An Interview with Zora Nobles and the Rev. John Butin
In January 2018, the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia hosted Fearless Faith, Boundless Love, a revival and celebration of the ministry of a Saint of Georgia, Deaconess Anna Alexander. I sat down with Ms. Zora Nobles, whose father was a student of the Deaconess at her church and school in Pennick Georgia, and the Rev. John Butin, who serves as priest-in-charge for the congregation.
We are at Honey Creek Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Waverly, Georgia, at Fearless Faith, Boundless Love, an Episcopal revival in the Diocese of Georgia. One of the focuses of this revival time is the legacy, ministry, and life of Deaconess Anna Alexander, who was based in several places, but most especially Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Pennick, Georgia. I’m here talking with Zora Nobles. Zora, tell me about how you came to be part of the community at Good Shepherd.
Yes, I’m a cradle Episcopalian and have lived and was born in a home where there are three generations of Episcopalians. My father was one of Deaconess Alexander’s students and when I was very young, my dad would talk about her and how she in fact was instrumental in guiding he and his siblings to always strive to do the very best of the best—and to also get an education and encourage them to go to college. He was an army vet. His name was James Nobles, Sr.
After he finished, when he came out of the army, he got a G.I. Bill and went to St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Deaconess was the person instrumental in guiding him through the process to be accepted there, to go to college there, and to finish with a teaching degree in math and science. That’s where he met my mother, Catherine Nobles. So that couple graduated from St. Paul’s and then left Lawrenceville. James brought his bride back to Georgia. She was from Richmond, Virginia. The first teaching contract they received was to work as some of the first African-American teachers in Sapelo Island, Georgia, which is a sleepy little fishing community.
And from there they went on and started teaching school in McIntosh County and Darien, Georgia. But my dad—who really, if it weren’t for Deaconess would not have gone to St. Paul’s—probably would have stayed and worked with his father in his business. She was instrumental in making sure that the children were educated and that my dad and his siblings would attend college.
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I have been away from home—I left Georgia after finishing college at the University of Georgia. I traveled away with my career and returned back after 20 years. And actually, that entailed really reacquainting myself with Good Shepherd—the Good Shepherd family—and getting more and more involved with my church. That’s when I met my priest, John Butin, who introduced me to the nonprofit organization MAP International, where I began some work there on the Human Resources scene.
As a young kid, Deaconess was a name that was always discussed in our home. All of the good work that she had performed, how she was just diligent and passionate, and how she was so driven to do what she was doing to help children to read, to understand science, to understand the world outside of Pennick, Georgia.
It was through education, you know. She didn’t have very many books or school supplies, and so she would write to different churches and individuals to donate books to the school. She wanted the students to learn and know more about the world outside Pennick, Georgia, knowing this was an African-American school for young adults during the period of segregation. As Bishop Curry mentioned today, she was basically coming out of a disaster and then asking not “why,” but, “why not?” You know, I just wished that I could have been living during that time when she was here on this earth to really kind of talk to her, to ask her questions about what kept her driven. She didn’t work in an ugly manner to do what she did, to achieve what she did. She worked in a loving manner. And she was a loving person, from what I can understand, but a very strong-willed, humble lady. Humble.
What did it mean for you to have Good Shepherd highlighted today in a gathering that was seen not only by your brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Georgia, but across the Episcopal Church?
I… I wish there would be more of this. You know, I think it brings us all closer together when, as one entity, sometimes we’re so caught up in our own little space and cause. Thank God for social media, it can bring us together in that way, but I think that this was really a revival today, this weekend. And to kick off with Good Shepherd, speaking and being on that hallowed ground, that ground that you know where she walked, and the film that Canon Frank Logue and his team prepared– they bring you closer and help you to imagine being in that space, in that time. It’s just remarkable. I thought that was wonderful.
I want people to know more about this Episcopal Church. You know, it’s a wonderful church. At things like this, we could each bring in and invite a guest, someone that may not be tied to the Episcopal Church, but to also help people understand that this is a loving Church. You always know where another Episcopalian is wherever you are because there’s something about them. There’s something about them just having loving hearts.
And I’ve traveled all over the U.S. with my jobs and I’ve always gone to an Episcopal church if I were working through a weekend, but I always find an Episcopal Church. There’s something about their hearts. They’re welcoming. That’s what I love about this church.
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Like I said, I’m a cradle Episcopalian, and I will die one. I will not change ever, ever, ever! I’m free to believe and I will not change ever, ever! Even when people say, “Well, why don’t you come over to our church?” I don’t mind, but I’m not changing. I’m not joining another church; this is the one I met God in.
People who witnessed what Deaconess did—my grandparents, my parents—meeting what is another extension of my family, Father Butin and his family and others, the conventions that I’ve attended through the years here for this diocese: that’s what makes me feel good about our Church.
One of the really moving things for me today—in a sea of really moving things today, actually—was when Bishop Benhase made a public apology on behalf of the Diocese of Georgia to the people of Good Shepherd for actions toward Deaconess Alexander. As someone part of the congregation, what did that mean to you?
From me when I heard him say that, it was with a loving heart. John and I have talked about here in Glynn County, where three Episcopal churches exist. We knew we were Episcopalians, but we were always separate, and I always believed that in time, that would change.
Sometimes things will happen that show the ugliness of non-love, not really working together with a loving heart, a heart that’s free of hatred or malice, or just not being what Jesus Christ taught us to be. I feel always that there’s going to be change a-coming, you know, like the song: there’s a change a-coming.
It just takes time, but it’s got to be people with hearts like ours to keep moving forward. They always say, “You know how you knock down a wall? Keep your head down and keep those legs going.” You know? Keep them going, keep them going, and that’s what we have to do. Don’t always be looking back in retrospect for what has been ugly, but take and embrace that in a way that shows a heart of love and forgiveness and it will get better.
John and I were talking about something similar to that here this week. He’s always calming for me; he’s always very calm: “Just breathe, Zora, just breathe.” There is hope that these things will change and get better. It is not a hopeless world we live in.
I think we can turn some things around, so when he made that statement today, I was taken aback because I didn’t expect it. I was taken aback by it and I thought it was a good thing because we should embrace what has been some of the ugly. That’s my perspective.
At this point, the Rev. John Butin, priest-in-charge at Good Shepherd, joined the conversation.
The Rev. John Butin
I’ve been out at Good Shepherd since 2005. I began as part of what we called “the visiting priests from St. Mark’s,” and that’s a phrase that we use every year in our anniversary celebration. We have a litany at Good Shepherd where we pray for people who have been influential to the life of this church, beginning all the way back to Anna Alexander and then on down to today.
For some reason or another, God saw fit to keep us together all these years and the congregation just loves to hear the Gospel and to live it out. They love the way we worship in community, and so do I, and so 12 years later, we’re still there. At several pivotal points, we’ve come together and tried to discern what God has for us next and he keeps answering, “Carry on and keep loving Me and your neighbors.”
I think this will prove to be another one of those pivotal times. We’ve branched out in various ways, we’ve become multi-ethnic in a sense; traditionally, for very obvious, tragic reasons, this has been a historically black congregation. Over the last few years, there have been several other people from the community, in addition to my family and others, who have come in. Now we have Father Julian Clarke, who’s been a wonderful addition from the British Virgin Islands. That’s also brought a new type of diversity into our congregation. It’s been great.
Would you mind telling me what the scene was like inside Good Shepherd during our worship service?
I’ll tell you from the front and Zora can tell you from the back! From the front, it was stunning. I had the acolyte next to me – this will probably be the first and last time an acolyte will ever be asked by the priest here to take a video of the congregation during service! I said, “You’ve got to see this because it’s a different view.” It was literally heartwarming—just the kind of thing that will melt your heart.
Yes. And from the rear Canon Logue took his iPhone and took some photos. I’ve always been leery of taking pictures with my phone because I think it’s not going to convey what it is that you see. But he held his phone up and above the congregation, and somehow it captured that sea of people there who were just entranced because Bishop Curry was speaking to them. You didn’t hear a pin fall, you didn’t hear anyone shuffling or shifting.
Taking that photo of the crowd from behind—it’s almost like Jesus Christ when he was feeding the thousands with the loaves of bread and the fish. That’s how it appeared to me that we were all together: one life, loving Jesus Christ, and loving what it is about his Word to all of us. That’s what I saw from behind, looking at everybody that was in that room.
And that’s a tiny church! It felt good to have the children right there at the altar. I thought that was a great touch because we didn’t think we were going to be able to get as we did in the sanctuary. But it was perfect. And I don’t think anybody was uncomfortable.
It was just passionate. It was a picture to behold. That had a lot of meaning for me, and it made me feel so good. It made me feel so good. We’ve been working toward this project on this project for a year…
And a year is finally here… And it truly was a dream come true.
It was a dream come true.