Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Jean & Juliet

Emboldened Faith
A Testimony

“…and grant unto thy servants,
that with all boldness they may speak Thy Word.”

(Acts 4:29b)

The Holy Spirit moved upon a congregation on a Sunday morning in the early 1960s. They thought they were hearing an angel sing. Juliet was standing up in the choir loft, her vibrant voice rising and falling upon the people in the pews below. Juliet’s high notes reverberated with such strength that it shook the old church building. Jean bellowed along on the old pipe organ with equally loud exuberance. This was a musical match made in heaven.

It all got started earlier when one Sunday morning Rev. Lowder delivered a remarkable sermon to his small church. “Charlie,” as he was affectionately called by his parishioners, expounded on Galatians 3:29: “And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” He concluded with verse 28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Charlie was a diminutive, balding man with a pleasant countenance. The children in Sunday School informed their teacher that they knew what God looked like—Rev. Lowder.

The white clapboard church was in a village of less than 2000 people situated amidst the verdant cornfields of Illinois. Rev. Lowder’s church was made up of people with long proud lineages of European Christian ancestry. One family tracked back twelve generations to the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s. Another family still spoke German at home. The McLaren’s came from Scotland, and Mrs. Dodge’s father had been an English parson. But Charlie proclaimed that the church of Jesus Christ was more diverse than this and it was time—it was time—to recognize that “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” The congregation would sing that song many times.

Rev. Lowder was a doer, not just a believer, preaching often about the life of Jesus and His disciples. It was not surprising then that Charlie next took the radical step of opening the church to Juliet and her church people. And then an amazing miracle happened – they came! Afterwards Juliet was invited to sing solos regularly with the choir. Scuttlebutt in the village soon called it “the nigger church.” But that didn’t deter Charlie, nor his church folks. They stood on the truth in his sermon.

A short time later Rev. Lowder delivered another life-changing sermon. Here is how Jean described it:

The telephone rang early Monday morning, back in the 1960s.

“Would you be willing to help me study the music for my voice lessons?” It was Juliet, a black woman I’d met two years before when she sang at our church where I was the organist.

“Sure,” I answered, “but is this because of the sermon yesterday?” Juliet had again been our vocalist, and the sermon we both heard was a powerful one titled “Unlimited Horizons.” Our minister’s point was to “get out there today and do what you have been putting off, things you know God wants you to do.” Already that morning his wife had called me to start piano lessons, and it had also moved me to place an order to a music store for some Ragtime piano pieces (something I had always wanted to play).

“Yes, it was that sermon,” Juliet answered. “I’ve decided to really concentrate on my voice.”

With my classical music training I knew I was perfectly suited for the job. Juliet had been cleaning houses to pay for her voice lessons. Life was hard for her; she had ten children to support because her husband was unable to work due to a construction accident.

“…they received the Word with all readiness of mind.”
(Acts 17:11b)

After this sermon Jean’s household rapidly began to change. It became a busy place as Jean bustled around organizing her life so she could practice her piano in the den for hours every day. Jean had given birth to four children in the 1950s, the youngest two of which who were premature and required much care. She was a typical housewife of that era, and along with her husband Paul was joyfully renovating a vintage 1840s house. Jean was a classically trained pianist and organist. She could play Bach exuberantly on an organ one hundred miles an hour with a hint of syncopation. No one had ever heard anyone play Bach like that. But it seemed like the perfect way Bach should be played.
Juliet with some of her children

Juliet had ten children and she lived on the south side of Joliet. She had to support her own family. Nevertheless she said she would give up a day of work and come to Jean’s house for vocal practice. She knew this was what God wanted her to do. There was no doubt in her mind about her calling from the Lord. Thus each week she bravely boarded the bus in Joliet that would drop her off at the main intersection in the village where she could easily walk the three blocks to Jean’s house.

But it wasn’t so easy. Jean expected her that first day about 10 A.M. But Juliet didn’t come and she didn’t come. Jean got worried. When Juliet finally arrived at the front door she practically fell into Jean’s arms. She looked frazzled and had been crying. It turned out that the local police had been contacted by someone spotting a Negro walking down the sidewalk. She had been harassed and told to leave town.

Jean wanted to call the police that very minute and complain but Juliet wouldn’t let her. Juliet wiped her tears and gazed long and hard at Jean. In very strong terms she asserted that this is precisely what Jesus meant when he said to “turn the other cheek” and love our enemies (Luke 6:27-19). Juliet took Jesus’s words literally, she admonished, and so should Jean. Jean was amazed at her pure faith. From that day forward Juliet and Jean would share their faiths together in God’s leading, His providence, grace and protection.

All cheeks turned aside, nevertheless Jean drove Juliet back to the bus stop that day in an antique model A that was the only family car at the time. When Jean got home she did call the police station and politely explained that there was a Negro lady who would be coming to visit her house every week on a Tuesday morning. “Leave her alone, she’s my friend!” Jean warned. She thought that would take care of the problem.

But it happened again the next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. By this time Jean threw one of her classic “fits” and called the police demanding that they put a stop to this. “Juliet isn’t breaking any laws. It is a free country and she has a right to walk down the public street!” Jean demanded. The police explained that they “had to do it because neighbors complained.”
Jean with her 4 children and Gus the dachsund

Well, that wasn’t the right answer. Jean got charged up. Her best friend Nan lived in a house halfway between the bus stop and Jean’s house. Nan loved Juliet and was sympathetic to the cause. From then on Nan stood guard at her window, watching for Juliet walking by her house. Nan would then race out of her house and stand with her hands on her hips, glaring at the police car slowly following Juliet’s steps down the sidewalk. Jean and Nan couldn’t believe that anyone would think that Juliet, a mother of ten children and wife of a handicapped husband, posed a threat to anyone. Nevertheless the intimidation continued.

Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point that Jean drove into the south side of Joliet and picked up Juliet to take her back to her house. It was a move that required courage, because Jean also, just like Juliet, stood out in a neighborhood of different color. But God gave them both a holy boldness that enabled them to set aside all fear and prejudice, social ostracization and ridicule. During the years they rehearsed together, the turbulence and violence of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was always lurking in the background, sometimes in the foreground. There were even race riots in Juliet’s neighborhood after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Both women were afraid. Yet they openly associated and were undeterred because God had told them to do this.

…God hath chosen the weak things of the world
to confound the things which are mighty;”

(1 Corinthians 1:27b)

Jean and Juliet had a strong sense of divine destiny. Each woman found in the other what they needed “for such a time as this” in their lives (Esther 4:14). Juliet needed a gifted pianist who would not be daunted by very difficult pieces of classical music. Jean, who was very smart and classically trained, wanted to be more than “just” a housewife. Juliet’s need made Jean use her gift—and vice versa. Jean’s began to realize that her calling in life might be to become a professional pianist just as Juliet knew her calling was to sing. When they rehearsed together Jean’s whole house rang with music. Even Gus, Jean’s dachshund, would sometimes join in with howling.

Soon Jean and Juliet began meeting together twice a week. Friends of influence in the background were working towards giving Juliet an opportunity to do formal concerts. Dorothy from the church, a reporter for the area newspaper and a staunch friend of Juliet, wrote articles to promote her. In the beginning a handful of brave churches in central Illinois invited Juliet to sing. This encouraged and motivated the two ladies even more. Jean would practice hours every day until she had the complicated classical songs memorized. Juliet would sing all day, with or without accompaniment, but working together they fine-tuned their skills and repertoire.
Program for one of Juliet's concerts

Juliet’s first big concert took place in a small town church. It was a Sunday evening in the middle of winter and the snow was thickly falling. It took an hour and a half of skillful driving by Paul to get them safely there. Despite the weather the church was all lit up, bright and cheery, and the pews were rapidly filling up with a large attendance. Upon arrival Juliet and Jean requested to use the ladies’ bathroom before the concert. However, Juliet was informed that “her type” was not permitted to share the facilities. Yet there were no other bathrooms in this church and it was a Sunday night when everything else in this town was dark and closed. Once again Jean threw one of her famous “fits.” She grabbed Juliet’s elbow, turned her around, and marched her straight into the bathroom.

Juliet conducted herself with dignity under pressure. She possessed a special elegance and grace and was gifted with a strikingly beautiful appearance. Her temperament was humble but spirited. She stood on that sure foundation of her faith in Jesus Christ. She prayed constantly—often out loud in the middle of a conversation with Jean when the need arose. She knew her Scriptures and often quoted Bible verses, especially from the Gospel of Luke. She had a teachable spirit, and her fervent desire to sing skillfully was a testimony of perseverance.

“And why call ye me, Lord, Lord,
and do not the things which I say?”

(Luke 6:46)

Juliet always gave God the credit for her talent. She made it a practice at her concerts to “preach.” That’s what Jean called it, but in reality it was a bit of Scripture and testimony. Juliet simply inserted a time for her little “talk” into the body of the program, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes scheduled. She believed she was an ambassador for Christ—she knew that for some of the people attending her concert that she was the first Negro they’d ever seen up close. In those tumultuous days of the mid 1960s people only knew what they heard and saw on television. How wonderful that their first introduction to a real live black person was a charming eloquent lady who praised God in song, word and life. Juliet was a one-lady battering ram, gently breaking down walls with a four-octave voice and modest sweetness.

The other thing that Juliet sang—which concert-goers absolutely loved—was Negro spirituals. In the middle of a program of classic Bach, Puccini, and Handel, Juliet would belt out a classic like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She was not ashamed of her heritage. In fact, Jean loved it, too! Jean was passionate about spirituals and loved Ragtime and Dixieland music. True to her commitment after Charlie’s sermon that day, Jean had purchased a collection of Ragtime music. She exuberantly began to play spirituals with animated syncopation. Intrigued by the history she began to research the roots of the rare female composers in these genres and decades later would publish a scholarly monograph about her findings.
Juliet recording for television

Dorothy the reporter busily made key connections for Juliet to help launch her career. Dorothy would testify that this was a direct result of that very same sermon by Rev. Lowder. She jumpstarted a group of volunteers who were willing to help Juliet become a professional. Soon Juliet was taking private voice lessons from a professor. She had to learn German, Italian, French and Spanish. Jean helped with the Spanish. People supplied Juliet’s needs in one way or the other, donating time, talent and/or money. One man and his wife drove her into Chicago once a week for her voice lessons. An account of her life was published in a September 1970 article titled “Song of Praise,” in The Rotarian. Describing Juliet’s life and testimony, Harold Finley wrote:

Her appearance is majestic, queenly. She is always faultlessly gowned, immaculately groomed, with a figure more like that of a model or an actress than like the usual operatic soprano. Her poise and gracious platform manner are the result both of humility and the realistic knowledge that she has a tremendous talent….

There are many roots to Juliet’s genuine humility. She had a deeply religious mother, whose principles about cleanliness and devotion to church were never compromised by the exigencies of poverty or racial discrimination.

Juliet never sings publicly without taking time before the appearance to pray for God’s help, and after the service to thank God for the joys she always finds in singing.

She has done, and does, more than her share of hard work. She is the mother of ten children, nine boys and one girl. Five of the boys have been in the Service, three in Vietnam, and two are overseas at present. Mr. King has never fully recovered from an industrial accident suffered 11 years ago, so Juliet must produce most of the family income.

She still remembers poignantly the pitifully small house and the wind whistling through the cracks in the floor and walls when her children were small and her husband’s condition seemed desperate. She continually hesitated to ask more favors of a kindly aunt and a few other loyal relatives and friends. It was on one such occasion that God’s answer to her prayers seemed to be that her voice had been given her as salvation and support.

Although it seemed out of the question at that time, she resolved to get musical training. Now looking back, she believes that she would have “gone to pieces” without that resolve and the faith that God would see her through.

Praise from a September 29, 1974 concert program

Jean, in stark contrast, had been raised in a plush hotel in central Illinois which her parents ran for decades. Jean’s parents were not affluent, but she grew up having everything she needed. They were dedicated Christians and it was in church that Jean met her future husband Paul. Paul’s mother Agnes was a gifted church organist and would play for churches all her life.

About the time that Jean and Paul began to minister actively to Juliet they informed their parents. Amazingly their parents supported them in this new venture, albeit with some fear and concern for safety given the volatility of the 1960s uprisings. But Jean’s mother’s heart melted the day she met Juliet face to face—it was love at first sight. And Paul’s parents had a long history of helping needy people one-on-one in tangible sacrificial ministry. Juliet was just a continuation of their family’s living faith. In fact, Paul quietly donated his money, his time, his talents, and even a car or two, to further Juliet’s career.

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ:
for it is the power of God unto salvation
to every one that believeth;
to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”

(Romans 1:16)

One summer Saturday when Juliet was over at Jean’s house singing, the den windows were open. Her strong soprano voice filled the neighborhood. A neighbor sauntered over and sneered at one of Jean’s children, “I see your mother has that nigger lady over again.” Shocked, the child ran into the house and informed Paul. Paul immediately strode over to the neighbor’s and told him it wasn’t appropriate for him to use that offensive term around children. Paul then instructed the children that night at the dinner table that they were never, ever, ever to use that word—and Jean reinforced it by pointedly reminding them that she wasn’t opposed to washing mouths out with soap. But Jean’s children loved Juliet and couldn’t even imagine calling her that bad name. They even told their friends in the neighborhood that they couldn’t use that nasty term.

Well, this incident got Jean fired up. She planned a dinner party to introduce Juliet to all of the “different” people in town—professionals, and people of other faith, nationality and ethnicity who for various reasons weren’t welcomed in the social mainstream. The main dish on the menu that night was a gourmet wild rice seafood casserole. Juliet, also a fabulous cook, helped prepare the meal and sang gloriously for everyone. The next door neighbor likely heard her powerful voice ring out that night.

“For whosoever shall be ashamed of Me and of My Words,
of him shall the Son of man be ashamed….”

(Acts 9:26a)

During those early years Rev. Lowder preached yet another sermon, this time about the Good Samaritan, asking the question from Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?” The Sunday School classes studied it, too, and, dressed in character, they acted it out as a play in front of the congregation. Everybody got the message, “For there is no respect of persons with God.” (Romans 2:11). Once again Charllie’s sermon took root in the families in his congregation and bore much fruit for generations to come. The church people not only accepted these Scriptures but began to live them out in real life ways. The church would also financially support Juliet for many years.
Juliet with Sacha Kliass in Brazil

By 1970 Juliet had given many concerts in Illinois and New York. She auditioned to sing professionally with the fine arts community in Chicago but, despite her superior accomplishments, she was turned down for a lesser candidate. Jean and other friends privately believed that it was due to prejudice. By this time Juliet was being called “Another Marian Anderson.” She would go on to become the first female vocalist to give a concert at Westminster Abbey. She performed at military bases throughout Europe and for church conferences in Switzerland and Sweden. In 1975 Jean moved to Brazil for four years. She invited Juliet to come to San Paulo and sing for churches and with a Dixieland jazz band headed by Sacha Kliass.

By Whom we have received grace and apostleship,
for obedience to the faith among all nations,
for His name:”

(Romans 1:5)

Jean would go on to play spirituals and Ragtime professionally with her husband Paul. She produced many tapes and CDs, composed music and became widely published in her field of expertise. Her favorite music remained the old Negro Spirituals, which Jean always played with fervent animated syncopation. She continued on as a church organist, gave piano lessons, became an elementary school teacher, and encouraged all of her grandchildren to become musical. Juliet continued to give concerts until the end of her life, and worked as a prison guard in her later years.
Jean & Paul

Much could be said about the events that were swirling around in the background during the decade that Jean and Juliet started their musical careers together. Their lives would bless others across the world in ways that could never have been imagined those sunny Sunday mornings when Rev. Lowder delivered his life-changing sermons. It all began at a time of turmoil and riots, violence and hatred. Yet these two women heard the Lord speak to them. God told them to do something positive with their talents that could bless someone else—against all odds and despite all opposition, fears and threats. And they walked through these hazards with grace and dedication.

Juliet had sons in the service, including VietNam. The 1960s was a time of great racial and political turmoil in America. Yet these two women determined that they would be a living example of Christlikeness, kindness, gentleness and love. They openly expressed the hope that their lives would be a testimony and that others would learn from their example.
Juliet with Jean in Brazil
Jean Hahne Huling was my mother. Juliet King was the singer. Both have gone on to be with the Lord now, living abundantly fruitful lives well into their eighties.

I was an eyewitness. As a child I had a frontrow seat observing these things that I write about. What did I learn from these two godly women? Courage in the face of fear. Steadfastness to fulfill God’s calling. These women believed in a literal hope in Scripture. I learned that faith must have shoe leather; and that discerning the times may require living against cultural norms.

Finally, this miraculous series of events occurred without an official church “vision,” “plan,” “program” or “purpose.” Rev. Lowder preached simple sermons from God’s Word and then followed through. He was a sincere man who was humbly obedient to speak what God had laid on his heart. He also evidenced extraordinary courage in the face of opposition. So did many of his parishioners.

I observed people acting one by one, sacrificially responding to the call of Jesus Christ, boldly obeying His Word and courageously following His Spirit. The cause of Christ was advanced by these meek people doing good and honorable, brave and courageous, decent deeds of goodwill and friendship.

It is time to spread the message of Charlie Lowder’s “Unlimited Horizons” Gospel sermon once again:

“But [Jesus] said,
Yea rather, blessed are they that hear
the Word of God,
and keep it.”

(Luke 11:28)

Juliet with Sacha

Special Notes:
Article authored by Sarah Huling Leslie. Special mention to Paul T. Huling, husband of Jean, who immensely helped Juliet behind the scenes during all of these events. Jean and Paul would stay in touch with Rev. Lowder for many decades after he moved on in the pastorate. Jean would go on to become "Sister Jean the Ragtime Queen" professionally, and Paul, who learned to play the washboard from Sacha Kliass in Brazil, would go on to become "Laundry Fat," accompanying Jean on the washboard. 

Special credit is due to Dorothy Cryder the faithful reporter for the Joliet Herald News who furthered Juliet's career so ardently. 

Photos are from the author's personal collection and from Harold Finley's article "Song of Praise" in The Rotarian, September, 1970 (Vol. 117, No. 2), p. 18. 

Jean's article is excerpted from "One By One: Juliet, remembered by Jean," originally published in The Christian Conscience,  October 1997 (Vol. 3, No. 8), p. 20-21.