A Twist of Faith

From her small-town Baptist roots to her run for public office, Jeanette Mott Oxford has relied on her religious convictions to overcome fear and prejudice -- including her own.

God sat on his throne, and around him the floor shook, smoke filled the air and six-winged seraphim flew about the room, screaming, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" Isaiah, who stood there watching it all, nearly passed out.

The Old Testament passage drifted around inside Jeanette Mott Oxford's head like a vagabond looking for rest. That and the New Testament story about Nicodemus, who didn't understand that when Jesus said a person had to be born again to see the kingdom of God, he didn't mean it literally. These were two of the passages she was supposed to talk about in a week, when she would serve as guest pastor at Christ in the City, but patching them together into a coherent, spiritually uplifting message would take some time.

If she could simply focus on the third passage suggested by the United Church of Christ's lectionary, which outlined what its pastors should cover in their weekly sermons, she wouldn't have any trouble. That one covered Paul's message to the Romans that they didn't have to live in fear: "For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.
Jennifer Silverberg
For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.

She could talk about that without studying, could go on for days and days.

It wasn't that she grew up in the 1950s with fear surrounding her. In Elizabethtown, a farming village of 500 people in Southern Illinois, about the only thing feared, more than eternal damnation and black people from the city, was the fact that when the town's youngsters went away to college, they never seemed to come back. Neither of Jeanette's parents even went to high school, but what Raymond and Marie Oxford lacked in textbook training, they made up with their knowledge of the Bible. For farmers who also ran the town's general store, that was enough. For their pampered only child, who spent her early years around the store's potbellied stove swapping pranks with the neighbors and singing bluegrass gospel, it was enough, too. For a while.

To say that the Oxfords "attended" the General Baptist Church was like saying recently returned U.S. soldiers had "attended" the Korean War. Family life began and ended every day with praying, Scripture reading and listening to the Southern-gospel songs of the Florida Boys, the Chuck Wagon Gang and old Paul Cook, a regular by the stove in the store. There were tent revivals, prayer meetings and celebratory baptisms that all centered on earned salvation and dedicated, fundamental adherence to the Ten Commandments.

Once, when her father gave money to Sam, the town drunk, Jeanette asked him why, if drinking was such a sin.

"It's between me and God what I do when Sam asks me for money," Raymond Oxford told his daughter. "It's between Sam and God what Sam does with the money."

When Jeanette was 5 years old, her father sold the store, and the family moved to a 120-acre farm on the outskirts of town. For the first year, Raymond Oxford didn't take outside work, because he wanted to spend time with his daughter before she went off to grade school. Marie Oxford grew and canned vegetables and fruit to make ends meet. After that, Raymond supplemented the family's income from Angus cattle and hay sales with a job in the fluorospar mines.

For two years, Jeanette lived insulated from the rest of the world, protected from its troubles by her parents' strong affection and the ever-watchful eyes of God. She learned that despite stern warnings against swearing and dancing and games like Monopoly played with dice, God loved her more than even her own father, loved her so much he took up residence in her soul, so that discerning right from wrong was a matter of listening to her sacred tenant. "Look inside," Raymond Oxford would say. "Look inside you."

The rest of the world burst into Jeanette's life in the early '60s, when the Oxfords bought their first television set. At first, her father didn't understand the visual language of TV, even asked Jeanette how the actors changed their clothes so fast, but eventually it became as much a part of their lives as memorizing Scripture, and the family settled into its luminescent routine. Jeanette was particularly mesmerized by the news, by Bobby Kennedy, the civil-rights movement and the escalating war in Vietnam. She was fascinated with the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and encouraged when her father, who always warned her that black men were dangerous, listened to his words saturated in Christian hope.

"Amen," Raymond Oxford said whenever the reverend spoke. "Bless him, Lord!" But Jeanette wondered whether her father's verbal applause meant he understood the message or that he simply respected ministers.

Her interest in current events continued throughout her adolescence, and though she never strayed from her parents' tutoring -- was even considered something of a religious freak by her peers at Cave-In-Rock High School -- she eventually found herself humming Joan Baez songs instead of "How Great Thou Art."

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