My friendship with Billie Starr Brightwell began with fan mail, I think. Billie was a listener to my radio show “Celebration Rock,” and later a student in the M. A. program at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. From PSCE, she went to Kentucky to be a Director of Christian Education at a couple of churches, but returned to Richmond to be the part-time secretary to the Director of PSCE’s Video Education Center. That would be me.

When I left for a pastorate in Vermont, Billie, who had been promoted to be the exalted Assistant Director of the Video Education Center, took over the directorship. Along the way, a funny thing happened. Billie responded to a call to the ordained ministry and went to seminary, was indeed ordained, and became a pastor.

All that is a sketchy background, mere line drawings that it would take many palettes of color to fill in, and many pages to write. Here I write of how Billie’s friendship fed my own spirit as I ministered in media and my pastoral vocation.

When Billie first came on campus, I think she may have been surprised to find me there. I had been a voice on the radio, and here I was teaching video at the school where she would earn her second (or was it third?) Master’s degree. She took my course in video, assisted me in various productions, and showed strong interest in the power of media in both culture and education. When she left for Kentucky, I was confident that she would be a super DCE for the churches that entrusted their educational programs to her.

Primarily due to her aging mother’s health, Billie sought to return to Virginia, and when my secretary moved to new work, I mentioned to Billie (almost with embarrassment) that PSCE had a part-time opening in my department. Billie came back, glad to return to the area close to her Mom, and happy to be back on our campus, but risking the financial shortfall that was bound to come with a half-time secretarial appointment. Her risk was certainly a gift to me and my work, since she easily combined basic office skills with her previous knowledge of video production.

Billie managed the work scholarship students who had been assigned to the VEC, and she helped me teach various courses, both in the M.A. program and in Continuing Education. Her background in education was invaluable to me as I planned workshops and events both on and off campus. She took leadership roles in the local congregation that I would eventually serve as Associate Pastor, and she became involved with our local Presbytery, serving on the Committee on Ministry. She a loyal friend and talented co-worker, and I owe her so much for helping me balance the heavy tray of very full plates that became my media and pastoral ministries in Richmond.

I mentioned her loyalty. How else can one describe the many hours she devoted beyond the basic job descriptions she had at PSCE. Helping me prepare a weekend youth ministry conference or helping me keep my radio productions on schedule, or staying late to help edit video ahead of an upcoming (like tomorrow) deadline —  Billie was there. One night, after she had helped me teach an evening class, that generosity nearly got her shot. Seriously.

When the class that night was over, the two of us walked to the PSCE parking lot. The security light was still out, something I had noticed and reported  just a few days earlier. I saw two men walking behind us, and I urged her to get into her car quickly, as the two men then followed us into the lot. I got in my car and locked the door, but before I could start my car, a sawed-off shotgun was aimed at my driver’s side window. “Gimme your wallet!” a voice demanded. I got out of the car and handed over my wallet. My empty wallet. Plus a couple of dollars I had in my pocket, just so the guys would think they got something from me.

While the one was holding me up, the other went to Billie’s car, but she didn’t quite hear what the guy was saying, so I remember saying brusquely, “Just give him your wallet, Billie.” And then I remember wondering what it would feel like to be shot with a shot-gun. The guys ran quickly from the lot, warning us that they’d shoot if we followed them. No problem, I thought to myself; just get out of here.

We went directly next door to the home of the school’s new president. He wasn’t home, but his wife answered the door, thinking I suppose that it was a bit late for a “welcome to our school” visit. I am still  slightly paranoid when I find a couple of strangers walking behind me at night.

The security light was repaired shortly after that.

Billie Brightwell’s light shone brightly in ordinary circumstances, but one particular night, it took on a literal meaning. Without sharing all the background, I’ll just say that we had a campaign at our church that urged folks to put peace candles in their homes’ front windows (electric ones, like the ones people use at Christmas). One afternoon at the Video Ed. office, Billie got a call related to her Presbytery committee, and specifically a case that involved the sexual abuse of a young woman by a local pastor.  The young woman had been contacted again by the pastor, and was frightened for her safety.

Billie offered her a safe haven in her own home. It was several miles from the young woman’s house, but Billie gave her directions, and added, “When you get near my house, look for the lighted candle in the front window. That will guide you the rest of the way.”

I have to say that Billie Starr Brightwell’s light guided many, many folk in worship, in mission, in media, in education, and in friendship. And now as a pastor she lets her light so shine before people that, as Jesus put it, “…people will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Amen!

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