Celebrating the Life and Ministry of Ms. Virginia Provence

1522282_10152034398114404_775940759_nThe God of the Old People – Isaiah 46:4

 “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”

(Mrs. Virginia Provence was cutting edge before anyone knew there was an edge.  A teacher, preacher, campus ministry worker, loving spouse, and devoted mother – she epitomizes what it means to be a true servant of God.  She is an unsung hero for Virginia Baptist.)


Our verse of scripture from Isaiah has become a go-to reference for reflection whenever I conduct the funeral for a senior citizen.  It teaches us that our God is the “God of Old People.”


Today’s celebration is for a women who was 99 years old at her passing.  That a long life worth celebrating, and the verse from Isaiah seems very appropriate.  Four years ago, when another senior from this congregation turned 100 years old, we had a bit party.  Miss Virginia must have like the part, but she took me to lunch a few weeks later to discuss that day’s events.


“Many people in my family has lived well past the age of 100,” she said with a smile.  “I plan to live that long as well.  If I do, I’d like to have a party like that.” As she spoke, you could hear what Fred Anderson called her “infectious giggle.”


Well, Virginia did not make it to age 100.  That would have happened in January 16, 2016.  Her grand-daughter Hannah Provence, who lives in England, had contacted and arranged with Buckingham Palace for a special recognition from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.  Virginia greatly admired the Queen.  Though she seldom gives such honors to those outside the United Kingdom, Her Majesty was impressed by Hannah’s account of her grandmother’s life and intended to offer such a honor on Virginia this coming January.


Virginia did not make it to 100, but I’d say she got close enough.  So we are gathered here today not to mourn her passing as much as we are to celebrate her life – a life well lived, a life that placed its ultimate faith in the grace of God, revealed in Jesus.


One of the stories I like sharing about Virginia involves an encounter I had shortly after becoming pastor at Patterson Avenue Baptist.  She invited our family to a formal dinner in her house.  It was a wonderful gesture.


Now, many of you know that Virginia was educated at the “Women’s Missionary Training Center” of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  But she just spoke about that, she simply said she was a student of the seminary.


After dinner, we retired to her living room.  She told us about her husband, their ministry together, and the many places she had visited in her life.


In that discussion, she showed me a copy of her husband’s graduation picture from Southern Seminary.  She spoke with fondness for professors who taught both she and her husband, men like A.T. Robertson, and Hersey Davis.  Then she asked if I had ever met any of them.


“No ma’am,” I said.  “But when I was a student they had buildings named after them.”


Miss Virginia was a very old at the time of her death, but until a year ago, or so, she lived a fairly healthy life.  Her hearing was about gone…but she just kept plugging along otherwise.  That’s when a decline became readily noticeable.   That decline was punctuated just months ago, when she had a stroke that put her in a nursing care facility. Eventually she regained enough health that she was able to return home, where her Stanton and Kay did a great job caring for her needs.


You could always count on Virginia to smile.  She was a happy soul and contented woman – and why not?  She had lived a good life, a blessed life, a life of faith and confidence in God’s amazing grace.


Virginia was a smart woman.  She was an avid reader, especially astute in subjects related to global, national, and church history.    Theologically, she’d had been well trained as a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  She put this knowledge to work, not just as the wife of a pastor, but as minister in her own right.


When she and her husband (affectionately known as “Doc”) started work at the first Baptist Camus Ministry at Virginia Tech (then known at VPI), there were many requests for “Doc” to go preach at area churches.  Some Sundays there were more than one request, so “Doc” would go to one church and Virginia would go to a different church, with the aim to elicit support for the student ministries.


“They use to say that I had come to give ‘a talk,’” she said.    “When I gave ‘a talk,’ I would read the Bible, tell them what it meant, and then I would tell them to do what it said.  That’s not just giving a ‘talk’ is it, pastor?  That’s preaching a sermon!”


“Yes ma’a,m,” I replied.  “That’s preaching a sermon!”


Virginia grew up as a part of the “Pilcher” family, significant leaders role in the history of Virginia Baptist.  Her uncle, Fred Pilcher, was a chief mover behind the development of the Virginia Baptist Foundation.  Her grandfather, John Mason Pilcher, was one of the best known ministers in the South, serving three terms as president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and for 28 years he was the head of the Sunday School and of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.  He is credited with organizing at least 67 new churches.


I’d like to take the liberty to share some reflections about Virginia  written by Fred Anderson in “The Religious Herald”  in 2008.


(Virginia Provence) graduated from Longwood College in ’38, and headed to the WMU Training School in Louisville, KY, where she met a Southern Seminary student, I. Erfurt Provence, Jr., of Texas.  The couple married in 1942, and Erfurt entered his first pastorate on a field in Caroline County which included Salem and Mt. Hermon Baptist churches.  It was her first experience in the country side.  “Erfurt had never made a fire in his life,” laughs Virginia, “and the parsonage had a woodstove in every room.  He had to learn to chop wood, make a fire and take care of hens.”


The Salem Woman’s Missionary Union had “showered” the young couple with hens.  Erfurt had to feed them, gather their eggs and prepare them for the table.  While preparing for the ministry, he had worked in the seminary kitchen cleaning chickens.  It proved to be as practical as training as homiletics!


Virginia remembers walking across the pasture to the home where she got milk. “I always watched to see where the cows were gathering and went out of my way to avoid them.”


Sometime in 1949, Ralph Winders, the head of student ministry for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, contacted Provence regarding student work at Virginia Tech.   Erfurt made the trip to Blacksburg only to discover that the board had secured merely a small office for the student worker and had no facility for students.  Initially, he turned down the offer insisting that a student center needed to be provided.  About six months later, the offer was repeated along with the news that a student center had been secured. 


The couple went to Blacksburg to pioneer campus ministry work among Virginia Baptists.  The student center turned out to be a filthy, old vacant house.  The students pitched in to clean the place, and the house became a proper BSU.  “My job,” says Virginia, “was to cook supper on Sunday evenings for all those students and sometimes we had 100 for supper.”


Erfurt became affectionately known as “Doc” to several generations of college students.  He envisioned a student center as “a home away from home” for students.  He soon offered Training Union and started a student chorus.


For 17 years, Erfurt and Virginia Provence gave steady guidance to college students.  A debilitating illness forced Erfurt to take early retirement and the couple moved to Richmond in 1966.   They joined Ginter Park Baptist Church in Richmond’s Northside, where Virginia had cousins.  Later…while on her own…she move her membership to Patterson Avenue Baptist Church, which is nearer her West End home.


Let me call your attention back to those words from scripture.  “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”


The 99 years of Virginia lifespan were not even a drop in the bucket when held up to the great span of eternity through which God has and will continue to exist.  God has no beginning and no ending.  God always has been and always will be.


God was with Virginia on January 16, 1916, when she made her appearance at birth.  God was with her this past Saturday when she breathed her last breath – and God was also with her at that moment.


God is present when we enter and when we exit.  God is present at our beginning and our departure.  Even though our body may grow weak, our skin becomes wrinkled, and our hair turn gray, God is always with us every moment of every day.  God was with Virginia every day of her life!


A few days ago, Virginia breathed he last breathe.  In a peaceful and gentle moment, she was taken from this life to the next.


What was it that the prophet Isaiah wrote?


“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”


When Virginia entered this world in 1916, God was with her.  God made her – called her into being.


Throughout all those 99 years of her life – it times of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, abundance and want – God was there to carry her – to sustain her.


Then just a few days ago, four months shy of her 100 birthday, God was there to carry her into his heavenly presence.


The text says God made us, sustains and carries us, and then rescues us.  That’s what happened just a few days ago.  Those who died in Christ are rescued into God’s immediate presence.


For people who have placed their confidence in Jesus Christ, death is a rescue from this world into His heavenly kingdom.

For people like Virginia, death is not something to be feared because we do not face it alone.  The Creator of the Universe is at our side.


Wherever you stand right now on this journey of life—if you feel like you are just starting out, or that you are nearing the end of the road, please know this: Almighty God was with you are the beginning of the journey and He will remain with you, calling you to come to God by His grace through faith.  If you choose to receive that gracious mercy which he offers, you can be sure that one day God will one day rescue you through death into eternal life in His presence.

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