March 13, 2003, Thursday, BC cycle
At 104, widow of traveling evangelist strong in mind, faith

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: Domestic News

LENGTH: 830 words

DATELINE: NASHVILLE, Tenn.

On weekday afternoons, 104-year-old Laura Keeble sits in her nursing home room, content to watch Oprah Winfrey on television.

But at 3 p.m. on Sundays, the widow of traveling evangelist Marshall Keeble expects someone to wheel her downstairs for worship service.

“I’m going as long as I’m able to get up,” she says.

Baptized in a Mississippi creek 90 years ago, this gentle woman known as “Sister Keeble” boasts a spiritual strength that belies her wrinkles, white hair and wheelchair.

For much of her life, she lived in the shadows of her husband, who baptized an estimated 40,000 people, started more than 250 Churches of Christ – mainly black congregations – and quietly worked for integration.

But Sister Keeble, who also became “Mama” to dozens of young girls, has her own story.

Born Aug. 6, 1898, Laura Catherine Johnson was one of seven girls and three boys in her family. Her father, Luke, worked in an iron foundry. Her mother, Susan, was a nurse.

Laura attended No. 2 High School, the black school in Corinth, Miss. Her great-granddaughter Gwen Cummings, 52, asked her one time if she resented the segregated education.

“We weren’t taught that way,” Cummings recalled her saying. “We stayed busy and we stayed circled in Christianity.”

When Keeble came along he was already a well-known minister. Laura was 35, working as a nanny and wondering if she might die an “old maid.”

Keeble, the son of slaves, was a recent widower and 20 years older than Laura. His first wife, Minnie, a Fisk University graduate, helped teach the preacher how to read and write. In 36 years of marriage, the couple had five children, two of whom died in infancy.

“Some of you ought to find me a good wife,” Keeble told friends after Minnie died from an illness. “I can’t live single the rest of my life as young as I am.”

A relative suggested Laura, and Keeble initiated the courtship with letters. To see a preacher “flirting around with a woman” disgusted him, he said, so he never spent more than five minutes alone with her before they married.

Keeble later said the relative “told me I’d get the best rose in the Johnson flower garden, and I think I did.”

Today, though she is somewhat forgetful, Sister Keeble’s love for her husband still shines through,

“Ain’t he a dandy?” she says, holding a black-and-white photograph of her husband of 34 years. “He loved to dress and go preach. He’d say, ‘Come on, Mama, let’s go to church.”‘

She chuckles as she recalls their drawn-out honeymoon: a three-month tent revival that he preached in California.

Keeble’s gospel meetings often drew whites as well as blacks, making him a target of the Ku Klux Klan. Others criticized him for not taking a more militant position on integration.

“Integration? I would rather get it slow than get it wrong,” he said in 1964. He described how he had raised $50,000 for an all-white Christian college in Oklahoma, prompting school leaders to decide “they could not take the money I raised and turn our colored children away.”

While the minister spent weeks and even months on the road, Sister Keeble stayed home.

“There was plenty to do at home to keep her occupied,” author Willie Cato wrote in the book “His Hand and His Heart … The Wit and Wisdom of Marshall Keeble.” “She became a very loving mother to his three children and also to the grandchildren.”

Later, when the minister served as president of the Nashville Christian Institute, a school for black children, Sister Keeble kept up to a dozen girls at a time in her home. She never gave birth to a child, but she became “Mama” to many.

However busy their days were, the Keebles always knelt and prayed before going to bed – and prayer is still an integral part of Sister Keeble’s life.

When she fell and fractured her back a few years ago, Sister Keeble insisted on thanking God before she sipped a cup of soup.

“She was in such pain … but she said, ‘Righteous father, I most humbly thank you for these blessings that you’ve given me,”‘ Cummings said, her voice choking with emotion.

Keeble’s favorite song is “Faith Is The Victory.”

“I used to wonder why she liked that song,” Cummings said. “As I grow older, I understand. She’s lived by faith.”

That helps explains why Sister Keeble insists on attending worship as long as she can.

On a recent Sunday – even though she was suffering from a nasty cough – Sister Keeble had relative roll her wheelchair to the nursing home lobby for worship service.

She wore a purple dress and a diamond ring that her husband gave her – a blue, decades-old church hymnal rested on her lap.

About 40 nursing home residents sang “O for a Faith that Will Not Shrink,” then men from the church across the street prayed and offered communion.

As the collection plate approached, Sister Keeble pulled out a $5 bill.

“Nobody’s expecting her to give,” Cummings said.

But Sister Keeble saw it differently.

“The Lord is,” she said.

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