At a meeting of the Northshore Literary Society, Christy Award finalist, Pamela Ewen, and New York Times and International bestselling author, Erica Spindler, discuss expressing faith in secular writing.
Melody Bonnette-Swang gives advice to aspiring writers at the Southern Christian Writers Guild, Mandeville, Louisiana.
Education plays an important role in Melody Bonnette-Swang’s life. The Mandeville, Louisiana resident is a history teacher, serves as director of broadcasting for the St. Tammany Parish School System’s educational access television channel, and is currently enrolled in the PhD program in education at the University of Southern Mississippi. She was named Louisiana Overall Teacher of the Year in 1999. Melody has also contributed to Guideposts magazine and Angels on Earth magazine.
Lina Martinez came to America as an international student from Honduras when she was sixteen. She planned to study English, finish high school and then return home. She learned English, finished high school and remained in New Orleans.
Both of her parents had died by the time she was three. Lina arrived at her Christian aunt and uncle’s home confused about God. She didn’t understand why God took her mother and left her without the protection her father would have offered. Her grandmother accepted the task of raising Lina in a male dominated society where middle aged men commonly dated and married girls as young as fifteen. Women without a husband or father were offered little respect making their lives difficult.
In Honduras, she was the popular girl in school, but in New Orleans, she was lonely and afraid. The language barrier isolated Lina. She could not go to movies with friends or ask where the bathroom was located. The Spanish church she attended with her aunt and uncle became her refuge. There she could talk to people in her native language.
She slowly adapted to her new life but remained uninterested in God. She wasn’t seeking God when she accompanied a large group from her church to a Billy Graham crusade on a hot summer day in June of 1982. She went because she wanted to visit the Superdome and see the famous evangelist. As she listened to Rev. Graham’s message, the revelation of God’s love dawned on Lina. She willingly walked to the altar as the choir sang “Just As I Am”. There she prayed a simple prayer and knew God had accepted her.
Her prayer transformed her life. In the past, she had little interest in God, but now she arose at 5 a.m. to study the Bible with her aunt. “Never give up on your faith was the greatest lesson I learned from my aunt and uncle’s life,” said Lina. Regardless of what they went through, regardless of what problem they had, God was always faithful. Their experience gave me the strength to navigate the difficult challenges that awaited me.
Lina married, and both she and her husband became leaders in their church. She also volunteered to host families brought to America by International Hospital for Children, which led to her current appointment as project manager for the organization. The nonprofit is known as a hospital without walls. The IHC works to improve the quality of health for people living in developing countries and provide aid to victims of natural disasters, wars, and civil unrest. Children needing procedures unavailable in their countries are flown to American and reside with host families while they receive care.
She enjoyed her ministry in the church and to the poor but grew dissatisfied with her spiritual life. She felt an absence of God’s power. The God she read about split the Red Sea, healed people and performed miracles. Dissatisfied with her church and the lack of power in her experience, she readily accepted an invitation to a Bible Study conducted by a Home Church.
“At the Bible study I experienced God’s power for the first time. It was a mighty power in a present physical way. I saw people healed and demons cast out. I knew what time the study started, but I never knew when it would be over. God’s presence was so real no one wanted to leave. It was not unusual for the Bible study to end at three in the morning. My family left our traditional church because Friday night became our church, and the highlight of our week.”
Much to Lina’s disappointment the Home Church disbanded. She stopped attending church but continued to grow spirituality. Lina realized that our relationship with Christ had to be greater than a church, because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. If we are not getting what we need from a church, God is still in us, and he still expects excellence.
As Lina grew in her relationship with God, two tragedies and a life threatening illness challenged her belief in God’s faithfulness. She was pregnant with her youngest child when Hurricane Katrina rearranged everyone’s life who lived on the Gulf Coast. As they emerged from the unexpected disaster to rebuild their lives, Lina developed a close relationship with her eldest son’s girlfriend. The girl died sending Lina into a depression that lasted more than a year. Then a simple sinus surgery revealed cancer growing in Lina’s body, but she refused to be shaken by this devastating news.
“When the doctor told me that I had cancer, I thought, what is a little bit of cancer to God. I never cried or questioned God. I never had a moment where I needed someone had to call me and lift me up. I never called anyone for encouragement. I knew that I was at a crossroad in my life. I was going to believe what God said, or believe the doctors grim prognosis.”
As she dealt with cancer, her work with International Hospital for Children helped her keep things in perspective. Lina thought about all of the families she had helped. She could not recall a parent who complained. Instead, they were willing to give up everything so their child could have a chance at life. A fifteen year old girl who had lost her eyesight but whose life was saved through the work of IHC called Lina throughout Lina’s cancer treatment to encourage her.
“When I thought about the circumstances of others, I refused to be afraid and complain. The greatest miracle was the peace I had through months of treatment, financial hardship, and physical pain. Being at peace did not make sense. It was like an out-of-body experience. I felt like I had two bodies; one ravaged with cancer and the other one resting in a perfect peace.”
The cancer treatments were difficult, leaving Lina weary and sick. Her neighbors prepared meals, took her children to school, watched them when Lina was too sick to care for them and even walked her dog. Their support sustained her as the prognosis for recovery remained dim. But God proved faithful. Surgery left her cancer free, and her life returned to normal.
Lina had learned to be responsible for her spiritual life, but her absence from a traditional church had taken a toll on her children. She knew it was important for them to have friends who shared their faith, she but did not know where to go. Then her youngest son received an invitation to Vacation Bible School at Calvary Baptist Church. Their family had attended Calvary Baptist when her children were infants, so she allowed her son to attend two years in a row. The third time her son requested to attend VBS, Lina decided to volunteer.
She was moved by the love she experienced that week. When her husband suggested they return to the church, she quickly responded, “No, we are just visiting.” The last day of VBS parents were invited to a special service presented by the children. Lina felt obligated to attend.
During the service, the love and presence of the Holy Spirit overwhelmed Lina. “At the end of the service, the pastor made an invitation for salvation. She grabbed a visitor’s card and started writing.
Her husband laughed. “What are you doing?”
“I want to know more about this church.”
Lina had longed to see the miraculous power of God. He fulfilled her desire and brought her to maturity, before he led her back to a traditional church to witness the most miraculous power of all: the power of love.
Pamela Binnings Ewen, founder of the Northshore Literary Society had invited me to be a panel member at the “From a Great Idea to a Book” workshop sponsored by the Jane Austen Festival. The workshop was a paid event held on Sunday afternoon. The free events held on Saturday gave authors opportunity to display and promote their books. I would not have my book until the Fall, but I did have Gathering Magazine, which included stories I had written about local Christians.
A festival for readers of fiction romance wasn’t my niche market but would be a good experience. I reserved table space to sell the magazine during Saturday’s events and to collect names to enter into a drawing for a prerelease copy of Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot. Then I learned Rebecca Gernon would be speaking at the Southern Christian Writers Guild on the same day. I usually attend to film authors for NOLA’s faith blog, but had planned to skip the meeting. Rebecca is a good friend. Skipping wasn’t an option.
Fortunately, Dallas, the publisher of Gathering Magazine agreed to man the table until I could return. Dallas and I arrived at the Mandeville Trailhead at 8:45 a.m. to search for our table. The book section in front of the main stage was full. No table for us. Motivational speaker and friend Ryan Lowe walked by looking for his table. No table for him either. We found an event organizer who set up a table for Ryan and me to share. Ryan set out his Get Off Your Attitude book. I helped Dallas set out the magazine, printed copies of the introduction to Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot, and cards to sign up for the prerelease drawing.
With thirty minutes to spare before I dashed off to film Rebecca’s presentation about Gallaudet University Press offering her a contract for The Silent Minority, I did what I usually do: took out
my camera to film authors promoting their books. As soon as the first author began speaking someone decided the festival need music…loud music. We were in front of the speakers blaring the music. We called to the woman on stage standing behind the soundboard. “Can you turn the music down or off.” She was reluctant. “All we need is ten minutes.” She consented. I later learned I was talking to Kerri Blache, the founder of the Jane Austen Festival.
I left to film Rebecca. By the time I returned, the Louisiane Vintage Dancers where teaching audience members how to dance. Crafts were being packed up and tables carted off to a dark closet until needed again. I was surprised to learn seven people had signed up for the drawing.
If you would like to enter the drawing for a prerelease copy of Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot send your mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org before August 30, 2012. Please put DRAWING in the subject line.
The following day was delightful compared to the mad dash Saturday had been. My husband drove me across the lake for lunch at his favorite restaurant. I departed from my usual taco salad and thoroughly enjoyed the spinach chimichanga. I was the first panel member to arrive at The Lake House. Deborah Burst, moderator for the panel and cofounder of the Northshore Literary Society, stood on the balcony. She spotted me and pointed to the stairs at the side of the house. My husband and I ascended the stairs to enter a small but full room. Deborah had said we would be seated at a table with microphones. There were four chairs. No microphones. The room was small enough that we didn’t need amplification to be heard, but we discussed standing so people could see us.
Deborah left to find the other panel members. She returned with Robin Wells, St. Tammany Parish 2011 Literary Artist of the Year and author of sixteen critically acclaimed fiction romance novels that have been translated into eighteen languages. Her books have won the National Golden Heart Award, two National Readers’ Choice Awards, the Award of Excellence, the Golden Quill, and the Holt Medallion. I wondered what I was doing on a panel among such distinguished company. Deborah also had Cheryl Schleuss in tow. Cheryl is a board member of the Northshore Literary society, with “Awakened”, a fiction story, published in the Apalachee Review. She is currently writing her first novel. I greeted my co panelist, and we sat down. I guess Deborah decided people could see us just fine.
During the panel discussion, Robin Wells said, “Writing is spiritual.” I don’t know if she embraces a religion but apparently she had connected with God who gives us talents. Robin also said, “I would be reluctant to give any one advice on writing because the publishing industry is currently like the Wild West.” With the advent of print on demand publishing, social media and e-readers anything goes. Anyone can be published.
At the conclusion of the panel discussion, a retired Methodist clergyman told me about his wife’s involvement in Women’s Aglow before she died. Another man said, “You are very open. Whatever we wanted to know you were willing to tell us.” His comment greatly encouraged me.
Both men had a copy of the introduction to Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot. I had printed twenty copies. A small color picture at the top made them expensive to produce, so I was careful to give them to interested individuals. I returned home from my first foray in marketing with ten copies advertising my book. Not bad for a nonfiction book among people who read fiction romance.
My first foray into marketing taught me to be prepared for the unexpected. Nothing happened the way I had planned. I wasn’t surprised by that revelation. Helping my husband in children’s church for twenty years had already prepared me to deal with the unexpected.
If you would like to enter the drawing for a prerelease copy of Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot email your mailing address to email@example.com before August 30, 2012. Please put DRAWING in the subject line.