Ethel Waters, born 31 October, 1896, in Chester, Pennsylvania, did not have a promising
beginning. She was conceived when her mother was raped at the age of twelve. Her mother,
a child herself, sent Ethel to fi rst one relative and then another, and Ethel never lived in one
place for long. For a time she attended the Baptist church in the neighborhood, and at twelve
believed in Jesus as her Savior. However, when a teenager in the church treated her wrongfully
because she was black, Ethel left the church and never went back.
When she was thirteen, Ethel married, but her husband was abusive, and she soon left
him. She became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel, singing songs and performing before the
mirrors as she cleaned them. At a party when she was seventeen she was persuaded to sing
two songs, and was off ered work in a theater in Baltimore. Ethel sang on the black vaudeville
circuit then joined a carnival, where she enjoyed the loyalty and friendship of the performers.
In the 1920s, Ethel moved to Harlem and became a leading performer in the renaissance of
black musicians there. Ethel’s career as a performer truly took off , as she went on to perform on Broadway and in movies. She married again, but this marriage too was a failure. Though she now had material success and fame, Ethel’s life was empty. She gained a tremendous amount of weight (she weighed 380 pounds) as she ate herself out of her sorrows.
In 1957, Billy Graham held a series of evangelistic meetings in Madison Square Garden.
Ethel attended one night and felt like she had found something; she attended every meeting for the next sixteen weeks and recommitted her life to her Savior. Jesus became the center of her life, and she began to see everything in relation to Him. Th e newspapers said Ethel had become religious, but she disagreed, saying, ‘I’m not religious. I’m a born–again Christian! That’s the most important thing in my life, because I’ve found my living Savior!’28 Knowing her Savior brought Ethel the peace and freedom her fame and wealth could never bring her.
She felt like the prodigal son, and she now wanted to live her life completely for Jesus. She could no longer sing blues, for the Savior had put sunshine in her life. Ethel left the theater and began traveling, putting on Christian concerts. She sang for Presidents and dignitaries, but the highest dignitary was her Lord and Savior.
The song which became her signature song was, ‘His eye is on the Sparrow’, which
expressed so well Ethel’s own assurance of Jesus’ love and care:
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall
to the ground apart from your Father. … Fear not, therefore, you are
of more value than many sparrows.’
This extract was taken from Her–Story: 366 Devotions from 21 Centuries of the Christian Church.