I’ve had Pastor Peggy Ratliff’s story in my laptop for a long time. So long, I met her at a grocery store a few months ago and didn’t remember her. To jar my memory, she said I had interviewed her. My mind went to job interview, and I wondered what she was talking about. Needless to say, I stopped interviewing people until I have written all of the stories awaiting transcription in my computer.
Peggy lived an hour’s drive west of New Orleans in Paulina, Louisiana. One of a string of small communities that dot the Mississippi River like push pins on a cork board. Peggy’s care fell to her strict Baptist grandmother when Peggy was three months old. As she grew into a toddler the awareness of her surroundings included the consciousness of God’s presence. Deeply devoted to God, her grandmother had one radio in her home reserved for Sunday use when she listened to gospel music while she dressed for church. She taught Peggy reverence for God and his house.
Every summer her church held a revival designed for teenagers. During the revival, the teenagers were not allowed to do anything but pray and attend church. The summer Peggy turned sixteen; she had an unusual experience on the heels of the summer revival. Her church was near her home, and she often walked to Sunday school. In between her grandmother’s house and church, she encountered a light more beautiful than anything she had ever seen. A man and woman standing in the light spoke to her. Peggy told the elders of the church about the vision. They saw a difference in her countenance and discerned Peggy’s experience was genuine. “Even though I’ve always loved God and the church,” said Peggy, “my salvation experience began at sixteen when I was baptized in water.
As teenagers are wont to do, Peggy drifted from her childhood zeal. Peer pressure became a stumbling block that prevented Peggy from fully devoting her life to God. The majority of the girls in her graduating class already had babies. Desiring to be accepted, Peggy made up a baby and a wild life. Fantasy became reality when she became pregnant.
“At that time, my life was all out of whack,” said Peggy. “I never stopped going to church, but my heart did. I think I changed with my church, which had switched from holiness to pursuing prosperity and healing. There was still a part of me yearning for God, but I was comfortable with the lack of conviction. It’s easy to conform when attending church becomes routine, but I knew that I wasn’t living the life.”
By the time she was twenty-seven, Peggy was in the middle of a divorce and worked as a hair stylist. One Saturday morning, a young girl in a long jean skirt and bobby socks walked into her salon. Eunice had just come from a church service held in a garage. She had insight into Peggy’s life and told her things no one else knew. Eunice became more than a regular customer. She became a friend willing to speak the truth in love.
“Peggy,” said Eunice, “you are perishing. If you don’t change the way you’re living. You will go to Hell.”
“I’m not going to Hell. I attend church every Sunday, and I’m in ministry. I’m on the prayer team, and work with the youth,” retorted a perturbed Peggy.
“You have to do more than attend church. Without holiness, no man will see God.”
“If God thought we would never sin again once we got saved, there was no need for Jesus to die. He died because he knew that once we got saved we would not live right but sin again.” Peggy knew Eunice was right. All the excuses she could think of could not quench the conviction that seized her heart. Peggy recalled the dream her grandmother had before she died. She dreamed that Peggy was dressed in white and told her “You were beautifully dressed, beautifully adorned.”
“I’m going to fast and pray for you, and believe God for your salvation,” said Eunice. Moved by the love and power in her words, Peggy accepted an invitation to attend Eunice’s church.
Peggy found a seat among the small congregation. The sermon about the sins of the parents falling on the children down to the fourth and fifth generation made her reflect on her own life. “I was a thirty year old divorcee with two children. For the first time, I understood that my lifestyle would affect my children. In that moment, my heart changed. I wanted to live right before God, because I loved my kids more than life. If anyone tried to harm my children, I would kill for them, yet I was the one causing the greatest damage to their lives. That day, I began asking God to help me.”
The small church had little to offer children and Peggy’s children were not happy. She returned to her traditional church that had a children’s ministry, but her life was never the same. The prosperity gospel her church had embraced did not satisfy. For five years, she yearned to return to the little church in the garage.
When her children were old enough to make their own choices, Peggy returned to the holiness church. They welcomed her with love, but Peggy did not fit in. The women were not allowed to wear pants. They also frowned on make-up and a woman cutting her hair. Peggy stayed long enough to learn that the “letter of the law kills but the spirit gives life.” The word of truth she had heard there took root and slowly shaped who she became, but the abundance of rules made it difficult for her to grow. She stayed for a short time and then returned to her traditional church for a lesson in submission.
NEXT WEEK: A LESSON IN SUBMISSION 2/2