By Kay Etheredge
This is not a story about Georgia Tann, although her story affected me as nothing else has in quite a while. I began writing this last week on my day at Brother Bryan Mission but quickly got lost in the high weeds of “what am I trying to say?” I shut down the computer and left it hanging.
Saturday I had a call from a very wise twenty year old who just happens to be our youngest daughter. She was telling me with great enthusiasm about a book she just read and how she wants me to read it and I am amazed that she doesn’t realize how her words are a balm for me. I ask her to repeat something twice because I am grabbing my prayer journal to write it down. And she tells me about the temptations of Jesus and how it is what this author says our world tries to tell us today and I am fascinated and can’t write fast enough. She then says something else that is almost an addendum and I write that down too and realize as I’m writing that it is what I needed to help me find my way out of the tall weeds with my story about Georgia Tann. And isn’t our God so faithful and wonderful like that? All the straining and trying to force something onto paper and then He steps in and says ,“Isn’t this what you were looking for”?
Georgia Tann was the founder of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in the late 1930’s. She was lauded at that time by great segments of society for her selflessness, her altruism, and her efforts to save the poor and suffering orphans she took in. Numerous magazines and newspapers praised her and she even received a personal invitation to the inauguration of President Harry Truman. She was asked to be a consultant on a book about adoption by author Pearl Buck, and Eleanor Roosevelt sought her counsel regarding adoption issues of the day. She ran in elite circles and became very wealthy.
The problem was that most, if not all, of the children in the Tennessee Children’s Home were stolen. She took children from impoverished families or unwed mothers through dishonest measures or even kidnapping and she sold them to wealthy families. She amassed a small fortune in the 26 years that the home was in existence. While in the home, the children were subject to horrible abuse. They were beaten, starved, molested, and many were killed. Because she changed their names and identities and destroyed paperwork, there were no records. Most of them were never returned to their birth families. And celebrities such as Joan Crawford, Dick Powell, and June Allyson purchased children from her. She had in her inner circles judges, attorneys, police officers and doctors. All turned a blind eye to what they had to have known was happening. And all the while she was extolled for her kind heart and selfless living.
In my conversation with our daughter that had nothing to do with Georgia Tann, or so I thought, she mentioned the great difference in personality and character. Personality comes from a Latin word meaning mask. Character comes from the Greek word that means engraving in stone. And with Georgia Tann on my mind and troubling my spirit for days, this is what I needed. You see, the people in her circles were looking at the wrong thing. They were looking at her personality. Her mask. Masks are meant to deceive. To cover up. And Georgia Tann was very successful in her cover up. It wasn’t until 3 days before her death that a Tennessee official came forward with what he knew and she was exposed. Sadly it was too late, at least in this life.
We all have personalities. We all wear masks. Many of the men who seek help at Brother Bryan have big personalities. Loveable personalities. Many times they have perfected the art of “schmoozing”. It’s how they’ve learned to survive and thrive in their world. God desires to teach us all another way…a better way. He wants to work on our character…what is engraved in our stone. That takes a lot more work, but God is able. He takes His loving chisel and He begins to chip away. He has something very special to say through us. The men here tell stories of being annoyed…someone snores too loudly or they eat too much or they take too long in the shower. All these are part of the hammer God uses to pound away at His chisel. Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes it is painful. We are often way too content or comfortable with what our stone already says. Some of us believe our stone says “Loser” or “Drunk” or “Addict” or any of a long list of names like that. Others may believe their stone is etched with “VIP” or “Top Dog” or “Got it All Together”. I’m only guessing but I believe Georgia Tann believed her own press. She believed on some level that she was saving children from poverty and placing them in a status they would never achieve without her intervention. She was playing God, and she became rich by this world’s standards by doing so. Don’t mistake the world’s applause for God’s favor. Often they are diametrically opposed.
A person’s character shines. We can fake it for a little while, but character always trumps personality. Only God knows what He etches in our stones, but a person with Godly character can’t keep it hidden. I am grateful for our daughter’s wisdom and I’m grateful to know men at Brother Bryan and to be a tiny part of what I believe is a great ministry. I’m grateful God is still chiseling away within these walls and within my own character and His desire is to chisel in stone for His own glory. We are simply vessels. The men here learn how to live biblically and tear off their masks. May they go out from this place like arrows, teaching a very jaded world that clamors after fame, fortune, success, reputation, etc…just how beautiful it is to tear off our masks and, as singer Michael Card says, “see the art of our face”. God’s message is the antithesis of the world. God says “Go lower”. Get on the ladder going down. And the men here are learning along with all who are teachable, that the road leading to smallness is the least congested.