By Val Fisk
Wednesday mornings during the stay-at-home order in Tennessee have taken on a comforting rhythm. I arrive at the quiet and empty church building, flip on lights, and set up my laptop in front of an empty library chair. By 9:15, Mrs. Joyce Cope Wyatt is arriving at the front door, where I let her in and assure her that a hot cup of coffee is already brewing—no cream or sugar! We walk together to the library, and one-by-one, the members of Joyce’s Bible study appear on the screen, joining in a Zoom call every Wednesday morning like clockwork.
Joyce Wyatt is 92-years young, and has been teaching this senior adult Bible study for almost 24 years. Joyce and her husband Roy became members of Central Bearden in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1996, after retiring from mission work that took them to seminaries across the Spanish-speaking world for more than 40 years. Joyce and Roy spent ten years teaching in Spain, three years in Chile, and 26 years in Colombia. Even after “retiring” (a loose term, as far as Joyce’s life is concerned!), Joyce and Roy taught at Gardner-Webb in North Carolina before moving to Knoxville.
Joyce is the ideal definition of a “life-long learner,” having received a Master’s in Religious Education from Southern Seminary, a Master’s degree in Adult Education from North Carolina State, and a Master’s of Divinity from Southeastern Seminary, completing courses for the latter degrees during furloughs.
The Bible studies Joyce teaches now are a reflection of her deep love for learning and education, (Joining into her weekly study feels a lot like taking a seminary Bible course, complete with syllabus outlining the plan of study.) Each spring and fall, Joyce selects a book of the Bible and teaches her study in depth, verse by verse, illuminating the text and the culture of the ancient world as her class hangs on every word. This spring, her study is working through the book of Acts, focusing on the spread of the gospel message in the first century.
For me, a young woman at the beginning of my ministry career, Joyce has become an inspiration and a cheerleader. I look at Joyce—her career, the trailblazing work she did for women ministers across the world, the passionate way she teaches, the unapologetic way she challenges people to dig deeper into their faith and question how faith interacts with our own culture, her never-ending energy for caring for the vulnerable in our world—and I ask myself, “What do I need to do now, so that I can be like Joyce when I’m 92-years-old?”
When Joyce talks about what books she has been reading lately, it inspires me to spend a little less time with my Netflix account and a little more with that stack of unread books on my bedside table. When Joyce emails me links to articles from Baptist News Global and Religion News Service, it reminds me to pay attention to what is happening in circles broader than my own. And when Joyce asked me to help her find a way to keep teaching her Wednesday morning Bible study virtually, it reminded me to focus on the things that matter most—the gospel, the words of God given to us in scripture, and the way it binds our community together in faith and love.
For more than a month now, Joyce and I have been meeting at the church on Wednesday mornings, where I set her up with my laptop, make her black cup of coffee, and launch the Zoom call. We have had a reliable attendance of around 20 to 25 people, some joining in with video, a few dialing in from their phones just to hear Joyce’s voice as she teaches.
I’m constantly amazed by how quickly this group has adjusted to the new technology, figuring out how to log in, to turn on their video, and how to mute and un-mute themselves. (Well – most of them have found the mute button!). Each week as they begin to appear on screen, every person is so excited to see the others. They chatter like middle school youth group kids, swapping stories about what they are doing at home and who needs to be added to their prayer lists. And as they pray earnestly together for the people in our church community, Joyce always thanks God for Zoom and for my willingness to help run their virtual study.
And in that moment, I always thank God for Joyce, for her unending dedication to learning new skills and for sharing her wisdom with others. And I ask God to help me be a little more like Joyce and the other folks on her virtual Bible study—a life-long learner, faithfully excited about the scriptures, and faithfully present for one another in prayer.
Rev. Val Fisk serves as interim minister to young adults at Central Baptist Church of Bearden in Knoxville, Tennessee.