Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rev. Betsy Singleton at Quapaw Quarter Methodist

By Bobbi Nesbitt

Attending a service at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church is an uplifting, joyous, very human, very spiritual experience.

The Rev. Betsy Singleton, senior pastor, has the congregation's rapt attention when she speaks about making marriages and partnerships work. When "Reverend Betsy" leaves the pulpit mid-service to welcome newcomers, members of the congregation turn to shake hands with those around them and exchange warm hugs. The very pregnant Reverend Betsy stops before a newborn, takes him in her arms and holds him up high Kunta Kinte-like to the delight, laughter and applause of her flock.

When Betsy Singleton took over as pastor five years ago in June, the average worship attendance was 25.

"This past Sunday, we had 226 in worship," Mrs. Singleton said in an interview in May. "We ran out of bulletins.

"Our attendance this year is up. We have 20 new members this year at this point. We've over 350 members now."

Thoughtful, innovative services are helping boost attendance. Then there's that friendliness factor. And the congregation welcomes everyone - especially those folks who have not felt very welcome in other churches. It probably helps, too, that there are no buckets sitting around any more to catch water from the leaking roof.

For a long time, Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church endured the problems of many urban churches, including dwindling membership coupled with the expense of maintaining a large building that needed major repairs.

What is truly amazing is that the small congregation continued its service to the community, with the Food Pantry and its Stone Soup program.

The church at 1601 South Louisiana is in the heart of Little Rock's historic district, surrounded by pretty Victorian and Craftsman-style houses, and just a few blocks from the Governor's Mansion.

"The roots of the church go back to the latter part of the 1800s. It was the next congregation after First Methodist," Rev. Singleton said. "This was the third location. It was completed in 1926, so this is the 80th year of this building's existence."

When she arrived, the roof leaked. "We had baskets for the roof. ... There was only one computer. There were phone lines that didn't work. The pipe organ was damaged. Our fellowship hall was in bad shape."

Reverend Betsy arrived with a special three-year program, HeARTwork, that assigned local missionaries to work with the church. "It came from the General Board of Global Ministries that supports missions."

This was an arts mission that converted the empty third and fourth floors of the church into super-affordable downtown studio space. In exchange, the artists aided the mission and helped beautify the church with murals. One of the artists in residence, Hamid Ebrahimifar, made a permanent mobile for the church with tiles that were handpainted by the children. The artists also do outreach in the community.

Volunteers in Mission from Gulf Port, came to Little Rock, too, to help.

"They redid our chapel. It was a mess. Ceiling tiles were falling off. There was water damage. The carpet buckled."

And, very important, the HeARTwork mission program paid Rev. Singleton's salary.

"So the only thing my church had to pay me was housing," she said. "The first three years I was here, not having to pay that (salary) expense for me, the church was able to catch its breath. Things began to change, and the church began to grow."

And that leaky roof? Capitol View United Methodist Church on Markham solved the problem when that church, whose congregation had dwindled to 10 active members, merged with Quapaw Quarter. Capitol View's property was sold for $250,000 - just the amount Quapaw Quarter needed to replace its old tile roof - a happy ending Frank Capra would have been proud of.

There's still some water damage in the sanctuary, and the church has applied for a matching grant from the Department of Arkansas Heritage to address that problem along with some other repairs.

"It's a very beautiful sanctuary ... designed by Charles Thompson, who designed a lot of homes in the Quapaw Quarter. It's gothic style, and the space is really great for the way we worship today. The inside of the sanctuary is wonderful. There's no carpet. It's great for acoustics. It's kind of in the round; it's hard to find a bad seat."

To the pastor's left is a large screen she often employs to emphasize points in her sermons, showing everything from clips from recent movies to interviews she's done with members of the congregation. For example, one sermon in May discussed relationships in marriages and partnerships, how to overcome differences, and what men and women want most from their partners. On this Sunday, she aired interviews with Gayle and Jerry, who have been married 45 years, and with Douglas and Ken, who have been together nine years.

"These couples have found ways to bring out the best in one another. They have found ways to adjust, listen, work and laugh in order for each partner to remain satisfied and happy about their relationship," Rev. Betsy said.

Including a gay couple in the discussion is typical for this church. It doesn't shy away from issues in the here and now - from homosexuality, to the separation of church and state, to the question of whether suicide is a sin. It has a film series, showing such movies as Brokeback Mountain, Mildred Pierce, and Walk the Line, and holds discussion sessions afterward.

And it welcomes, with open arms, individuals who may have felt like strangers in their own church communities.

"There are a lot of people out there who don't have a church family or one that says you're not okay. We went looking for people who were hurting, who had been marginalized by the church or who thought the church was irrelevant," Rev. Betsy said.

"Our membership is made up of a lot of people who were not active in church. We wanted people who had not been in church and had not found a place where they were welcome."

Growth during the first year and a half Rev. Betsy was there was dramatic, membership increasing as enthusiastic parishioners brought their friends and relatives to services.

"Our worship service is 'traditional' and 'contemporary.' We have one service still. One Sunday we will have beautiful organ music and classical music from the choir. Another, it might be jazz or country gospel. So it is different every week. It's nice to hear the old hymns and nice to hear something new."

In general, Quapaw Quarter has a young congregation. Rev. Betsy has officiated at only four funerals in five years.

"(Members) come from all over - Maumelle, Jacksonville, lots from North Little Rock. Our smallest percentage in terms of zip code is West Little Rock.

"Because we are right off the freeway, it's easy to get here no matter where you are. Our location, which used to be a minus in the '70s and '80s, is now a plus. I think we're in a good place. I'm glad we're located where we are."

And because Quapaw Quarter UMC is "a church that looks like a church," it impresses many of the younger folk.

"They are interested in the beauty of the architecture. A lot of young people who visit just love the sanctuary. They walk in and say, 'Wow, this is really a sacred place.'"


The beginning of this story mentioned that Rev. Betsy was "very pregnant." She was in her eight month and in her own words, "I'm enormous."

By now everyone knows that she and her husband, U.S. Representative Vic Snyder, are the proud parents of Charles Pennington "Penn" Snyder.

The couple has been married almost three years.

"Neither of us has ever had children, so this is a big lifestyle change," Rev. Betsy said in May. She goes to D.C. about once a year, but said she planned to go there more often after the baby was born.

"He's here in his district working when he's not in D.C. It's not a bad schedule. We're touching base all of the time.

"I'm 44. He's 58. ... Victor had never been married before. He thought that part had passed him by, and then he got lucky," she said with a laugh.

"There are some things we can bring to the table that young people don't have. We've done a lot of traveling. We have a global perspective. That will be fun for our kids to go (traveling) with us."

Kids? "We've talked about it. We ought to try to do this again."

Congressman Snyder walked into Rev. Betsy's study during a photo session in May and did not look at all pleased when asked if he too would pose for the photographer. Then Betsy said, "oh, it's alright. She's doing a story about me."

Vic smiled and stepped into the picture. "I just do what she tells me to do," he said.

The two met at an event at Vino's downtown.

"It was a Louis Jordan film festival and silent auction, a fundraiser," Betsy said. "Because we had this arts mission, I went down there to kind of check it out. He was standing next to me. I knew who he was, and he knew who I was, but we'd never talked. We sat down and visited until
10 or 10:30. I said, 'I have to go home, because I have to work tomorrow.' I asked if he could come to church the next day.

"He's been participating in the church since my second Sunday here. He's seen it grow."

Going around to visit other churches is a healthy thing to do, Betsy said. "He loves this church so much, it's hard for him to get away. He misses his church when he's not there. He's seen dramatic change in it.

"He wants to bring his new baby to church." But Betsy, perhaps, wants a little more "leave" in her maternity leave. "I said, 'Maybe you can go and bring the baby.'"

Betsy said Vic has always been very supportive of her ministry. They share their lives with one another and with the congregation. At one point in her sermon, when Rev. Betsy was describing how she and Vic would go to bed together, hold hands and pray, you could have heard a pin drop in the santuary.

It's not odd that a person such as Vic Snyder would find himself so at home at Quapaw Quarter UMC. Before he was a congressman, Vic was a family physician who took part in several medical missions to underdeveloped countries, including work in El Salvadoran refugee camps in Honduras, Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand, an Ethiopian refugee camp in Sudan, and at a West African mission hospital in Sierra Leone.

Quapaw Quarter UMC is all about service and mission too.

"We're known for our food ministry. Our Food Pantry serves 10,000 people a year," Rev. Betsy said.

The Food Pantry is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. The church also serves 100 to 150 people each week through Stone Soup, a hot meal program 3 p.m. each Sunday in its fellowship hall.

Betsy credits other area churches for their support of the food programs.

"In the suburbs, you can't just open your window and do a mission. Most services for the working poor and homeless are in the cities. There are people who wanted to do a hands-on mission, saw people hurting, and other churches would give money. We've always had two or three people who help with the coordination. Every Sunday, different churches come to help."

Even when Quapaw Quarter was down to 25 active members five years ago and "really stretching to hold body and soul together," it continued its food ministry.

"It's admirable they were able to keep it going," Betsy said.

"Community breakfast is done almost totally by our church volunteers. That's been a big deal. It serves about 300 meals every Sunday (from 9 - 10 a.m.). So this church has a real strong push for mission.

"The Quapaw members have a real heart for work and do hands-on stuff."

Every year, the church prepares disaster relief kits. It sponsors a 3-week day camp for at-risk teens. And it is involved too in interfaith efforts to open a health clinic downtown and to host homeless families by providing food and lodging.

"$30,000 last year went to mission. That's amazing for the size of our congregation."

Betsy had never planned to become a Methodist minister.

"I don't think that was totally up to me. I think ordination was a call. I was planning to go into advertising and marketing. ... It didn't have enough purpose. I needed to believe in what I was selling. At the same time, I was real involved in my church (Pulaski Heights UMC). By that time, I'd seen a woman pastor. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a pastor, but I was sure I wanted to go to seminary."

She had attended Hendrix College as an English major, and a few years later, she went back to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to earn her master of divinity.

One year Rev. Betsy served three small churches near Prescott, holding services each Sunday at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., and 11 a.m., riding the circuit. She also served as the first woman associate pastor for a church in Benton.

The Rev. Victor Nixon, senior pastor at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, asked her to come and be his associate. She served as associate pastor there for eight years before coming to Quapaw Quarter UMC. She was ordained as an elder in 1993.

Then in July 2001, along with the HeARTwork mission, she was assigned to Quapaw Quarter - a church that had a lot of memories for her and her family.

"My grandmother went here. I came to church with her a lot. We would sit on the left side of the congregation, her keeping me from getting restless with mints and butterscotch. After church, we'd go to the Golden Host at Park Plaza and eat. My mom came back when I (became the pastor). It brought back a lot of good memories for her. My dad joined the church when they were dating. They were married for 27 years. She's 86 now, and doing pretty good."

Rev. Betsy doesn't know if she'll be at Quapaw Quarter in 10 years.

"It's a good possibility I could still be here. I have issues in my life about where I want to be. Sometimes it's important to have a change. You can have a slump and get over it - just like in a marriage. Everyone can have dry patches.

"This church is in a much better place. We have new problems, but they're pretty good problems to have. We now have enough families with children that we need to hire someone to help with education. ... We need to figure out how to raise enough money to do our mastor renovation plan. Five years ago we wouldn't have been able to even talk about it."

Getting to know the Rev. Betsy Singleton

Where were you born? In Little Rock, at the old Baptist Hospital.

Tell us about your family. I have three brothers and one sister, all older. I'm the baby of the family. ... We're close, and everybody lives in Arkansas.

What's your favorite book? I was an English major. Pride and Prejudice. That one never gets old. Often it's what I'm currently reading. I just read The Di Vinci Code. Honestly, I love scripture. It's chock-full of human experience."

Who is your favorite writer? I love Jane Austen. I have so many - that's the problem. My favorite is good fiction. I like anthologies of best short stories.

What's your favorite Little Rock restaurant? We eat everything, but a place we frequent a lot is Arkansas Burger Company. They have really good milkshakes. They use Yarnell's ice cream. My husband likes cheeseburgers. They have a great veggie burger. My favorite is Mexican food ... Casa Manana, Brownings too. I've had several cravings for their specific cheese dip during my pregnancy.

Is there any food you would not eat? I have been a vegetarian since 1989. I've started eating fish. I had some problems with anemia. Someone said to me, 'You may be a vegetarian, but your baby is not.' I've had a couple of Reuben sandwiches. I don't generally eat meat. I'm not a vegan. I eat dairy products.

Is there anything you'd like to change about yourself? I need to be more patient.

Do you have any favorite actors? Growing up, Cary Grant was my favorite. Contemporary people, Tom Hanks. I feel like I grew up with him.

Movies? Walk the Line. It was one of the best movies I've seen this year.

Is there anything you'd like to see Little Rock do differently? I think Little Rock, from my perspective, is doing a lot of the right things now. I hope more people in the suburbs look at downtown. City officials are encouraging that. I think we need to keep doing what we are doing - offer more places to live downtown and keep our green spaces too. I love seeing that Little Rock and North Little Rock are working together on so many things. I'm excited about the ball park.

The nation? This health care problem is a big one. ... People can't afford health care.

What do you do in your spare time? Right now, get ready for a baby. We took child birth classes for seven weeks. It's kind of a new hobby. And we go to a lot of things in the community.

Is there anything you'd like to learn how to do? We'd love to ballroom dance, but we haven't found the time to do that. We'd like to travel more. (Vic's) family is in Oregon, and he gets homesick for Oregon family. One of the things we'd really like to do is go bird watching. That takes time too.

Do you have pets? We have three dogs and a cat, Butterscotch. He's a real hoot. He thinks he's a dog. He's not real catty. We have Bishop, a golden retriever, who is eight years old, and an English cocker, Dottie, with black and white spots, who is a year old. And my mother's dog, Daisy, an American cocker. We took her when my mother moved to an apartment a few years ago. Daisy is 14.

What is your favorite city? Probably Little Rock, and outside of Arkansas, probably London.

What do you watch on the tube? We watch a lot of crime shows. We watch CNN - all the news stations. We're always looking at the news. ... No reality shows. The Supernanny, just to see if we can get any tips.

What would you do if you won a large lottery? Probably give most of it to our church. And for a Methodist pastor who has a spouse who likes to do charitable work, we'd like to put some of that into an endowment. Maybe buy another house, a cabin in Santa Fe or Taos, a place to get away and be private. And (savings) to not have to worry about the kids' college."

If you could have a dream dinner party and invite any three guests, who would you choose? We've been in our house about a year, and, while remodeling, we couldn't do much entertaining. Truthfully, we'd like to see people who are our friends. We constantly say we need to get together. Our fantasy is making reality happen, seeing just regular people who are our friends. Life is so busy. It makes it very difficult. We lost a friend recently. He died suddenly. I makes you wish you had more time with friends.

This story ran in the July 2006 edition of Shoppe Talk. Since this story ran, the couple did indeed "try to do this again." They have four boys, Penn, and triplets, Aubrey, Wyatt, and Sullivan.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Martinous Oriental Rug Co., Inc.

By Bobbi Nesbitt

World War I was behind us, rural America was moving to the city, and "The Babe" was chalking up home runs for the Yankees. It was during this time that the Martinous family first began selling fine oriental rugs in Arkansas. Carl Martinous and his uncle Malek (MAY-lek) were traveling across Arkansas and Oklahoma in 1923 in a station wagon loaded with rugs.

The late Carl Martinous, the father of David Martinous, owner of Martinous Oriental Rug Co., Inc., of Little Rock, and his uncle joined thousands of young Americans taking to the roads in "horseless carriages" to make their fortunes.

It wasn't easy to travel the roads then. As late as 1920, another young man named Harry Truman had to ballast the rear of his Dodge with concrete blocks to avoid being capsized in potholes as he made his rounds as an official of Jackson County, Missouri.

The Martinous family started in Springfield and opened places of business there and in Fort Smith in 1939. The old Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith had been one of the places Carl and Malek would set up to sell their rugs, Carl's wife, Dorothy Martinous, said. Later, when they opened their business, it was located in Fort Smith's first shopping center.

During the 1920s and '30s, Carl and his three brothers lived in Springfield, which was home base when Carl traveled with his uncle learning the rug business.

"He was a nut about oranges," David Martinous said. The Lebanese-born Malek would eat oranges all along the route and throw peels in the back of the station wagon. "One of Dad's jobs was to clean the station wagon of orange peelings."

One of their best customers during those years was the late Sen. J. William Fulbright's mother. "Bill was teaching law at the university (in Fayetteville)," Dorothy said. They (Carl and Malek) would always stay for dinner at the Fulbrights'. Bill liked to hear Malek tell about the old country."

When Carl took over the business, he convinced his three brothers to go in with him. Carl, Ben, Shamel, and Phillip Eli helped set up the businesses in Springfield and Fort Smith.

"Dad went to Chicago and learned professional rug cleaning," David said. "He introduced professional equipment (to Arkansas). He had a shampooer and a wet vac and rinse."

"This was right before the war, and Dad made contact with the military to use the professional equipment to clean mattresses for the government."

Dorothy said that once when Carl, Ben and Phillip were in Chicago working on the government contract, some of the officers at the military base there convinced them to go and see a young comedian from Lebanon who was doing stand-up at a Chicago club.

"All three of them went," and got to go backstage and meet the performer. "When Carl came home he told me that he met a guy who said he was going to be famous one of these days," Dorothy said of the young Danny Thomas.

It turned out that that meeting was the beginning of a life-long friendship with Thomas and the Martinous family. Dorothy was a volunteer for the St. Jude Children's Hospital for 27 years, and Thomas came to Fort Smith to honor her when she retired as a volunteer.

"We raised over $1 million here in Fort Smith for St. Jude," she said.

"We have so many children in Arkansas who are patients of that hospital. I don't know what it is, but we've had 30 to 35 children from Van Buren and Fort Smith."

Dorothy said her son, David, helped tremendously with the fund raising for the hospital. "He is a very, very community minded young man. He was raised that way."

David and his wife, Cynthia, share spots on the boards of AETN and Wildwood and volunteer at the Carver YMCA, in addition to David's vice presidency of the Pleasant Valley Property Owners Association and involvement with a local Middle Eastern dance company, as well as the restoration of an historic carousal.

David's childhood was not an easy one. His father, Carl, was diagnosed with cancer in 1956 and died in 1958 when David was 12 years old.

"Mother carried on the business," David said.

"I operated both businesses about five years," Dorothy said of the stores in Fort Smith and Little Rock.

Between 1939 and 1940, Shemel traveled to California, fell in love with the sunny state, and opened a rug business in San Jose. David's other uncles, Ben and Phillip, moved back to Springfield to operate that store. During that time, Carl had opened the Little Rock store. After his death, Dorothy not only ran the Little Rock and Fort Smith stores, she did hands-on work as well.

"Carl taught me how to overcast." That is the hand repair that's done to the edges of oriental rugs. "And he taught me how to re-fringe."

David completed two years of school at Fort Smith Junior College. He had started at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville as a junior when his mother became ill and the manager of the Little Rock store
decided to return home to Mississippi to live, so David quit school to help his mother with the Little Rock store. He was 21 when he moved into the store his father had built during World War II at 503 East 21st Street. He lived over the store and attended classes at Little Rock University at night. He graduated in 1970 at age 25 in the first class of the newly named University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

David was friends with Leon Fields and Bain Corder, who were building the Cantrell Heights Shopping Center. He became their first tenant. "They designed the building to help me. I was there from 1976 to 1985. When I moved there, it was a big space," David said, adding that he did not have the inventory to fill it. "I went to New York and did the best selling job I ever did to let me have rugs on consignment." He was so successful that the 1,000 square feet, which had looked so large to him when he first moved into the shopping center, began to close in on him.

"I was outgrowing that space and couldn't get any more. The people next door were doing a good business, and I couldn't expand that way."

That's when he decided to build his own building. The only problem was finding the perfect location. When David saw the spot where his business is now located, he thought the real estate agent had to be kidding. 1521 Macon Drive was a bare field in a swampy area near Rodney Parham.

"I said, 'I'll tell you one thing, I'll never put a business out here.' You should never say never. That's what I learned."

One of the final selling points was that nearby construction included a large post office to serve the new subdivisions and commercial buildings springing up in the rapidly expanding western part of Little Rock.

"The day I put the earnest money up for this property, there were two other people behind me" (ready to buy if he didn't). "The day I closed, I had someone offer me more money than I paid for it."

The location has turned out to be perfect. "It's convenient to the interstate. I have my own parking. No one can build in front of me."

David sells quality handmade oriental rugs from around the world.

And Martinous Oriental Rug Co. cleans more than 6,000 rugs a year in its state-of-the-art 5,000-square-foot cleaning facility.

This story ran in the May 1996 edition of Shoppe Talk in a slightly different form.