Mary Etta Bates said she never set out to spend 77 years as her church’s pianist. When she was 13 years old, she just got behind the keyboard one day at Republic Baptist Church in Birmingham and then did that same thing over and over.
And she’s still going.
“She’s one of the most faithful women of God I’ve known,” said Guy Moore, who has served as Republic Baptist’s pastor for 28 years.
Bates is humble about it. She said she is just grateful to the piano teacher who gave her the opportunity to play, and she is grateful to God for giving her the opportunity to serve.
Her church recently honored her for her years of service in conjunction with her 90th birthday, and she quickly says the 77 years were “off and on,” not continuous.
But Moore said those “off” periods were very short — and even then she was playing the organ and giving another young pianist a chance to have some experience, just as someone did for her when she was a teenager.
“She’s always been our main pianist,” Moore said.
Over the years, Bates has worn other hats too. She coordinated the church library and was actively involved in Sunday School and Woman’s Missionary Union.
“I’ll continue to do what the Lord has for me to do for as long as He’ll let me,” she said.
Bates said she doesn’t “do fancy playing,” but Moore said whenever he walks down out of the choir loft on Sundays and she’s still playing, he tells her, “Still got it, sister.”
“She’s special,” he said. (Grace Thornton)
In her own words…
Mary Etta Bates has been pianist and organist at her church for 77 years. At age 16, she began teaching and encouraging others to become a church pianist. At 90, Mrs. Bates not only still plays piano at her church’s Sunday morning and evening services, but also attends Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) meetings. In the past, she also was a Sunday School teacher, Vacation Bible School volunteer and church librarian, and she worked outside the home.
Ministry title: Church pianist
Church name: Republic Baptist Church, Birmingham, in North Jefferson Baptist Association
Life verse: “Be strong and of good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, He it is that doth go with thee; He will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” (Deut. 31:6)
Describe where you focus your greatest ministry efforts. As church pianist for the Sunday morning and evening worship services and for choir practice. Shelia Sanford is our music director; Brother Guy Moore is pastor. I always try to be there. Faithfulness means so much.
Q: Who was one of the most influential people in your faith life? Why?
A: Oh, so many dedicated teachers that lived a Christian life outside class sessions. One pastor, Brother Bert Cornelius, in the late 1960s and 1970s, had a gift and calling from God. His messages seemed to sink deep into my heart in a way that God encouraged me and helped me to trust God as my children were young teenagers.
Q: Tell about a “turning point” in your life and how God was involved.
A: My husband, James Bates, passed away in 2014. I had a hard time with … “Who am I now?” We had been married 62 and a half years. He was a deacon and faithful in every way. God was very real to me by blessing me with three adult Christian children and their spouses — always ready to meet any need. Also, we had already in progress a small quilting group that gave away most of our work for any needs. They provided real support for me.
Q: What has God been teaching you lately?
A: When I realize I haven’t practiced piano … and my other serving projects begin to overwhelm me, I seem to hear a voice: “Do the best you can; leave the rest to God.” That usually calms my spirit, and I feel amazed!
Q: If there were one thing you could tell your younger self about faith, what would it be?
A: Don’t get so busy “doing church activity,” though it is very important to work. But take time to listen for the small, still voice. So often we don’t hear God lead in the very small everyday things. Let your children know you don’t always feel as strong in faith as you might appear because they also will face lots of decisions.
Q: Have you ever read a book or heard a song that changed the way you think about God and faith? What was it and what did you learn from it?
A: My piano teacher, Mrs. Inman, planted a seed. When she found out my parents were moving from Docena and my lessons would end, she assigned me my first hymn, “Where He Leads Me,” by E.W. Blandly and J.S. Norris. (Until that point, Mrs. Bates had been learning classical music.) I was only 13 and a half years old; the words didn’t mean anything to me at that time. … Now at 90, I still remember my first hymn and thank Mrs. Inman for planting that seed of faith. [Another song] changed the way I think about God and faith — “Each Step I Take,” by W. Elmo Mercer — I have changed my weak faith in decisions and learned more to depend on God with the assurance that He will help me. “The Unseen Hand,” by A.J. Sims taught me confidence and more trust. God [is] always with us. … Our children and two others sang … in the 1970s. … [That] song always touched my heart so deeply as they would sing … “Yes, there is an unseen hand.” Just walk by faith. We can trust Jesus guiding with His unseen hand.
Q: Does your church have any special traditions that mean a lot to you? What are they?
A: In August, we have a homecoming service — singing, a special quartet, a huge lunch and fellowship. (Leigh Pritchett)
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