Ethel Waters is an exceptionally honest person, someone who can be very candid about herself and her flaws and short-comings of character, the reader soon discovers. She deals with the question honestly, without trying to make herself look better than she was. She relates how her rupture with the Lord occurred. This is what she reveals so candidly: She was not grounded securely in the Lord in her youth (and she had some understandable causes of this, being an illegitimate child and unloved). When a rival girl attacked her viciously, clawing her face, she made a bad mistake, she fought back and didn't just flee as she could have done. This so discouraged her, that she could do such a thing as a Christian, that she continued walking away after her fall or slip from trusting in Jesus. The walking away was almost permanent, for it lasted almost her entire life.
She did not disbelieve in God, or substitute something for Christ--fame, men, fortune--but she, nevertheless, put the Lord on a back burner in her life--way back, in fact. She kept her moral compass in the immoral life of the theater and society of the times, but she did not keep her faith compass set on Jesus. That part of her was not allowed to direct her. She lived a worldly, glamorous, star-studded life, to all intents and purposes, and it seemed she might go on that way to the end. Yet somebody, a grandmother perhaps, had prayed, and the prayer of that unknown saint was answered. She returned to the Lord before the end came.
The impression this reader gained from the book is that of a strong, very intelligent, resourceful, exceptionally talented individual, who could survive in most any environment and rose to the challenges that constantly came her way, challengs that surely would have overcome a less strong, less determined woman in the dog-eat-dog career field she had chosen for herself.
How many world-class actresses and film stars had she known that faded into obscurity and even poverty, totally unmarked and even penniless in their latter days, while she was still active in the public eye, working and earning her own way? She had known them, and probably could name them--though we might not today recognize their names, though they once shone bright on theater marquees.
Dozens and dozens of celebrities had become pitiable has-beens, wondering what Ethel Waters' secret was, no doubt! Unlike them, Ethel Waters, despite old age and sickness, was still treading water, while so many equally famous, rich stars she had worked with had sunk to the bottom and could never rise again in a successful "comeback." Toward the end of her life, she held her own in her chosen field of entertainment, for she still had a home in California to sell and calls for her to do bit parts in films and also sing on the Pearl Bailey show and so on. Sufficient money, if not riches, still came her way. She did this even though afflicted with a terrible weight problem she could not seem to conquer, even though it was killing her.
She could scarcely walk and could scarcely breathe, and had to rest every few feet or so, when she first began attending the Billy Graham meetings. She disguised her difficulty as best she could, though she could not understand how anyone could miss the fact she was near collapse and death.
Her brilliant smile with the trademark cleft between her two front teeth and her stylish, shining stage manners and the "down-home" person-to-person dialog only Ethel Waters could carry off with her audiences and make believable--that was the one and only Ethel Waters, on stage and off (for she was the same person everywhere, not a compartmentalized, split up personality, who could be one thing professionally and another opposite personality type privately).
In other words, what you saw in Ethel Waters, you got, whether under the lights or not.
"Now children," and even "precious children," she would croon to everyone, and she would add she loved them, and they knew she meant it. This never, never changed. She also had this trait lifelong--enduring difficulties with a smile, not a grimace, or a sad smile pleading for pity. She acted and lived with "class," with dignity. I mean, this trait was real, in tough times as well as easy times. In the worst times, Ethel Waters didn't change a whit. How do we know? She made it seem to others that she was happy and well when actually she was deathly ill.
No one could tell how close to death she was whenever she was called upon to sing her banner song, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," for she carried it off so well each time, though the ordeal cost her much pain.
What is the true legacy of this remarkable, undaunted, perservering, eternally effervescent Ethel Waters, if we must ask? Her book, "To Me It's Wonderful" should give us a clew or two.
Ethel Waters was born illegitimate--which, years ago, was a major stroke against her. Her mother, oddly named Momwheesze, did not love her, because of that fact, though she loved Jesus, Waters says in the book. After a troubled youth, and a life of show business, Ethel Waters rededicated her life to Christ in 1957 at a Billy Graham crusade. She and her mother reconciled, and her mother gave Ethel Waters the understanding she accepted her, both as a daughter and as a show business person. This late but real understanding and closeness was cherished by Ethel Waters. Ethel Waters never married. She lived independently, and apparently preferred to live alone, because she travelled so much, though at times she did live with family. These are some of her significant statistics.
A fun-loving, high strung (as she admits), worrying over nothing, not even the downturns she knew were the usual thing eventually in show business, she didn't even care if she didn't end up rich. As long as she had her bit of "rainy day" money tucked away, she was happy and content. This adaptable, versatile, uncomplaining personality of hers agreed well with the unplanned, topsy-turvy, ever-changing circumstances of her life and career. Evidently, she preferred this somewhat chaotic and insecure life style to something more settled and routine--such as most people preferred.
With no marriage, no children of her own, she as everybody's sweet, caring auntie with the big lap, and she had such a loving and accepting manner she mothered people, and they loved her warm hugs, smiles, and encouraging words. It is hard to imagine that anyone but a bitter rival could hate Ethel Waters. Yet early in life she did have such a rival, and that run-in with her one time scarred her life, even though the claw marks on her cheeks healed. Imagine going an entire life, not walking closely with the Lord, due to one attack of a girl who hated her for her beauty and success! Yet Ethel never got over it, not until 1957 (the same year this reviewer gave his heart to Christ as a 15 year old), that is. If she had it to do over again, would she have distanced herself from the Lord as she did? Was it worth it? She could have kept her career, perhaps, but would she have been as happy as she was, doing what she loved to do, entertain people with her singing and dancing and acting?
It is hard to imagine Ethel Waters' warm, vibrant personality and brilliant smile with the signature gap in her upper ivories somewhere else but in the bright lights of show business. She came to love the Billy Graham meetings and followed them across the country, neglecting her own career uncomplainingly, but the big Crusades were not much different from the bright lights of stage and screen, for in them she was invited to stand up in huge arenas containing tens of thousands of people once again, singing her heart out when she rendered (and acted out) the unforgettable signature song of hers, "His Eye is On the Sparrow," as only she, the reigning Queen of the Sparrows, could sing it.
Why should we care about this deceased but once famous black singer and actress called Ethel Waters? What is she today to us the living, after her death over twenty years ago? She immortalized herself with "His Eye is on the Sparrow, and this song is still a great favorite, almost as favored as "Amazing Grace," which is Number 1, the world over. And, amazingly, like a butterfly reborn, she has shown a come-back with the repeat showings of the Billy Graham crusades of the past on the TBN channel, in which you can see her in a lime green dress or that black dress with a magnificent shoulder lace, while hanging on every word she sings while becoming increasingly captivated by of her one of a kind charm and personality and even her fervent love of people and burning faith in God.
But what happens after these rerun programs cease to air? The world's entertainment industry won't forget her entirely. She will still be recalled by history buffs and archivists of show business people and their careers, for she made a profound, deep mark in American entertainment and music that has gained her a place until all such history is swept away. But what legacy remains?
I would say, as a reviewer, that I was struck by her different kind of beauty, the special charm she had that won hearts the world over, decade after decade, and kept her working and supporting herself long after others had retired and given up the struggle to work in show business. She passionately loved her audiences, loved entertaining them, loved to give her best. All this is true of her. She also showed genuine compassion and care for people, and wanted reconciliation, most of all in her own family, which had been an unhappy and trouble one, to put it kindly. I would say her quality of honesty, rather than her great success in the theater and in music, and her personal strength, are the most outstanding things about her. She had no reason to be so honest about herself. Many people of her career field were not so honest, nor saw any reason to make themselves so vulnerable. But Ethel Waters did not care to shield herself, not from the truth, anyway. She faced it, when the truth had something to say to her she needed to hear, whether she liked it or not.
How many of us can face the honest truth speaking to us, revealing our secret, not so photogenic faults we try to keep hidden, even from those closest to ourselves? It may not be flattering, what the truth has to say. But Ethel Waters was one rare individual who not only could be honest about herself but could take the truth too, when God was speaking to her that she needed to make a decision.
Let us hear "God's sparrow" speak for herself. She is well able to express herself, after a lifetime of handling the English language as a professional actress on the stages of innumerable Broadway productions. As you can expect, "His Eye is On the Sparrow" is entwined with her moment of truth, when she knew for sure after listening to Billy Graham speak about forgiveness that God was calling her back to Himself, just like somebody's beloved pet bird that had flown away.
"I sang 'His Eye is on the Sparrow' at a crusade, and standing there there was just me and my guilt and Jesus --Jesus who had never left me. He had never, not once, turned away from me. I was the one who had turned away from Him. I'd never lost my reverence for God. In fact, like most show people, I had Him on a pedestal. I now know that in what they call the secular world, people have a high, reverent feeling about Jesus Christ--much more than some Christians who take Him for granted.
"Standing there singing 'Sparrow' that first time at a Crusade, I knew the only thing I had to concern myself with was--forgiveness. Billy Graham had clarified God's forgiveness for me, and as I sang, I received it, and that honesty the dear Catholic sisters had taught me--the kind of almost dogged honesty that had characterized me all my life--paid off again. I faced up to the fact that I had a decision to make.
"...I decided for Jesus...and listened to Billy in peace--peace I'd never known before."
You can read the rest, from pages 34 and 35 about what she was turning from and what she was turning toward. Not only had the issue of forgiveness been finally resolved in her heart, but she was at this crucial moment in her life deliberately turning, it seems, from trusting in her own strengths to trusting in Jesus to take care of her. The "sparrow" was admitting, not denying she was not God's, and her wings were set, as she leaned forward from her perch, to head home to her nest with the Lord, the moment she took wing.
Now, Ethel Waters would probably want to know, if she were here still: have you, friend, like myself and Ethel Waters, ever made a wrong turn in life? Have you lost years of your life, not to mention happiness, on your wrong turn? Maybe then you can identify more with Ethel Waters, who was honest enough to admit she made a wrong turn, and let the whole world know the details in a book, when she might have been content to be known for the wonderful, heart-warming song, "His Eye is On the Sparrow, as well as feather her hat with her many credits in show business.
No, on the contrary, the fancy hat feathers of her Broadway costumes in many musicals and even the perennial popularity of "her" song about God's eye on the sparrow weren't really important to her. Not of paramount importance, anyway. She had to be honest, even painfully honest, so we now know "the rest of the story." She came to admit she had walked away from the Lord, and had to get back on the right track. She did so, and her life after her decision is proof she was sincere. The Bible says "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first." Ethel Waters came along perhaps last, but she was still accepted by the Keeper of the Vineyard and paid the same wage, when her time came to end her work on earth, just the same as those who had started first were paid. It isn't fair, you might think. True. It isn't fair. But it is God's marvelous grace, for God to treat us so, not as we deserve but as he pleases, and I wouldn't argue with grace if I were you--we all need it, the more of it the better, and, thank God, we don't get what we deserve. If I did, I would be one unhappy person!
You can tell for sure from this book that Ethel Waters greatly appreciated Christ's wonderful grace and forgiveness. It is written all over her pictures taken after her decision to return to Jesus. And it is written all through "To Me It's Wonderful."
Thank God, the "sparow" did take wing for God, and He did receive her back. We have her performances at the Billy Graham crusades, and her unforgettable account and personal word in this book, to prove it turned out all right for this truly precious "sparrow-lady." Don't you miss her? I do! But I will see her someday, as she promised me, promised all of God's children. So don't miss out. Be there, when she comes, arms held out, to give you a hug and a big smile and tons of love as only Ethel Waters could do.