The Reverend Kathy Manis Findley wondered what she could say about God at a moment like this. She was sitting in a Little Rock, Arkansas, emergency room with a woman whose 17-year-old twin sons had been shot the night before. The woman wondered aloud how God could allow something so terrible to happen.
The Baptist hospital chaplain took a deep breath. One of the boys had already died from his injuries. The other was on a respirator, and Manis Findley had been told to ask whether the mother would consider donating his organs to other patients in need.
“It’s not my role at times like that to apologize for God,” Manis Findley told The Trace. “I’m not going to say, ‘God didn’t do this! A bunch of kids with guns did this!’ My role is to help her think about that question and how she would answer it for herself.”
“I know God is good,” the mother, who was Black, told the chaplain, who is white. “Then, in what ways do you think God might help you get through this?” Manis Findley asked.
As a child growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Manis Findley lived close enough to Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to hear the explosion when white supremacists bombed it in 1963, killing four Black girls. She also survived sexual abuse. At first, much like the mother of the twins in the hospital, she asked why God would allow her to experience so much anguish and ugliness. Later, she came to believe that God was showing her how to use her experience to guide others to him at the moments when he was hardest to find.
When Manis Findley was about 12, she started to understand that something bad was happening with her aunt Irene. Her mother’s younger sister was one of Manis Findley’s favorite people — a joyful and boisterous contrast to her mother, who was quiet and solemn. Irene would take her young niece shopping, to her jobs as an interior designer, and even to visit her spiritual medium to communicate with the dead. But Manis Findley noticed that something was not right at Irene’s house. Irene’s husband would let their toddler drink enough beer that he would stumble around dizzily. Her aunt had bruises on her face and arms. After Irene showed up with a cast on her arm, Manis Findley heard her mother and grandmother whisper that Irene’s husband had broken it.
One night, Manis Findley heard a car screech into the driveway of the spacious house where she and her younger brothers lived with their mother and grandmother. Her grandmother, Anastasia, peered out the kitchen window and saw Irene’s husband storming to the front door, a pistol in his hand. Pounding on the window, he shouted for his wife’s mother, adding “I’m going to kill her!” The preteen shooed her brothers, 6 and 8, through the screen door off the kitchen in back of the house and urged them to call the police from the neighbors’ house.
Manis Findley’s mother, Nula, who was petite and timid, ran into her bedroom and emerged holding a tiny pistol that her daughter had never seen before. She stood in her living room, pointed the weapon at her brother-in-law through the glass, and commanded him to leave. Manis Findley, who was peeking out through a cracked bedroom door, heard two terrifying crashes as her uncle shattered a front window and the glass in the front door. Anastasia, who had been hiding, walked out and stood behind Nula. “My mother stood there, holding him off until the police came,” said Manis Findley. The image of her protecting her family with her pistol is still seared into her mind, she said.
Even after her uncle broke the windows and vowed to kill her grandmother, the police didn’t arrest him. “Irene had called them many times before, and I don’t think anything ever came of it,” she said.
Manis Findley, who was raised Greek Orthodox, became a Baptist when she moved from Birmingham to a small town in Alabama where there was no Greek Orthodox congregation. With no other religious options, she started attending a Baptist church, and eventually was baptized there. After college, she married Fred Findley, a young man who was hoping to become a pastor, and the two spent two years in Uganda as missionaries. They arrived in Uganda in late 1978, just as the despot Idi Amin’s troops turned against him, ending a bloody reign that left at least 100,000 people dead. “There were bodies along highways, in valleys. They were everywhere,” she said. The church had sent Manis Findley and her husband explicitly to convert people to the Baptist faith, but they didn’t believe in doing that. Rather, she used her Bible study meetings with a group of teenage girls as opportunities for a sort of trauma counselling, helping them talk about what they’d been through and ways that God might help them. While they were there, the couple adopted a baby, Jonathan, who is Black, through an agency in the United States.
When the family got back home after two years, her husband joined a Little Rock congregation as pastor, and Manis Findley found a job as a hospital chaplain. There, she encountered shooting victims nearly every week. Some were women who had been shot by their partners; others were young men who had been involved in local disputes. The work, and the memory of the standoff between her mother and her uncle, instilled an aversion to guns. She didn’t let Jonathan, still in elementary school, play with toy guns. The more young Black men she saw come in on gurneys, the more she sat with their mothers, the more fearful she became for her own son’s safety. “Every time I would walk into a room I would see him there,” she said. “It happened so many times I can’t remember all the times.”
After about four years, as Manis Findley sought out the next step in her spiritual path, she realized that most jobs she was interested in required her to be ordained as a minister. But the church she attended did not support ordaining women. That rule caused a rift in the congregation, with about 15 members of the 100 member congregation siding with Manis Findley. Finally, that group left the church, even as Manis Findley stayed behind because her husband was employed there. When Fred Findley found another job, the group that left asked Manis Findley to lead them in a new congregation. But the controversy didn’t end there. Even as her small congregation grew, people came to the church and called her, telling her she was disrespecting the church and destroying its traditions. Her congregation was also forced out of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
Manis Findley still felt called to help people affected by violence. She sat on local boards, like the Little Rock Commission on Children, Youth and Families, and the Little Rock Commission on Domestic Violence. After nine years as a preacher, she was asked to take a job as the executive director of a new family crisis center called Safe Places, which she accepted. “Violence had been chasing me around my whole life, and I finally decided it was meant to be,” she said. Her center served about 2,000 crime victims each year. She became certified as a trauma specialist and as a child forensic interviewer.
One night, when Jonathan was a teenager, he and his friends were stopped at a red light on their way home from basketball practice. A police officer pulled up next to them, ordered them out of the car, and forced them to lie facedown on the pavement while officers searched them. The reserved and private young man didn’t tell his mother right away, only mentioning it months later. Manis Findley went to the mayor’s office the next day, and city staff vowed to look into it. But Jonathan was not hopeful that things would change. “He told us we had no idea how often this kind of thing had happened to him,” she remembered. “And he was right. We didn’t.”
In 2012, Safe Places abruptly lost funding and closed. Manis Findley found a job as a minister in an African-American Baptist church in Little Rock. A few years later, she and her husband moved to Macon, Georgia. Around the same time, Manis Findley became seriously ill and needed a kidney transplant.
In the last year, as the country has been roiled by the pain of a pandemic and the outrages of racism and police abuse, Manis Findley has felt frustrated with her weakened health and stamina. After a police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer, she grieved for her son and for her Black friends. “Injustice and oppression clings so closely to my friends, today as in centuries past,” she wrote in her blog at the time. Moved by a photo she saw of artists painting a mural of Floyd, she painted her own watercolor series about racial injustice and white privilege. She presented them last month to the Alliance of Baptists, saying that she hoped the protests, together with her work would “inspire you to offer yourself to the work of transforming injustice.”
“God is a god of peace,” she explained recently, reflecting on how to move forward in the face of so much suffering. “He doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but He helps us take the emotions that come with them, and helps us do something with them. Faith can be a way of healing these wounds that we are inflicting upon each other.”