Faithful Renderings: The Art of Everyone Called Her Sister Sarah (and Some Thoughts on the Use of History in Children’s Literature)

A photograph of the original Chicago Mission (on Peoria Street, right) and the watercolor rendering painted by Kristine Westbeld for the 2004 children's book, Everyone Called Her Sister Sarah. Courtesy of Evangel Press and the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

As I discussed on the blog a few weeks back, the banner image on the search for piety and obedience comes from a watercolor painting used in the 2004 children’s book Everyone Called Her Sister Sarah, written by Ruth J. Bert and illustrated by Kristine Westbeld. (The original hangs in my cubicle here at work.)

I finally had occasion this week to read through Bert’s charming re-telling of the story of Sarah H. Bert and the founding of the Brethren in Christ Church’s Chicago Mission. And I had the chance to see all the watercolors painted by Kristine Westbeld to illustrate the text.

As I read and looked, something occurred to me: Throughout the book there is an attempt, especially in the illustrations, to render quite faithfully the story of Sarah Bert’s life. Westbeld captures important scenes — the Bethel Church in Kansas, the first mission location on Peoria Street, the later location on Halsted Street — in mirror detail (as the comparison to the left, and those after the jump, show).

Given these faithful renderings, it’s a shame that the writing doesn’t try quite as faithfully to capture the complete picture of Sister Sarah’s efforts and legacy.

After the jump: What’s missing in the narrative of Everyone Called Her Sister Sarah… and why those exclusions matter (especially in a children’s book).

The now-closed Bethel Brethren in Christ Church in Abilene, Kansas (bottom), and the watercolor painting by Kristine Westbeld. Courtesy of Evangel Press and the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

For starters, let me make something very clear: Ruth J. Bert gets all the facts straight. Sister Sarah did, in fact, leave the quiet, bucolic prairies of Kansas for the noisy, busy streets of Chicago; she did feel God’s call to evangelism; she did doubt her abilities but rested in God for provision and strength; she did start a Sunday school, did teach future pastors and missionaries, and did “show what Jesus was like by showing [people] love.” So in describing Sarah’s efforts as a missionary to the Windy City, the author gets it spot-on.

But Bert misses, I believe, Sister Sarah’s other (and very meaningful) contributions to Brethren in Christ history. Because Sister Sarah wasn’t just a missionary to Chicago. She was also a pioneering female leader in a church that almost exclusively stressed male leadership; she was also a strong voice advocating the meeting of basic human needs as a necessary corollary to evangelistic efforts. These are essential aspects of Sister Sarah’s legacy that young people — especially young people in the American Evangelical community — need to hear.

Unfortunately, Bert doesn’t focus on these aspects of Sister Sarah’s story. Instead, Bert focuses on making an appeal for missionary activity (her closing lines — “God loves [every person] . . . so much. Who will tell them about God’s love?” — certainly drive the rhetorical point home), and thus ignores the other aspects of Sister Sarah’s ministry.

The Chicago Mission's later location on Halsted Street, as photographed in the 1940s (bottom) and as painted by illustrator Kristine Westbeld (top). Courtesy of Evangel Press and the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

Admittedly, identifying Sister Sarah as a radical crusader for women in ministry might push the envelope a bit too far. And certainly her work in social services came not as an end but a means; as E. Morris Sider points out in his biography, “Sister Sarah and the other mission workers always insisted that there were higher, more spiritual, goals for which they aimed.”) Thus, locating Sister Sarah as a pioneering missionary makes perhaps the most sense.

But that raises, I think, an important question about how we use history in teaching children. What responsibilities do we have to tell the “whole story” of a person’s life?

Of course, on a personal note, neglecting to focus on Sister Sarah’s social concern does leave out the possibility of sharing what I think is her most enduring (and beautiful) statement about compassionate service: “Few would ever get to God were there no deeds of kindness scattered along their path by Christian hearts and loving hands.”

Again, a message that young people definitely need to hear.

Those interested in reading more about Sister Sarah Bert can find her biography in E. Morris Sider, Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 15-45. Ruth J. Bert’s Everyone Called Her Sister Sarah is available for purchase from Evangel Publishing House.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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