he didn’t single out some people for recognition as “saints,” but affirmed that all of them were “called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2), called to be God’s holy ones. 

           friend An ordinary saint who made the headlines last August was Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper at Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, GA. She happened to be substituting in the front office of the elementary school for a secretary who was out sick that day. This is where she was when a shooter, who had 500 rounds of ammunition for his AK47, showed up to make a fiery end to his own despair. She made a 911 call that took 24 minutes and later went “viral” on the internet. All 24 minutes of her conversation with the shooter can be heard. In her case, a 911 call intersected with her call to be holy, to be as Christ in the most terrifying half-hour of her life. 

What is remarkable isn’t just Antoinette’s prodigious courage (though that is surely impressive), but her compassion, and how she used everything she had to reach the distraught and dangerous man, Michael Hill. 

The first thing you hear on the call are gunshots, outside the office. Tuff quickly becomes the unlikely mediator between Hill and the police outside, everyone but Tuff armed to the teeth. 

Then you begin to hear Tuff speaking with the shooter, repeating questions from the 911 operator and then relaying his answers:

“He said tell them to back off.”

“He said he doesn’t care, he’s got nothing to live for.”

“He says he’s not mentally stable.”

“He says he’s on probation. He knows he’s going to be put away for a long time.” 

Minutes tick by, and Tuff begins to engage Hill in conversation:

“It’s all gonna be well.”

“We’re not gonna hate you.”

“I’ll sit right here.” 

When she says this last sentence, “I’ll sit right here,” I think of so many stories of Jesus – with the Gerasene man, the woman who touches the hem of his garment, Bartimaeus, the Samaritan woman – all of the people he “sat right there” with, people whom others were content to let be in their misery or loneliness. Jesus sat right there with them, and in that simple sitting and listening God’s power entered the situation. 

Tuff continues:

“It’s alright, baby.”

“I just want you to know that I love you, and I’m proud of you. It’s a good thing that you’re just givin’ up, and don’t worry about it.”

“We all go through somethin’ in life.” 

Hill says he just wants to end it all, to kill himself or be killed. At this moment, like the crucified Christ entering hell on Holy Saturday, Tuff offers up her own cross as a force for healing to this desperate man: 

“I thought the same thing. You know I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, and look at me now – I’m still workin’ and everything’s okay.” 

Tuff offers Hill her own experience of cross and resurrection, and he gives in. When he allows himself to be escorted away by the police, Tuff begins shaking and sobbing. The enormity of what has just happened washes over her. 

God calls us in the most ordinary of places, perhaps in the reception area of a school on a hot day in late August. God calls us to fit our feet into the footsteps of our Lord Jesus, to tune our ears to his compassion, to pick up our part of the cross. And when we do, we find that those steps are still warm from the feet of the saints, that words of compassion have been lent to us by our forebears (“It’s alright, baby”), that the cross of Christ is worn smooth by having been carried by generations of saints before us.

“We all go through somethin’ in life.”

“It’s all gonna be well.”

“We’re not gonna hate you.”

“I’ll sit right here.”

 

The Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson is co-director at TheWork+Shop in San Antonio TX and teaches at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin TX.

For more articles from the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine, click here.

 

3 thoughts on “Called to Be Holy”

  1. I remember hearing parts of that encounter on the news. I’m as touched and inspired now as I was then. Dr. Jane is spot on!! God bless the saints among us, really so many for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

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