A Force of Nature: Inez Stone Ryals
Memoir By Michael Usey
April 18, 2015
One of the ways that we here at College Park seek to follow Jesus is in the empowerment of women as full partners with men as disciples, leaders, ministers. This is not by any means a radical notion, as many North American Christian Churches and denominations do so as well, but it remains controversial in conservative and fundamentalist churches as well as those of the Roman church, for example. But we here at College Park follow the NT precedents.
In the NT there are a number of women leaders. Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection, and the first to be commissioned to tell others of the resurrection. The earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel end in chapter 20 with Mary’s witness to the twelve, for John’s gospel presents Mary Magdalene, not Peter, as the model for discipleship. Chapter 21 was added later, making Peter the key witness of the resurrection, and commissioning him to be shepherd of the flock. This has obscured Mary Magdalene’s status as the first witness of the resurrection and as John’s model of faithful discipleship.
In Paul’s letters we find numerous references to female leaders in the early church. Priscilla and her husband Aquila, we are told in Acts 18, “explained to Apollos the way of God more adequately” (verse 26). Priscilla and Aquila also travelled with Paul and founded house churches.
Paul refers to another woman, Phoebe, as sister and diakonos in Romans 16:1, using the same word that he uses to describe his own ministry and that of Apollos. Phoebe, like Timothy, was a co-worker of Paul’s, and Paul calls Phoebe his patron, acknowledging her generosity and support.
Another woman of the early church is Junia. Paul calls Junia and her husband Andronicus “foremost amongst the apostles” (Rom 16.7). Junia’s story has been suppressed by patriarchal assumptions. Androcentric translators assumed that the term “apostle” could not be attached to a female name, and so added an “s” to the end of Junia’s name to make her name masculine. Yet ancient Christian writers understood the apostle Junia to be a woman. Greek NTs from Erasmus in 1516 to Nestle’s 1927 accepted Junia as female. English translations of the NT from Tyndale until the end of the 19th century translated the apostle’s name as Junia.
Lydia of Philippi is an example of a household manager who held a significant position in her church. Lydia was one of the first to respond to the gospel in Philippi. When Lydia was converted, her household, including all family members, domestic servants, and slaves working in her purple fabric business, were baptized with her. She exerted influence over a large group of clients and friends, and she was able to give Paul a place to live for some time while he was in Philippi.
These are just a few. There are many more female leaders in early Christianity. Acts mentions that Philip’s four daughters were evangelists, for example. So in Jesus “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The early church recognized this and so social roles and expectations were subordinated to the primary relation of all believers to Jesus as brothers and sisters. Women in leadership were as much an outworking of this truth, as the inclusion of Gentiles into the church was. It is a restoration of Christ’s original intentions for women to be once again released to minister.
This congregation was founded in 1906 as a mission to what was then the Women’s College, and the majority of our founding members were women. We were the first Baptist church in Greensboro to hire an ordained woman minister in Peggy Haymes, which began a long line of excellent women ministers in Benita, Monica, Dorisanne, Marnie, Cindy, and now with Lin. Our deacon chairs this year and last are women, as they have been many times in the past. Against this background of both the early Christian church, the witness of the NT, continuing through to the present in this congregation, Inez Stone Ryals lived and led and was, frankly, a force of nature.
Inez was in charge. She was plainspoken, which is a refreshing Christian virtue these days. Occasionally this would veer into merely being opinionated, and even more rarely, abrasive. But that was not the norm. Inez was one of the last of a generation that believed that there was a right way to do things, a right way to dress, a right way to behave. She also had an extremely dry sense of humor. Until you got to know her better, she could appear to be judgmental.
Born in 1927 in Samson County (an area known for it’s Hog Hollerin’ Contest in Spivey’s Corner), she grew up picking cotton and tobacco on a farm—she did it, but she didn’t like it. She met Earl when she was 16 and he 18, a newly minted Marine. She was a tall and beautiful brunette even then; she had won a 4H award, and so the Trailways bus picked her up in front of the family farm on 421. They debated who picked up whom on that bus (on which I’m sure her father had told her not to talk to any servicemen, but, you know, even at 16, Inez had her own mind). I think Inez spoke to him first, but Brenda thinks Earl may have sat next to her to make it happen. Earl liked to say that he bought her her first pair of shoes, to which Inez would feign exasperation. Me, I always think she had an elegant bearing.
Whoever did the picking up, Earl and Inez had both found the love of their lives. She was his pin-up girl all through the dark days of the war, he carrying her picture all through it. When the war was finally won, Earl buzzed her farm in an airplane, flying low and scaring the bejeebers out of all the animals. They were married in 1946 at Dunn Baptist Church, and stayed that way for 66 years. When Earl came down with Alzheimer’s over 10 years ago, she took care of him at home as long as she could—even putting towels over the mirrors because he didn’t recognize himself. For the final seven and a half years, her attention to Earl was amazing — twice a day, every day, with no vacation to shave him and feed him and let caregivers know she was taking note as to how he was being cared for. I believe this personal care for Earl broke her health, but it came from a profound love.
She didn’t like to be asked or to tell how old she was. So Brenda would say, “I’m such and such an age and she’s 20 years older than I am.” To which Inez would reply, “I think that’s rude, don’t you?” I heard this enough times that I thought it was funny.
She was deeply devoted to her family. “Friends come and go, but family remains always,” she told Rob on more than one occasion—and she lived that out. She and her sisters drove to Dunn to visit her father often before his death. Much later, she was probably happiest when she was surrounded by her daughter, her grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren.
She worked for many years in the clothing store Brides, Formal, and Sportswear, the store owned by Bernice and Jack Edwards. She loved a good deal; she was frugal like so many of her generation. Inez even taught Katie at 2 or 3 to check the tags to see what materials the clothes were made of. She had impeccable taste, but that didn’t keep her from dressing up. Peggy Haymes’ favorite memory of Inez is when they were in church council meeting discussing a church Halloween party. They wondered who’d don the Great Pumpkin costume. The group responded with stunned silence when Inez volunteered. “You put my legs in tights,” she said, “and they’ll look as good as anybody else’s.” and you know what? They did; she had great legs. Peggy has a wonderful picture of her making her entrance and Earl sitting there, dumbfounded.
When Phyllis Kelly was a student at the Women’s College, she attended church at College Park. As the students would come up the front steps into the vestibule, Inez must have been the greeter, and Inez would ask them where their hats and gloves were. The students were lots of times three to a room meant for two with barely enough room for beds and desks, let alone room for hats nor gloves.
She loved fresh vegetables, especially if they were grown in Sampson County and cooked with bacon grease or country ham. It was several years before Phyllis knew that Inez, too, had grown up in Sampson County, only about five miles from each other. Inez was a bit older, went to a different school and a different church, so they didn’t meet until they landed together at College Park.
Inez was strong of spirit and tough too. She went through the Citizen’s Police Academy—complete with firearm training and the like—and graduated too. In fact, Bill used her as an outside professional to sit on GPD’s sergeant review boards. When she was having severe eye trouble, she had to have a series of 19 shots in her eyes to keep blindness at bay.
She was a lifelong democrat, a stance that didn’t always take with her grandchildren. She was a feminist, although I’m not sure she would have used that term. Inez was incented that women’s pay scales were unequal to men’s. She loved Bill Clinton (don’t misunderstand me here); I used to kid her that with Clinton we had a great economy, no wars, and a little something more on the side. She’d cut her eyes to me and give me that look.
Inez was the consummate executive’s wife. Earl was a senior vice president with Jefferson-Pilot, and in charge of the rewards travel bonuses for those who earned those honors. So they travelled extensively and easily, and she was a key part of each trip’s success, because, as you know, the woman could organize and lead. Once after flying into Europe they told a hydrofoil into Africa, where Inez met, touched, petted, and rode a camel. There are pictures of these events, but there are none when after the ride the camel spit in her face. Another time in 2005 she took Katie and TJ to Disneyworld by train, because of Katie’s reluctance to fly, but on the way back the train outside of Aiken, South Carolina, got into a massive train wreck that killed 9 people and had a huge haz-mat spill of chorine. TJ and Katie slept through much of it, at least at first.
When I found out about all her leadership in NC Garden clubs (president of the Greensboro Council of Garden Clubs, the Mary Seymour Woman of the year award winner of the Ivy Garden Club, and JL Osbourne Outstanding board member award winner for Greensboro Beautiful, and District 5 Director of the Garden Clubs of NC, just to hit the highlights), I often asked her about flowers. She often had the same humble answer: Michael, I adore flowers, but I don’t know as much about them as I do about organizing. Which I think was true: she did know a lot about flowering plants, but she really knew how to organize and lead. It’s not a stretch to say that much of the beauty we have in this city—such as bicentennial gardens, the vast dedicated natural areas, the bog garden, is due in part to Inez’s leadership. She knew how to push for political city-wide change (amiright?). She was a force of nature, and a force for nature.
On another occasion, a calligraphy class had been scheduled in the Fellowship Hall. As folks were gathering, Inez came in and was bemoaning about losing her crown. Her friends all assumed she had lost a tooth crown and had a toothache. They were being sympathetic until the discovered she had reached the end of a term of service for one of her garden club activities and someone else was taking over—she had lost her “crown.”
She was a good cook; Rob will always miss her meatloaf, which she would drop off just for him. Andra, Rob’s wife, asked Inez for her recipe, Inez gave to her, and Andra made it but it wasn’t the same. Andra said to Inez, I don’t think this exactly your recipe, Inez just smiled. She made a Christmas party torte that took hours to make. And she loved to eat lunch out. She and I ate Japanese out more than once—and just last month I had promised to bring over a tin of sardines and crackers for each of us to chat over lunch—a promise that I will not now keep.
Inez took Michael Calvert under her wing when the Calverts came from Immanuel to College Park. She opened doors to many experiences for a little boy. She and Earl often took him to lunch after church, and even to the circus.
Before Inez gave up her driving privileges, Florence Touchstone had been taken to the hospital for a heart related problem. Mid, Florence’s daughter, called Inez to ask her if she would go to the hospital and sit with Florence until she could get there from South Carolina. Inez told her she was already getting dressed to do just like that. She seemed to know when her friends needed her and took action. If she knew of someone who had been on vacation or away from home because of a death, she would take breakfast foods to their home so they could eat before having to make a trip to the grocery store. She knew how to love the people around her concretely. Roland Russoli used to say about her that she had a black belt in being a deacon. In fact we abandoned the family centered deacon team approach here (which required a deacon to be all things to the families assigned to them) because we saw that only one person ever did that style successfully: Inez Ryals.
She was on the search committee for a new pastor in 1994. Several of the committee members were to attend a service in Greensboro. They needed to be incognito so committee members divided up, entered at different times, and sat in different places. Inez and Phyllis Kelly decided if anyone asked them who they were, they would say they were sisters from Sampson County. As they sat down, the very first person to greet them was a nurse from Inez’s doctor’s office and guessed immediately who she was and why were there. So much for being inconspicuous.
I first meet Inez when she was on the pastor search committee that brought me to College Park. During my first face-to-face interview with the committee, I offered to pray with committee, and she was quite taken with that moment. That was the first time I connected with this strong classy woman. Then when I first arrived, I asked her to make appointment for me for every Monday afternoon so that I could meet the homebound members of College Park. She did this gladly and wonderfully, so for the first several months, every Monday afternoon she and I would visit some senior adult and chat with them about their lives. It was a truly holy time, and I actually happened to ask her to do this quite by accident—little did I know that this was one of Inez’s amazing spiritual gifts.
I discovered during this time one of the many things I loved about this woman was her progressive views on Jews and their relationship to Christians as brothers and sisters in God. She lived right around the corner from Beth David, and her extremely active work in the community had led her to join with many different types of people with different backgrounds from hers to further beautify and enhance Greensboro. Yet, in my experience with Inez, she was accepting of them all—which is an incredible testament to her deeply ingrained values of Christian graciousness and hospitality.
She and I had our differences. She told me this winter again that she loved that I was once again preaching from Jesus’ life and that I should stick with preaching about Christ and not preach from the (quote) “weird Old Testament stories.” I lovingly told her that the same God was in both testaments, and that she might want to look again for the gospel in the Hebrew Bible. In visiting all the homebound, I discovered about half were not actually homebound, but people who had retired from church, but still wanted the full benefits of community. She thought I should still continue to visit them; I thought if they could drive to the beauty parlor or grocery store, they could find their way here. I thought she should teach Sunday school, since she’d probably forgotten more about the bible than most people even knew; she declined. She thought I should lecture in bible study, when I preferred that we all study together and I lead the discussion of our insights. She thought I should have visited Earl more; I thought her going out there twice a day, every day, was killing her—maybe we were both right.
Still she was a joy to have in bible study, and she was not shy about sharing her opinion (no surprise there, and I loved that about her). I wasn’t offended by anything she said to me, even when she cuffed me. She loved God fiercely, and wanted the absolute best for this church, for her family, for Greensboro. I adored her strength of character, as she reminded me of another strong southern woman, my mother. When I visited her in the hospital I truly believed she was not scared to die (I’ll always wonder if she was scared of anything), as she was going to meet her God and the love of her life. I even loved how she ended phone calls abruptly, sometimes without even a goodbye—she was a woman on the move, with things to accomplish, people to love and difficulties to overcome in life. Inez joins with the strong and amazing Christian women that went before her—Mary, Phoebe, Pricilla, Lydia, Junia, a long line of faithful strong Christian women who loved God and the people around them forcefully, deeply, truly. And we felt God’s good grace in her love, attention, and care. And we count ourselves most fortunate indeed to have been around this astonishing force of nature, Inez Ryals.
GREENSBORO MRS. INEZ STONE RYALS, 88, DIED ON Monday, April 13, 2015 at Select Specialty Hospital. A funeral service for will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18, 2015, at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro with burial following at Westminster Gardens.Born in Sampson County, daughter of the late Mangram and Luda Smith Stone. Married to the late Earl E. Ryals. A resident of Greensboro since 1956.A past member of the Greensboro Council of Garden Clubs, Inc., serving as Council President. A recipient of The Mary Seymour Woman of the year award and of the Ivy Garden Club.A past Board of Greensboro Beautiful, Inc. receiving the J.L. Osborne Outstanding Board Member Award in 1983.A life member of the Garden Club of North Carolina, Inc. serving as District 5 Director.A member of College Park Baptist Church since 1957, serving deacon, teacher, and the recipient of the 2005 Senior Service Award of College Park Baptist Church.Inez Stone Ryals is survived by daughter, Brenda Carol Pirko, grandchildren, Robert J. Padgett IV (Andra), Jason Earl Padgett (Megan), Thomas Joseph Pirko and Kathryn Byrd Pirko Fleming. Great-grandchildren, Mason and Gavin Padgett, David, Noah, Aryn, Liam Padgett and Drew Gardner. Amber Pirko and Inez Pirko. Brothers-in-law, Harold Ryals (Frances) Family, Donald Ryals(Carol) Family; sisters-in-law, Edna Blackwelder and Family and Grace Parrish(Craig) and Family, nieces, Denise Creef(Tim), Jennifer Stone; nephews, John Montgomery Jackson, page Jackson and Michael Stone.Preceded in death by Larry Mangram Stone and Geraldine Moore. Memorials may be made to Earl and Inez Stone Ryals Scholarship Fund, Campbell University, P.O. Box 116, Buies Creek, N.C. 27506 or College Park Baptist Church, 1601 Walker Ave., Greensboro, N.C. 27403.The family will receive friends from 6 to 8 p.m., Friday, April 17, 2015, at Forbis and Dick North Elm Street Chapel.