World AIDS Day and Remembering Dr. Lalia Phipps Boone

Today is a significant day of remembrance for me. December 1st is World AIDS Day, which was set in place to encourage awareness of HIV/AIDS and those who are infected or affected by it. December 1, 1990, I attended a Christian conference on HIV/AIDS ministry, and that was part of what confirmed my “calling” to spend as much time as I could over the next seven years, writing and editing resource materials for HIV ministries and churches.

December 1, 1990, was also the day that Lalia Phipps Boone – my mentor in editing – passed away at age 83. Without her influence, I likely wouldn’t have become a writer of HIV ministry resources or much of anything else. So, I want to honor her memory today by telling you a little about her and how my connection with her changed the entire course of my life … and perhaps therefore the course of yours.

I met Lalia in 1982 when I was 27 and she was 75. Lalia was a wonderful sister in Christ, with a long heritage in the church. Her father was a circuit riding preacher in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

She was also an incredible intellectual and pioneer. Lalia was the first woman Ph.D. from the University of Florida, and  their first woman professor. That was in 1951. She could have gotten that degree in any of about four fields, because she’d done the coursework for all four: medieval English literature, medieval French literature, children’s literature, and linguistics. She also had an associates degree in music, bachelors in education, and masters in linguistics (for which her thesis was the first Dictionary of Petroleum Engineering — she’d grown up in Texas near the oil fields and knew the lingo there). She also worked with the Nez Perce nation, assisting them with preserving their language. And EVERYTHING she ever wrote for publication was published, and her professional “curriculum vitae” of experience and publications was 12 pages long, single-spaced.

Her writings included four sets of school books in language arts skills. Lalia produced these textbooks “in her spare time” by dividing the task into “do-able bits” that would take 15 to 30 minutes each. She wrote the task sentence for one “bit” on a single piece of paper – for instance, “Vocabulary words for Lesson #12” – and then posted all the papers across her office wall. She’d pull a page off the wall to complete whenever she had a 15- or 30-minute break between teaching classes at the University, or whenever. (I don’t use quite the same methods, but being mentored by Lalia certainly increased my understanding of how to be disciplined and productive as a writer, so that for most of the last 25 years, I’ve written at least 300 to 500 pages of material a year.)

Lalia noticed in me a raw ability to edit and write, and she trained me in the skills of “content editing,” which involves tearing an entire manuscript apart at times and completely shuffling and pasting the pieces back together into an order that works better. This is not the same as “copy editing,” which deals more with proofreading for spelling and grammar errors, correcting inconsistent format, and the like.

This is how her mentoring me happened. We worked side by side on an outrageous autobiography manuscript. It was outrageous because the author — a flamboyant woman who had become a Christian at age 59 and then died in 1982 at age 70 while smuggling Bibles into Eastern Europe — had written a 400-page manuscript that had NO chapter divisions, only a couple very long paragraphs per page, and Pauline-length sentences (some of them an entire paragraph long). Uh-huh … whoa … yow!

I called Lalia after our mutual missionary friend was killed on the road to Romania: “Hi — you don’t know me, but I’m a friend of [NAME] and I heard she left her autobiography manuscript with you to edit … I don’t know if you need someone to run errands or get photocopies or do retyping, but I would be available to help.”

To my surprise, Lalia invited me to take a copy of the manuscript, read it, come back in about a week, and tell her where I thought the chapter divisions should be in the book. I was clueless that this was a test, because I’d just expected to run errands, if anything, for her. When I came back in a week or so, I said, “I divided it into chapters, but I also think there are eight sections of chapters.”

She asked me to tell her where they were, so I read off the pages where new sections began … or so I thought. Meanwhile, she flipped through her stack, which had slips of salmon-colored paper sticking out of it. (This was before Post-It Notes were big stuff.) I kept reading, and she kept flipping and mumbling neutral-sounding things like, “Mmm.”

After I finished, she looked up and said, “I normally don’t work with people editing, but I think you’ll be of help!” We had hit EXACTLY, word-for-word in seven out of the eight section beginnings. The eighth section, we were only one paragraph off, and that paragraph could either have ended the previous section, or begun a new section.

Lalia told me later she was thinking, Oh, no, Lord! Don’t send me someone to train — my health can’t take it! But she told me to come over and we’d talk about it. Definitely had to be the Spirit nudging her, as I wasn’t anyone who’d be taken notice of as a writer then. So that is the story of how Lalia Phipps Boone and I met, and how God forged a mentor-protégé relationship between us.

From Lalia, I also learned that there a supernatural side to editing. “We can have all the natural ability in the world to edit this,” she confided, “but we are going to need the Holy Spirit working in and through us on this. So, let’s pray!” We prayed every time we met to go over the editing that God would guide us, and for the material to become what it needed to be in God’s plan.

This became a practice I seek to maintain whenever I start a new project myself or work with others on theirs, and also in the midst of the writing or editing. It simply will not become what it could and should be unless I/we steep it in prayer. When I’m project manager or editor on a client’s manuscript, I typically suggest they find a group of people who will pray regularly for us. And the writer sends out periodic updates so this prayer team hears of progress and problems.

After I learned the craft of editing with Lalia, God opened up opportunities for me to learn various dimensions in the craft of writing. (The two aren’t exactly the same, and not everyone who edits well can write well, and vice versa.) Through a follow-up project about the missionary who wrote the autobiography, I learned the craft of interviewing, as I spent about eight months total over the next five years traveling and talking with people who knew her. I also learned substantially more about the art of writing book proposals, as I tried over and over to get that book and others published.

Before I met Lalia Boone, it never occurred to me that writing should or could be the focal point of my ministry! It’s astounding, really. Who could’ve guessed that my taking a risk and making a simple phone call to offer to run errands for someone I didn’t even know, would lead to one of the most strategic changes of direction in my entire life. Knowing Dr. Lalia Phipps Boone drew me toward a deep discovery of who God made me to be as a ministry resource writer in His redemptive plans, on HIV/AIDS, systemic abuse and recovery, and many other topics for people typically marginalized by the Church. This is where my passion to make a difference finds its channel.

Years from now, who will look back and say that I was a mentor who helped change his/her life by a mutual choosing to persevere in Christ together and learn from each other?

Years from now, who will look back and say that about you? I truly hope you have this kind of mentor-protégé experience. It will enrich your own life and expand the Kingdom!

Perhaps this is a good day to call to mind those men and women and children God has used to shape the course of our own life and ministry, and give thanks to Him and to them …

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