A Woman of Faith: Thelma Wells
- Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
- 2003 9 May
She had every reason to give up long ago. As a child, Thelma Wells was locked in a closet without food or water for hours at a time. Growing up, she was locked out of opportunity because of her skin color. Despite the abuse, racism, and discrimination she has encountered, Thelma is admired for her never-say-die attitude. Wells chronicles how she defied the odds in her best-selling book, Bumblebees Fly Anyway (1996). She continues to motivate women with her book, Girl, Have I Got Good News For You! (Thomas Nelson 2000) and as a speaker at Women of Faith conferences.
Wearing her "signature" piece of jewelry, a bumblebee broach, is Thelma's way of showing that God can use us in spite of our limitations. "The bee is scientifically too big, its wingspan too narrow, for it to fly," she writes. Yet it flies around anyway doing what God made it do. "Human beings need a lot of encouragement to be able to do the things required and desired of them," Thelma says. "Sometimes I've gotten bogged down in the pity parties of life, and I've tried to deny that I have the ability to do whatever God wants me to do. But I know He doesn't assign me anything I can't handle."
Thelma spoke with Crosswalk.com recently about her life, her work with Women of Faith, and about racial reconciliation.
Crosswalk.com: You are speaking again this year at "Women of Faith." What is the theme, and what will you address?
Thelma Wells: Our theme this year is "The Great Adventure." It's a lot of fun and I am specifically talking about the faithfulness of God on our adventure. I share five personal stories about how God has taken what seems to have been the impossible and made it possible, and how he doesn't just do it for me - he does it for all of his children. Even sometimes when we don't trust him to do it.
My daughters who travel with me are dancing to the song, "Great is Thy Faithfulness." I'm taking that song and matching the lyrics with the stories that I'm telling, so that people will see the song differently. When they sing it in their churches or wherever, they will know that God is faithful to them for various situations.
All of the speakers are talking about an aspect of a great adventure in our lives, how good God is, how he loves us, how he guides us in our lives, how we can celebrate the great adventure along the way.
Crosswalk.com: Can you give me an example of one of the stories you share?
Thelma Wells: I'm going to talk about how He was faithful to us in healing one of our daughters. And how He was faithful to us in bringing the money in for my daughter and son-in-law to get the home that they built. We had promised them the closing costs and just before that, the Internal Revenue Service came and took all the money that we had. I didn't see how in the world we were going to be able to keep the promise. But God delayed the closing. And the day before the closing, miraculously, someone paid me before I spoke and God provided the money. My daughter had great faith, and I had the faith of a mustard seed that was cut in half. My, oh, my. In accordance to her great faith, God showed His faithfulness.
Crosswalk.com: How many daughters do you have?
Thelma Wells: Two daughters, matter of fact. They're in their 30s.
Crosswalk.com: How many years have you been doing "Women of Faith" now? What do you most enjoy?
Thelma Wells: I started Women of Faith in August of 1996. This is my eighth year. I most enjoy seeing the people who come leave renewed, refreshed, rejuvenated, restored and revived. And I most enjoy getting the letters, face-to-face communication, emails and cards from people saying, "This changed my life."
Crosswalk.com: In your bio, it mentions that you've had to overcome racism to get where you are and that God has brought you through many trials. Can you give me a couple of examples of situations you have faced?
Thelma Wells: I was born in 1941. I don't mind telling you I'll be 62 this year. That was, of course, during the era of segregation, particularly, in the south. I grew up during the era when there were signs that designated "colored" and "white" on the water fountains in public and on the public transportation (which was a streetcar at that time). You could not go into any restaurants unless they were owned by blacks. You could not stay in hotels. When we went to conventions, we had to stay in people's houses because the hotels and motels would not permit blacks.
So all of those things were the order of the day. But I was never, in my heart, part of the order of the day. When I would see a "colored only" water fountain, next to a white water fountain, I had to see what color the water was in the white one, and what color the water was in the black one. I discovered that the color was the same, but the temperature was different. In the white fountain, they had cold water. The black fountain just had regular water. There was a difference.
Also, in terms of public transportation, they had these flip-over colored and white signs on the streetcars. If you'd get on there, and there were more whites on there, well, you had to go to the back anyway. You also had to get up and give a white person your seat. And that didn't set well with me and sometimes I didn't get up. But I was not a Rosa Parks, either. I wasn't trying to demonstrate. I was just being rebellious, I guess.
When I graduated from high school in 1959, in Dallas, I wanted to go to a secretarial school. I called to register, and I guess they could not tell whether I was white or black. They invited me down to register and when I walked into that office building in downtown Dallas, the atmosphere immediately changed. They told me that I could not go to school there. They used the "N" word. I'm trying to tell them that I just called and before I could get it out of my mouth, their guy had taken me and literally thrust me out on the streets of Dallas. I was humiliated, I was angry, I was upset. It was detestable.
Crosswalk.com: How, in your heart, did you overcome these awful things?
Thelma Wells: I had an anchor at home, which was my great-grandmother. In my great-grandmother, there was a strength that I had to derive from her, and I know that it has been one of my stabilizers. I went home and told her what had happened, and she said, "Baby, don't worry. God will make a way. If you want to go to college, God will make a way."
She went and talked to a white lady. This is a paradox, an irony. She went and talked to this white lady that she worked for as a domestic. And the lady, who is now deceased, asked me to come to her home. She talked with me about going to college. I told her I wanted to go to North Texas State. That lady paid my tuition and books to North Texas State College when I went there the first year. It became a university. Her stipulations were these: "Keep your grades above a 'C'. And if you decide to get married while you are in college, I will no longer help you."
So I did - I decided to get married my sophomore year. And my husband of nearly 42 years completed my education for me, upon the promise that he made to my great-grandmother. That was one of the stipulations of marrying me - that I must finish college. So he kept his word, and I did.
Crosswalk.com: What happened after college?
Thelma Wells: I was the first black woman, black person, actually, hired in the John Deere Company in Dallas, Texas at status position. That was in 1964. They hired me as a secretary. But when I came to work, when I got to work that first day, I got demoted from a secretary to the mail clerk, in the mailroom, using a big antiquated address-o-graph. And standing on my feet all day, pumping that address-o-graph, pushing plates through there, addressing envelopes and delivering mail.
By now, I'd been out of school. I had two children, I had a degree, I had taught school, and I left teaching to go into industry as a trailblazer, and here I was in the mailroom, getting a corn on my toe. I had to talk to myself. I said, "Thelma, be the best mail carrier you can be. Be the best person you can be. Show them that you can assimilate into their situation."
When I first went there, they didn't talk to me. They didn't know how to talk to me. They'd never worked with black folks before. But the way I assimilated in there, I noticed what they were doing. I noticed how they dressed. So I changed my dress, from my little dresses, to my skirts and blouses and suits. I noticed that every Monday, the ladies would come in and they would bring their recipes and, over the weekend, what they had fixed for the week. And they all used Tupperware.
I had never been invited to a Tupperware party, but I found me some Tupperware. I didn't like to cook that much, but I joined a recipe club. And every Monday I started taking my little recipes in, in my Tupperware, until they started mellowing, because a lot of discrimination is because of a lack of association. And after I was there for maybe about six months, everybody was fine. We got along fine. They started inviting me to their homes and stuff like that because they had to relate in order to understand.
Crosswalk.com: What, as Christians, can we do to overcome racism and discrimination that still may exist in the church?
Thelma Wells: I think we have to go back to our origination, in Psalm 139. Because in Psalm 139, we are not discriminated against in God's eyes. Every human being who was born, or will be born, is already a part of God's plan, before the foundation of the world. In Psalm 139 it shows us that we are more spirit than we are soul and body. Whatever your color, your origin, size, your financial status, your position in life, your maturity or immaturity, or your job, we are more spirit than we are flesh and blood.
When we get the picture of God's wonderful weaving of the body around the spirit that He breathed into us, as He breathed into Adam, and when we get over ourselves, thinking that we are better than somebody else because of where we are, or who we think we are, then we will be better able to relate to people of all kinds. I truly believe that.
Some people say that they are color blind, but it's a lie. You're not colorblind. You may not be affected, but that's where we need to be. We should not be affected by the size of somebody's eyes, or the texture of their hair, or how their teeth are set in their head, or what size they are. As Christians, we are mandated to love everybody. In First John, I think it's in the third chapter or the fourth, it says, "If you say you love me whom you have not seen and hate your brother, who you see all the time, you are a liar and the truth is not in you." So how is the church going to overcome this? By understanding the word of God, God's purposes for every life, and what Jesus has said about loving your neighbor.