By Bob Harper, California
Bob Harper is a Child Protective Services social worker in Sonoma County, California, where he lives with his wife, Terri, and their two sons. This article was previously printed in the May 2005 issue of the Evangel. Used by permission.
The Ministry of Sister Barbara
My mom died January 24, 2004. She was not my birth mother, my adoptive mother or my stepmother. I didn’t even call her Mom. I called her Sister Barbara. Her name is Barbara Holcombe, and she was my housemother at the Church of God Home for Children (now Smoky Mountain Children’s Home) for 12 years.
I was a frightened 4-year-old boy when my five brothers and sisters and I went to the Home in 1964. At that time, Sister Barbara was the housemother for at least a dozen boys between the ages of 3 and 7, so she got all three of us boys—my older brother, James (6); my younger brother, Bruce (3); and me. On my first day in residence, I threw a fit of nuclear proportion, screaming and kicking another housemother who would not let me go to my eldest sister. Sister Barbara “rescued” me, making me feel that she in no way blamed me, taking me to her lap and soothing the palpable fear I had felt all day.
We were bonded from that moment. Throughout my childhood, in which she was the only constant parent figure, our love for one another grew, and I knew beyond a doubt that Sister Barbara held me in her heart as her son. Without that knowledge, I would not have felt that anyone loved me during those years.
She was by no means a perfect parent. She knew that and confessed it regularly. She attempted to be both mother and father to 12 boys at a time. At one point she had a dozen young teenage boys in her care. I recall her efforts to make sure we had adult male role models and, more humorously, her efforts to talk with us about puberty, girls, and what we were dealing with as adolescents. I also recall her sacrifice to feed a dozen adolescent boys. We had breakfast in our “cottages” each morning, lunch either in the cafeteria or at school, and dinner in the cafeteria each evening. We were fed healthy portions, but we were growing boys. Sister Barbara spent much of the meager salary she was paid each month to buy additional food for us. There were times she was unable to afford to have her hair cut or styled, to purchase much-needed new clothing for herself, or to seek dental or health care for herself. On one occasion she had an abscessed tooth and could not seek treatment, so she used Listerine to numb it for weeks. No sacrifice was too great for her boys.
Sister Barbara had a childlike excitement about life. She was much more fun than any of the other houseparents at the Home, at least in my opinion. When we were small—preschool and elementary school age—we buffed the tile floors of the dormitory we lived in with an electric buffing machine to keep the shine on them. After the floors were buffed, Sister Barbara would get a blanket, lay it on the floor, and a dozen or so little boys would pull her up and down the hallway as she laughed hysterically.
She took us camping down by the creek at the edge of the Home’s acreage and made up stories about Elmo the Dragon and other fictional characters who had a disadvantage in life, faced it, and made the most of it. She made snow cream in the winter (a concoction of snow, milk, sugar and vanilla) and rode sleds down hills with us. She rode bikes down hills, inner tubes down rapids, and buses to district youth rallies with us.
Sister Barbara taught me about Jesus. She taught me to pray. She told me to pray when I was faced with problems, had intense anger held within me, or was fearful. She sang to us constantly—gospel favorites and silly made-up songs.
I took my sons and my wife to visit with Sister Barbara after she had returned to her home in Mississippi. She sang silly songs to my sons too. She cooked my favorite foods from my childhood, and we reminisced. She came to California, two years ago, having been brought out by our church for my brother’s pastor appreciation service. She spent a week in my home. Those two occasions were the only times I felt my sons experienced the heritage I was blessed with.
One of my favorite songs Sister Barbara sang to me when I was a child is “If I Knew of a Land.” She and I shared that song over the phone two days before her death. She was not able to speak due to weakness and being hoarse from pain medication, but she hummed quietly. Less than 48 hours later, she went to that land. Her absence from this world makes it different for me and, I am sure, for many others. She is one of the true heroes of the faith, putting into action what she believed. She changed the lives of many children. She certainly changed mine.