When I was sixteen-years-old I attended a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade in Winnipeg, Manitoba that profoundly changed my life. Of course, the world-famous articulate and persuasive ministry of the great evangelist, anointed by the Holy Spirit, was enough to make an indelible mark on my life forever. Even though I had given my life to the Lord at the early age of four, I was totally awed by the thousands of people who thronged forward to make decisions to follow Jesus. In addition, I will never forget watching Mr. Graham’s pianist, Tedd Smith, warming up on the keyboard and accompanying the crusade choir made up of men and women from many churches. I thrilled to the voice of George Beverly Shea and enjoyed Cliff Barrows’ congregational song leading. The whole experience left me in awe.
But the one thing that literally moved me to tears, and I shall never forget the experience, was a sweet, elderly African-American woman by the name of Ethel Waters, who sang “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”. She prefaced the song with, “Listen, children….”, and from the first line, “Why should I feel discouraged...” which she articulated with such a nuance of feeling, tears began to come to my eyes! As she proceeded through several choruses of, “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow; And I know He watches me!” with the mass choir singing along in the background, I really thought I might be raptured at any moment! The sheer ecstasy of the whole performance left me feeling like I had been sitting at Jesus’ feet. It wasn’t even that her voice was the most elegant or dynamic that I had ever heard, but the fact she was able to project to her audience something we all felt way down deep in our souls, that intangible quality that literally brought us into the presence of God! It was definitely the anointing of the Holy Spirit!
Ethel Waters didn’t always use her talents to sing anointed songs of praise and worship to God. In fact, she didn’t surrender her life to the Lord until she was in her late 50’s. She was born in Pennsylvania around the turn of the century, the unwanted product of a rape! Her mother, Louise Anderson, was raped at knife point when she was only thirteen years old by a middle class mixed-race pianist and family acquaintance by the name of John Waters. Raised in poverty by her grandmother, Ethel grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. She later recollected in her autobiography, His Eye Is On the Sparrow, “No one raised me; I just ran wild. I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.” She married at age 13 but soon left her abusive husband and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel working for $4.75 a week.
However, God had His hand on Ethel. She soon began singing and dancing, as well as performing at church functions. In 1917 she made her debut on the black vaudeville circuit and performed in Harlem nightclubs in the 1920’s. Soon she entered the “white time” vaudeville circuit, becoming one of America’s most celebrated and highest-paid entertainers. At New York City’s “Cotton Club” she introduced what would become one of her #1 hits on the Billboard charts, “Stormy Weather”. She wrote of her performance, “I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted.” Later Irving Berlin, impressed by her soulful performance of this song, wrote “Supper Time”, a song about a lynching, for Ethel to perform in a Broadway revue. She became the first African-American star of a national radio show, was cast several times as a dramatic actress on Broadway and in the movies, and had three of her recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Still, with all of her success, and even a wonderful husband whom she married in 1938, Ethel knew something was missing! In the late 1950’s Ethel walked down that famous aisle in a Billy Graham crusade and gave her life to Christ! Her life was never the same! After becoming a born-again Christian, she dedicated the remainder of her life, until her death in 1977, to touring with and singing at many of the Billy Graham crusades, as well as recording several albums of sacred music for Word Records. Her life was transformed by the power of Jesus Christ!
Talented musicians have always made a deep impression on me, but for this sixteen-year-old girl sitting in that audience so many years ago, the anointing and impact of the music of Ethel Waters would never leave. God used her to bless a teenager who decided to use her talents in the same way to influence many for Christ! I hope to see her and share her music in Heaven one day!