James Black scurried through the back alley mumbling to himself, “Good thing I found this shortcut or I’d be late for my next appointment.”
A young girl stood on her porch and watched the stranger hurrying past her house at a rapid pace. “People sure are in a hurry these days.” She sighed. With a quick swipe of her tattered broom, she attempted to sweep some debris in a pile.
James glanced at her. ‘She must be about our Lily’s age.’ He thought as he called to her. “Miss? Miss? What’s your name, Miss?”
The little lass turned and scowled, "You talking to me, Mister?"
"Yes, I am.” James apologized. “I’m sorry to be so abrupt, I’m in a hurry and I have an important appointment I must keep, but I couldn’t help but notice what a hard worker you are. My name is James Black. Can you tell me your name please?"
"Well my given name is Bertha, but all my friends call me Bessie."
"Bessie! What a nice name. Do you live here?"
"Yes, sir, I do. Me and Pa live here. I’ve lived here my entire life."
James edged his way closer to the tiny shack with a lean-to porch. A drunken man growled as he stumbled through the front door. “Bessie, where are you, girl? Where’s my supper?”
Bessie’s pale face turned crimson. "Pa, look we've got company. Now don't you worry none. I've got us a kettle of warm soup already for supper."
Her father grunted as he careened back into the house.
Tears stung James’ eyes. "Bessie, have you ever gone to Sunday school?"
"Yes, sir, when mama was alive we always went to Sunday school, but we don’t go any more, and besides I ain't got any dresses fit ‘nuff for church."
James’ long fingers tugged his graying beard. “My little girl, Lily, is about your size. I think we can find a few dresses you can wear. I’ll have my wife drop them by this week for you.”
“Really?” Bessie beamed. “Oh, if I had a new dress I could just walk to Sunday school. The church is just around the corner.”
Louise Philipp quickened her pace to reach James and gushed. “That Bessie sure has been a blessing in our Sunday school class the past six months, James. And have you ever watched her when Brother Richard takes roll. Mercy me, she’s like a kid in a candy store.”
James laughed, “Pastor Mark just told me the same thing. He said she just gets so excited and squeals when they call her name.”
Louise glanced at her watch. “Speaking of which, it’s about time for roll call, but I haven’t seen Bessie here today. Have you?”
“No, I haven’t, maybe I’ll walk down the block and see if anything’s wrong.”
James’ pulse pounded in his head when he rounded the corner and saw the coroner carrying a body from Bessie’s home. He galloped to the porch where he had first met her.
“Bessie’s gone!” her father sobbed. “She’s gone!”
Melinda Black placed a cup of hot tea beside her grieving husband. “I’m sorry you can’t sleep, honey.”
"Pastor asked me to write a song for Bessie's funeral." James choked. "When I think of her all I can think of is how she loved the roll call at Sunday school."
"Yes and she loved knowing her name had been written in the Lamb's Book of Life." Melinda replied as she dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.
James scribbled a few more sentences on a piece of paper. “This is what I have so far. Tell me what you think.”
Melinda whispered softly,“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,and time shall be no more. And the morning breaks eternal bright and fair. When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore. When the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there." Melinda insisted, "James, it’s perfect. Bessie would be so proud. Can’t you just see her in Heaven when they call her name?” Cupping her hands around her mouth Melinda called, “Bessie?”
James responded, “Here, Master.” He cradled his wife in his arms and they wept.
A hymn history of how “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” was written.
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