by Amanda Mack
People who live extraordinary lives often elicit strong responses from those around them. Betty Mills is no exception and she has been called a lot of things in her eighty-plus years of life.
For example, Pollyanna, daddy’s girl and Saint Betty – short for Saint Betty of Glen Ullin, Patron Saint of the Prairie – are nicknames Betty bears. She’s been described as unconditionally decent, ageless and naturally curious. She has also been labeled far worse things because of her nontraditional religious views. She describes herself as a professional volunteer.
I first came to know Betty through my involvement with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship & Church in Bismarck. When I became a member a couple years ago, she told the founding story of the church in 1952. Indeed, she is a founder of the fellowship, has served as a regional and national UU leader, and continues to be central to the Bismarck- Mandan UU’s organizational health.
The inspiration to start a new church came over dinner one night with friends. She and her husband and their friends discovered that they had each fallen away from their churches. They confided to each other that they didn’t believe in what they were hearing any more yet they all had young children who needed a spiritual home. So they decided to found a UU church in Bismarck.
In her warm, welcoming way, this 1950s Bismarck housewife led the charge to found a new liberal church and set out to find others who might also like to attend. Together members work out their beliefs guided by UU principles that, for example, seek to affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Because of Betty and fellow church founders, this spiritual inquiry continues every Sunday morning nearly sixty years after the church’s founding.
The UU faith has been around since the middle of the 18th century and boasts famous devotees including Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Susan B. Anthony. Our own U.S. Senator Kent Conrad was brought up in Bismarck’s UU church. Local UU gatherings initially occurred over coffee in people’s living rooms until enough funds were raised to build a church on Divide Avenue near the Capitol.
In a pamphlet Betty penned about the UU faith, she wrote, “there’s no creed to sign up for, no dogma to nail your quandaries to – only a sturdy belief, rooted in history, that the freedom to search for truth in religion, and in all things, is the indispensable ingredient.”
Over time, Betty emerged a respected newspaper columnist writing a liberal government and politics column in the Bismarck Tribune influencing public thought, opinion and dialogue in this community for a generation. She became a community leader through her life as a professional volunteer. Ironically, she ultimately received her college degree from the nuns at what was at the time Mary College. This woman is a thinker, a peacemaker and a speaker of her own truth.
Furthermore, Betty wrote a book called “Mind if I Differ? A Catholic-Unitarian Dialogue.” The book was published in 1964, the year she turned 37. Largely unedited, it is a collection of letters written by two stay-at-home mothers about their chosen faiths.
Most women with small children often can hardly utter a cohesive sentence at the end of a long day. Yet these two women put their children to bed and then found it in themselves to dig deep and share and debate with each other about their differing religious beliefs. And the letters were so compelling; they were published as a book.
Betty will tell you, “Writing that book changed my life.”
She received fan mail from far and wide. For a time, the book became required reading at Mary College where she was in an ongoing, loving and respectful dialogue with the nuns. She recalls at her first national UU meeting, she quickly became known and celebrated as “the woman who wrote the book!”
She also remembers a neighbor lady saying, “It’s a shame that she’ll go to hell and take those four beautiful children of hers right with her.” Betty’s response to such criticism is that you just have to decide to do what it is you’re doing.
In addition to writing her weekly column, as it turns out, Betty was instrumental in bringing public television to Bismarck and the western part of the state. The act of bringing Sesame Street to rural kids earned her the Patron Saint of the Prairie moniker.
According to her cousin Kermit Lidstrom, former president of Bismarck State College, Betty single-handedly cobbled together the funds needed to build the World War II Veterans Memorial Library in downtown Bismarck. She’s also a founding member of the League of Women Voters chapter in Bismarck.
“In her quiet way, she founded the local League chapter, started a church and built a library,” Kermit respectfully reflects.
Always one to acknowledge the contributions of others, Betty would never take full credit for her many accomplishments. She says nothing in Bismarck happens without a committee.
Betty currently teaches nonviolent communication to prisoners at the North Dakota State Penitentiary. Of Betty’s work there, Kermit marvels, “Betty finds the goodness in prison inmates! She’ll tell you she hasn’t met a bad man out there. These are murderers we’re talking about…Her work there has touched her soul in some special way.”
Primarily because of her work at the penitentiary and with the League of Women Voters over the years, Betty was recently awarded the Liberty Bell Award by the North Dakota State Bar Association. Award recipients are chosen for their efforts to improve public understanding about the law not as a lawyer, but in the role of engaged citizen.
Betty once asked her father if he believed in hell. He replied, “I can’t say I do. However, I live my life in such a way that if there is a hell, I won’t end up there.” If Betty admitted to having a creed, this may just be it.
Amanda Mack has been an Inspired Woman contributor for the last few years. She and her husband recently hit the road with their two kids in a 16’ RV trailer for a two-year cross country adventure.
Editor’s note: This was an entry in our “Who Inspires You” contest.