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Mattingly: Ann B. Davis and her spiritual awakening

Published: Thursday, June 5, 2014 9:13 p.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, June 5, 2014 9:21 p.m. CST

Soon after its birth, the MTV network tried to branch out with “Remote Control,” a hipper-than-hip game show.

Contestants were quizzed on media trivia, including a category called “Alive or Dead?” The goal was to guess the current status of pop culture icons.

One day in 1988, the name “Ann B. Davis” popped up on the screen. Hitting the buzzer, a contestant shouted, “Dead.”

The confusion was understandable, and Davis knew it. It was hard for outsiders to grasp the spiritual changes that caused this tough-willed and very private woman to put her career on the back burner and, in 1976, join a commune of evangelical Episcopalians led by Colorado Bishop William C. Frey and his wife, Barbara. She stayed with the household as it moved to an Anglican seminary in western Pennsylvania steel country and, finally, to the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, where she died June 1 at age 88.

As the years passed, she opened up and shared her story with religious groups using the title, “Where I am, where I was and how I got from there to here.” I came to know her while reporting for The Rocky Mountain News, and through a close friendship with one of the bishop’s sons, when we attended the same parish. That meant spending time in the bishop’s house (an awkward journalistic situation, with guidelines cleared by editors) and, of course, meeting the woman many called “Ann B.”

Davis explained that she was a semi-believer during most of her career. She had a Bible, but it stayed safely in its box. “I wasn’t struck by lightning. I didn’t fall off my horse on the way to Damascus. I was going to church. It’s more like I suddenly started paying attention.”

Then, as the years passed, the implications of her decision cut deeper.

“I knew that God loved mankind, in general, a kind of swarming-all-over-the-earth kind of love,” she once explained to me while inspecting a new stack of men’s jeans. “But it was new to realize that he loved me – Ann. Then I learned that God loves you -- and you, and you, and you. So now I’m beginning to worry.”

It was one thing to accept that “Jesus loves me and Jesus loves you,” she said. “Well, Jesus also loves them – whoever them happens to be. I was, like so many of us, quick to sign checks for the poor. But I needed to find a way to get closer to people who really needed help. I don’t remember Jesus saying, ‘Feed the legally registered poor,’ or ‘Clothe the socially acceptable naked.’ That’s not in my Bible.”

This really hit home, she explained, as she made pre-dawn drives into Denver’s darker streets as she headed for the center. The realities outside her car windows had changed – forever.

“If I see someone asleep in a doorway, I now have to look to see if it’s anyone I know,” she said. “That’s not what my life was like out in Hollywood.”

• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

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