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A Hammer, A Bell and A Song

I was in Phoenix on Friday, Jan. 6, attending the annual Society of Christian Ethics meeting, when Foy Valentine called. When he learned I would be in Dallas on Tuesday, he said, “Let’s get together.” We planned to.

Often we met at a pancake house near his home—he introduced me to their famous German Apple pancake that takes 30 minutes to prepare. He loved to take guests to his favorite eateries—the best hamburgers in north Dallas, a vintage Italian restaurant near SMU and the best seafood in the metroplex just off Royal Lane.

On Saturday morning after my final meeting, I was packing to leave when my cell phone began ringing with the news of Foy’s sudden death—I was stunned! Audra and I stared into each other’s eyes at first, with that silent communication between life-long partners that allows you to know what the other is thinking long before it is spoken. “It doesn’t seem right,” she uttered, “that good people have to die.” It never does.

One who called was David Smith of Houston, a friend and strong supporter of our journal for many years. Last summer at the BWA meeting in England, he was able to spend some time visiting with Foy, which only increased his admiration.

David has a hobby—a foundry in which he loves to make beautiful gold-plated bells. Not little bells, but large resounding ones—I proudly display mine in my study and ring it when celebrating some grand event.

In England David promised Foy he would make a bell for him. The bell was ready for delivery when David learned of Foy’s death and called to inform me.

Standing there on the 18th floor of the Phoenix Hyatt, I stared in silence out the window at the Arizona landscape, realizing that luncheon date in Dallas would not be. A song from the ’60s popped into my head as I thought of Foy—one Peter, Paul, and Mary made famous, singing at civil rights rallies across America:

“I have a hammer … I have a bell … and I have a song. It’s the hammer of Justice, It’s the bell of Freedom, It’s the song about love between my brother and my sister, all over this land.”

Foy Valentine also had a hammer, a bell, and a song.

The Hammer of Justice never left his hands.

Beginning with that first summer with Clarence Jordan at the Koinonia Farm in Americus, Ga., he began pounding relentlessly for justice, and he never stopped. Justice for the weak, for the poor, for the disenfranchised, and especially for the racially oppressed.

The Bell of Freedom he received from his French Huguenot heritage, and he rang it proudly.

Around 1659, these French Calvinists were severely persecuted by the Roman Church and over a quarter of a million Huguenots fled France, some from the tiny village of Foy! Foy Valentine rang the bell of freedom—religious and soul freedom.

One of his friends shared a story new to me: that when the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message was being previewed during an SBC executive meeting in Nashville, the lone vote and voice in opposition was that of Foy Valentine, who said, “You will all rue the day you voted for this confession—it is the first step toward creedalism!” Was he not a prophet?

The Bell of Love between brothers and sisters was part and parcel of his preaching, his writing, and his work between all kinds of people.

At the memorial service, David Sapp noted, “He was not one to glibly say, ‘I love you, brother.’ But he lived it, he practiced it, and he expressed love in a multitude of ways.”

Just before he died, Foy spent a wonderful week of vacation with his entire family—Mary Louise, the three daughters and their families, and especially the grandchildren—at a vacation spot in Costa Rica. When we talked two days before his death, I asked Foy, “How was your trip?” Not prone to exaggeration, he nevertheless said to me, “Oh, it was the best week I have ever spent with my family.”

On that next Saturday, as Mary Louise drove him toward Baylor Hospital, the two visited and talked all the way until just before arriving, when he collapsed in the car.

I’m crying now as I close this word on the morning after the memorial service, not from sadness, but in gladness for the life of a friend and the joy of homecoming for one of God’s great prophets!

Do you hear the bells? The hymnist wrote, “Ring the bells of heaven, There is joy today, For a soul returning from the wild! See, the Father meets him, out upon the way, Welcoming his weary wandering child.”

In my study, I’m ringing my bell too, for I join the celebration of this grand event—welcome home Foy!

Joe E. Trull is editor of Christian Ethics Today.