First United Methodist Church to celebrate note burning

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, October 9, 2021

Anyone who knew Betsy Penn Smith, or even met her just one time, was soon made privy to the fact that she had five great loves – her God, her family, her community, tennis, and her church (not necessarily in that order). She loved to share her faith, her love of Brookhaven, and her pride not only in her five children, but in the hundreds of “her” children that she had taught at Brookhaven High School, coached in tennis, or taught in Sunday School over the course of 50-plus years.

But especially for those who had “Miss Betsy” for their Sunday School teacher, she treated them with love, encouragement and as true “lambs of God,” on whom she could pass along her love for Christ, and her strong belief in the gospel. She taught them the books of the Bible, holding “drills” to make sure they learned them, and when they were ready to move on up to the next class, she gave them a Bible of their very own. It is a tradition continued to this day at Brookhaven First United Methodist Church.

In fact, Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” was not only a verse she often shared, but was truly the way she lived her life. She taught the children of the church long after her own had graduated into adulthood and had their own children.

Since 1949, when she was baptized as an infant into membership of the church (having been on the “cradle roll” since her birth), she was a fixture of the First Methodist Church. A longtime member decades before it became “United,” she attended services weekly, sitting in her usual spot in the sanctuary until three years ago when a major stroke made attending services physically difficult.

But, her love for her church never left her. If there was ever any way for her join in on a church activity, she did. When she could no longer help write uplifting cards for the Covenant Disciple Card Ministry, which she had helped found, she attended meetings to offer her prayers on the cards “prayed over,” as they were being sent to members for birthdays, anniversaries, illnesses, deaths of loved ones, and any other important life event.

And yet, even after her passing in March of this year, she was still looking out for her Brookhaven First United Methodist Church family from her heavenly home.

In her will, Mrs. Betsy left a bequest that she hoped would be used to pay off all of the church’s outstanding debts — promissory notes on the Ministry Center, old loans needed to pay for new roofs, short-term loans to get through hard times. She wanted all of them to be a thing of the past. And so, she issued a challenge — for every dollar that was paid into the church’s Building Fund and used for debt retirement, her heirs would match it dollar-for-dollar, in an effort to enable the church to pay off all debt.

Just a few months after the “Betsy Challenge,” as it came to be known, was announced, the church received the last donations in late September, those needed to meet her final wish — Brookhaven First United Methodist Church now has zero debt. And, to celebrate not only this accomplishment, but also the strong woman who meant so much to so many in the church, there will be a Note Burning Celebration on Sunday, October 17th, at 5:30 PM, in front of the church.

In addition to the note retirement, there will be a short service of thanksgiving, activities for the entire church community, and a cookout supper.

“We want to honor Mrs. Betsy’s commitment to her church, and also celebrate the fact that so many in our congregation wanted to step up and help us pay off all our debt,” said Rev. Lynn Mote, Senior Pastor at Brookhaven First UMC.

“It’s just amazing how quickly everyone jumped in once we announced this ‘challenge,’ to step up their giving, and still continue their regular tithing. I think it is a great testament to Betsy Smith, that so many people wanted to honor her, and her legacy this way,” she added.

When discussing the church’s finances during an interview in preparation for the centennial anniversary of the church’s historic sanctuary in 2016, Betsy Smith retold the story of how her father, Sidney Penn, was chairman of the Building Committee when the church was looking to add an education building to the church’s facilities in the early 1950s. She talked of how on one particular Sunday he and the other men of the committee went to every Sunday school class and asked everyone to pray on what amount they might be able to give toward the new building. Betsy said that when it was time for the church’s regular 11 AM, service, her father was able to stand up and tell everyone that they had received all the pledges they needed to build the education annex. It was something that stood out for her — how the people of the church trusted in God, and then stepped up to make it possible to continue to be disciples of Jesus.

She would be so proud to know that once again, the faith family at Brookhaven First UMC have done it. She challenged them. They did not let her down.