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7/17/97 She never could say no; ‘I had a promise to keep’

SHREVEPORT, La. (BP)–For nearly 50 years, Ruth Barnes has worked for a church or denominational agency. She could not say no. Her reasons had nothing to do with money or benefits or even working conditions.
“Everything I have been asked to do, I have done,” says the 81-year old Barnes.
Barnes’ inability to refuse a request is not a personality flaw, by any means. Rather, it is evidence of a commitment which she made before her career at Broadmoor Baptist Church, Shreveport, La., and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Shreveport Extension ever began.
Barnes says it dates back to a family tragedy in the late 1940s.
She recalls that after moving from her childhood home of Nashville, Tenn., a few years earlier, she and her husband had not been very active in church.
“When I was in my 20s, my younger brother — he was just two years younger, so we were very close — committed suicide. For no apparent reason. 23-years old.
“My brother’s death was something that I did not know how to handle,” she says. “I just grieved myself to death. I never let it get out of my mind. Finally, one day I realized I was not being fair to my child or my husband. I was spending myself in being sorrowful.
“I knew I couldn’t handle it myself. So I got down on my knees and I promised the Lord if he would help me get out of the depths I was in, find happiness again, I would do anything he asked of me all the rest of my life.”
That promise was soon tested as she and her family became active in Broadmoor church. Though doing volunteer work at first, “they were without a pastor and needed some help in the office. They knew I had the secretarial background so they asked me to come on. I could not say no. I had a promise to keep.”
And when the new pastor asked her to be the first preschool/children’s director at the church, she could not say no. After 16 years in that work, she then became the pastor’s secretary. When the church began offering seminary classes, she was asked to work one day a week for the seminary. She could not say no. Ten years later, she was asked to become director of the extension. Once again, she could not say no.
Each time she was asked to take on a new responsibility, she questioned her ability. “I certainly did not have the education or the training background for what I’ve done,” she says. “Each time I’d say to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m capable of doing this, but I’ve made a promise and this is what I’ve been asked to do.’
“Everything you are asked to do, things you feel like you are not qualified for, he gives you the ability to handle it.
“At the time I made the promise, I did not have a specific thing in mind,” Barnes continues. “It was just a promise. And over time, one thing unfolded after another, and in each instance,I felt it was the right thing to do.”
Now is the right time to retire for Barnes, who says she will miss her “preacher boys” at the extension center.
She smiles as she recalls the many cards, letters and gifts she has received over the last few months from current and former seminary extension students. She says a surprise cake on the last day of class this spring was the first time she has ever allowed eating in the classrooms.
In one of her letters, all kept neatly in a 3-ring binder, one former student recalled some of the lighter moments of their time together. He told of an instance when an instructor, who also had the name of Barnes, was introduced to the students. She told the students there would be two Barneses that semester and they could refer to the instructor as Dr. Barnes and herself as “Dr. Ruth.”
As director, Barnes has been responsible for the curriculum in the associate degree program and as liaison between master’s program students at the extension and the seminary in New Orleans.
She estimates about 60 students are in the master’s degree program at any one time and 40 take classes to earn their associate degrees.
Like a proud mother, she praises her students. “The ones that come here are all striving for the same thing — to better prepare themselves to serve the Lord.”
She points out that most of the extension students are bivocational or are working full time at a church somewhere. “And yet they’re so dedicated.”
She glows as she tells of the successes of graduates and notes that many of them still keep in touch.
“You get very attached to them because they are here for four or five years. You become interested in them, you share things with them and they share things with you.”
“There have been times when students have lost loved ones and family, or they are encountering family problems, and they feel like they can talk with me.”
It worked the other way as well. Barnes says her students helped her cope with the loss of her husband in 1993.
“And,” she smiles, “you can share some of the happy times with them — like new babies.”
As she ties up loose ends from the spring semester and packs away her things, she says she will miss the students tremendously. However, as she retires from a lifetime of Christian service, she has few regrets.
When asked if she has kept the promise she made nearly a half-century ago, she pauses, smiles and says, “I think I have.” She then adds, “He has certainly kept his.”

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  • Mike Trice