In San Antonio in 1988 I stood awestruck at the reception table blocking the way into the Baptist Press newsroom at the Southern Baptist Convention.
James “Jim” Hefley had just done the unthinkable. He arranged to procure what amounted to a “guest pass” for me to be able to follow him around inside, to watch and listen and learn as he interviewed the likes of Jerry Vines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and co-pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.; Adrian Rogers, former SBC president and pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, Tenn.; and Johnny Baugh, a Texas businessman who turned red whenever he talked about those who were trying to take over the SBC.
It was an exhilarating, but exhausting and confusing time. It had been nearly a decade since I had slung around a camera for my high school yearbook and spent long hours as one of the few females in a developer-saturated darkroom. I think now, perhaps, looking back, it was possibly in San Antonio that my long-time dream of taking up a pen was sparked anew.
It was just that way whenever I was around Jim and Marti Hefley.
We were in San Antonio initially because the Hefleys asked my husband and I to help them distribute copies of Jim’s newest volume of “The Truth in Crisis” on the controversy in the SBC — since his book had been banned from the Baptist Bookstore. I was a part-time student and full-time employee at Hannibal LaGrange College in Missouri where my husband, John, an Army reservist who had left the service after 12 years of active duty, was studying for ministry,
An added bonus would be that as a fledging journalist enrolled in Jim’s writing for publication class, I would be able to see up-close how one goes about covering something as foreign as the “annual meeting” of the SBC.
We headed to Texas in our Ford van with a built-in shelf of a bed in the back. Loading up several boxes of books, our two young children, and a trusted college student who doubled as a nanny – we headed to a friend’s house near San Antonio.
It was 1988 and I was 26 years old. Looking back at that moment in time, I could never have imagined one day I would walk freely past the news room reception desk, nodding at old colleagues and stride to my own desk where I served as news editor for Baptist Press during the Southern Baptist Convention for eight years and as a member of the newsroom staff for about 20 years.
When the Hefleys both died in 2004 within two months of each other, I was devastated. For more than 20 years they were my teachers, my mentors, my friends, my “cheerleaders.”
Sitting at my desk editing in 2008, I listened to various speakers at the SBC Pastors’ Conference. Over and again, if I heard them say anything, I heard them talk about the importance of relationships. They reminded the younger generation is watching us closely in this area—as I believe they should.
Jim Hefley presented a model in that area. I believe no matter how much he might have been baffled by some of what he “discovered” or “uncovered,” he sought to find out the truth and to report that. He did not try and “read into” or “analyze” beyond simple factual reason, a person’s motivation, either. So if I write longer stories on controversial issues, include longer quotes, and let the readers interpret the facts rather than make assumptions — it’s because I share Jim’s hope people will be able to discern the truth themselves.
Also, in that same spirit I wish to write with civility and live peacefully among God’s people, knowing that as a body of believers we must pay attention to relationships.
And this can be difficult, to be sure.
I came onto the scene in the eighties. I remember how shocked I was when reading Jim’s first volume of The Truth in Crisis and learning the SBC’s Christian Life Commission had waffled in the area of abortion and was not considered pro-life. Baptized and raised Catholic as a child—I was embarrassed to the core to learn this and appalled.
Two years later, after San Antonio and under Jim’s careful tutelage, I left my first ever major news story – and a film canister – on the editor’s desk of the Hannibal Courier-Post in Missouri. Missouri Citizens for Life, a group with a large number of Southern Baptists, had a huge presence at a St. Louis rally, and I went along as a volunteer to cover the event. Marti tracked me down later that day and told me the afternoon edition of the paper had run my story and photo with a large headline on the front page above the fold. My career as a journalist was firmly launched. More importantly, years later, as I sat in front of the hospice covering the starvation and hydration death of Terri Schiavo, it seemed strange irony – no, providential — that that I would have been uniquely positioned to have covered that story for over two years as well.
In 1989 in Las Vegas I remember my first “walk and talk” interview with Jerry Vines. The SBC budget that year included $50,000 (which had been reduced considerably from previous years) for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (whose duties have since been transferred to the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission) and some felt it was time to take it all way. In interviewing Vines on his way from the floor of the Convention center, through a long, hot passageway, he agreed to speak with me on my recorder and told me he voted against the motion to defund the BJC in order to affirm the work of the budget committee.
I remember being surprised by his answer, touched by his kindness, and determined to try and come out of my shell more at the actual press conferences since I thought of the question there but was too insecure to ask it. The quote, by the way, was buried in a long wrap I typed up on an old standard typewriter and faxed to the Courier-Post. It was another year before I began writing for the Indiana Baptist newspaper which finally launched my career in writing for the denominational press – and eventually was the gateway through which I began writing for Baptist Press.
Meanwhile, our families continued to interact throughout the years even after both my husband and I graduated and we finally left Hannibal in 1992 for Indiana.
Jim and Marti encouraged me to keep writing, though I was engaged in other pursuits as well. For four years in the nineties, I directed full-time campus ministry at Indiana University. In Kansas City, while my husband earned a seminary degree, I taught public high school journalism, English and public relations.
In the latter years of Jim Hefley’s life, when he was unable to attend the SBC, he asked me to send him the package of news releases from Baptist Press. Each year I gladly sent it off.
Periodically, Jim would query me: “Do you want to work for a state paper yet?” “Do you want to do something in denominational journalism?”
“No, Dr. Hefley, I think I’m where I need to be. Belinda and Jonathon are in high school,” I would tell him. “John’s in seminary. We’re good. This is where we need to be.”
He had another question. “When are you going to write your book?”
I’ll never forget the last time he asked it.
It had been a whirlwind couple of years. In September of 2002 we moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where I began work at the Florida Baptist Witness (then the official newspaper of the Florida Baptist Convention). In October, my mother unexpectedly died. Sharing with Marti about that, as she comforted me, I sensed she was holding back something, and I learned that Jim’s health had deteriorated and she, too, had been having “some problems.”
Checking around with her three daughters, my friends, Cyndi, Cheri and Celia, I discovered Marti had significant health issues and was, indeed, very ill.
In November of 2003, I made a trip to Hannibal to say goodbye. But it didn’t quite happen that way. First Jim asked me about the book. That I could put off. Shrugging my shoulders, I laughed and said, “well, if you add together all the stuff I write, than I would have had a book a long time ago.”
Jim just looked at me.
So, one of these days, I’ll fulfill that expectation Jim shared with me while we were standing under one of his favorite trees shedding beautiful autumn leaves in Hannibal. I’ll write a book.
Two other things happened that day. Marti asked me to make sure to write their obituaries and the stories of their passing. What was I supposed to say? She also told me that because of the nature of the contents of their papers and files, she and Jim had long discussed that they believed I would best know how to handle the Hefley archives.
I was overwhelmed to say the least. What could I say?
In the true Marti Hefley way, she didn’t really give me a choice. I was to be the keeper of the files. That meant I needed to decide, at some point after their death, what to do with all the personal and professional correspondence, interview notes, photos, papers, documents – over a 100 boxes – of their lives represented. She reiterated to me the importance of what was in some of the files and the things people had shared in confidence. Reminded me of the book they had written about President Jimmy Carter and others like the Secret File on John Birch and, of course, the mega files related to the Conservative Resurgence.
“Well,” she said, staring straight at me, “You always said you wanted to write another volume of The Truth in Crisis with Jim, correct?”
“That was a long time ago, Marti,” I told her, gulping. First Jim and then Marti! Life has a way of flying by and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to get caught up in chronicling that which can be so painful at times.
As for the archives, truth be told, both of the Hefleys were tremendous and prolific writers, but their work spanned such a wide field of interest, many believed it would be difficult for any one institution to appreciate their work.
Driving away, I thought perhaps it was all sort of a dream, really, but sure enough, just months later, when they both died, their daughters made it clear this was their wish and I needed to figure out what to do.
Since that time I have had their archives on loan at Southern Seminary and finally at Southwestern Seminary where serious researchers can now learn more about a variety of subjects from Cam Townsend to Mohammad Ali, from exploits in the Amazon to a Lemon Drops in the White House and astronauts on the moon and from skunks in the Alamo to Baylor’s x-rated films and Golden parachutes and Sacred Cows.
I left my job at the state newspaper and worked two years for an online publication and then returned to the classroom. But I have never lost my love for pursuing the truth — especially when it comes to our denomination and where it is headed.
Recently, I have been convinced that we are again in a time when the truth IS in crisis. For that reason, I have created an avenue to publish works I hope will help illuminate our way through these troubled times.
I will forever be thankful for the legacy of Jim Hefley who first ushered me into the newsroom those 20 years ago and taught me the means by which to first glean and then report the truth.
Just like those who were critical of Jim’s original books, there will be those who will be critical of the things I write and the things I post. For me, however, I know that God honors my efforts to use those gifts He has given me.