Recently, I was asked to give remarks at a retirement dinner for Frances Ford of Perry County, an extraordinary person whose passion to rebuild healthcare in Perry County has inspired thousands of people from around the nation who came to help. In 2016, Frances was inducted into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame. Permit me to quote that article:
Citing her faith in God and the influence of her parents, Ford said she is guided by the principles of “giving back, helping others, and [showing] the love of Christ”. Throughout her career, Ford has followed a deep calling to make a difference in her spheres of influence. A graduate of Judson College (B.S.) and the Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing (R.N.) at Samford University, Ford devoted her nursing career to serving her neighbors in the Black Belt region of Alabama…In 1999, Ford accepted the position of Health Care Coordinator for Perry County in order to begin rebuilding healthcare infrastructure in the community after the closure of the County’s hospital in the same year. Supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ford coordinated projects to increase the number of healthcare professionals, expand the services of outpatient clinics, and remove regulatory barriers that inhibited the delivery of healthcare services in rural and medically-underserved parts of the state.
Her efforts influenced state and federal officials to establish a primary care center in Marion and to revise regulations that prohibited End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) facilities from operating in areas more than 10 miles from a hospital. This change, which Ford accomplished through her involvement with the Governor’s Black Belt Action Committee, allowed for the establishment of the Davita Dialysis Center in Marion, eliminating a 40-mile drive two to three times per week for more than 50 dialysis patients in Perry County.
Ford also developed and led an initiative to connect children in Perry County with health insurance programs, which accomplished a ten-fold increase in their coverage. This initiative was incorporated into the work of Sowing Seeds of Hope, which Ford joined in 2005 as Executive Director.
Makes you feel lazy, doesn’t it? I was honored to share remarks for her, a true Alabama saint. I share them with you here.
Frances, so many eloquent things have already been said about you and I tried to think what I could add to that. I am here merely to bless you. You have made such a difference in this state and in your community. You have changed the well-being of so many. As a pastor I have watched as you answered the call and stepped forward to do such extraordinary work for the people of Perry County, and in the process changed the lives of all whom you invited to join with you.
Permit me a small vanity as my blessing. At the Baptist state convention in the mid-1990s, I went with as group from my church. Arthur Weeks, a retired Samford law school dean and elegant gentleman and his wife, Carol, were among those going.It was early in my ministry, so we were just getting to know one another. We were remonstrating about the political chicanery in our state convention at the time and Arthur was telling a story. And in the story, he said, “And I said, “Well, hell…” and couldn’t finish the story. His shocked wife was horrified to hear him swear in front of their new pastor and she blurted, “ARTHUR!”
He matter-of-factly turned to her and said, “Why, Carol, I’m just quoting myself.” So for my blessing I’m going to quote myself here in just a moment.
The very first time I was with Frances was many years ago. We were traveling to the Alabama State convention meeting together in Huntsville, early on, probably nearly two decades or more ago. But we were riding in our church bus and one lady on the bus from my church was famous for her hysterial laugh, which was easy to start and hard to stop. And I told Frances that I bet her I could get her to laugh 20 times before we got to Huntsville. It was over 25 by the time we got there. We had a grand time, she was fun to be with, but I came to know that gentle spirit, good heart and great spirit. I had no idea who I was sitting with. Only later I saw the impact that she had. I saw the measure of her life both in Perry County and everyone who visited there.
And through the years, as we were part of the arts camp there and many other efforts, I would see my members come back changed by what they experienced and by the impact that her work was having on the people there. You made difference to me. You have made a difference to the people here, your family.
You loved your community, and you love your neighbors and you love the land that you live on and invested yourself in a way that has changed them all. We will never be the same. Thank you.
So now I’m going to quote myself. This is a song lyric that I wrote back during the pandemic. I was inspired by thinking about Saint Paul’s tendency in every letter he wrote to say, “I thank God every time I think about you.” It seems perfect. Frances, we thank God every time we think about you and the difference that you have made. Here are the words that I wrote and they are for you.
Every Time I Think of You
Gary Allison Furr (for all who every prayed for me)
I tried to fly above the angels with nothing but self-centeredness
But I only found the way to heaven from wandering in the wilderness
I took this road a long time ago without knowing where it went
when I thought I’d lost my way, I felt the prayers you sent
I thank God when I think of you, You are a gift to me
Of faithfulness and hope and love and generosity
For all my sins and weaknesses I now feel gratitude
Without them I might never have known how much I needed you.
When fear and anger silence truth, and mercy is ridiculed as weak,
I remember you still pray for me And I find my voice and speak.
I thank God when I think of you, You are a gift to me
(these lyrics appear in Gary Allison Furr, Shadow Prayers: Reflections from a Pandemic Year, Parsons Porch, 2021, p. 172.) A recording of the song can be heard at https://garyallisonfurr.bandcamp.com/track/every-time-i-think-of-you-3