In this story from September 1989, the popular actress shares how she came to understand that when it comes to faith, the first step can be the toughest—and the most rewarding.
In recent years I have had two very good roles on television: Florence, the wisecracking maid on the series The Jeffersons, and Mary, the mother who holds things together on 227. But 17 years ago, in 1972 when I was just getting started in theater work, I thought I’d never make it as an actress. For that matter, I couldn’t even hold my life together or afford a home of my own.
Back then I had about as much self-confidence as a chicken in a fox’s den. I was recovering from surgery and had been off work for six months from my lob as a United Airlines reservations agent. I’d had some bit parts in local theater groups, but those came and went, not leading to anything bigger.
Worse, as a single mother with three youngsters, I had no place to live. My children were staying with their father while I recuperated in an aunt’s apartment. Lying in bed, staring hopelessly at the wall, I didn’t know what to do or where to turn.
Then one Sunday morning I idly flipped on the television set, and there were actor Robert Young and his wife talking about their faith. I sat right up in bed. As I watched, they told how they had turned to God for guidance in everything. They also talked of their church, which taught that God wants only the best for us, and that if we pray, believing, He hears and will answer.
Can it be true? I wondered.
When I was able to get up and about, I went to that church Robert Young attended. What I heard there made sense; the preacher said that with God we had the ability to focus our thoughts on the good, thus drawing good to us, and the strength to change our lives as quickly as we change our minds.
He also spoke about something my mother had often talked about: stepping out on faith. When God leads you to do the seemingly impossible or to do what appears to make no sense, the preacher said, the worst thing you can do is shake your head and say, “No way, Lord. It won’t work.” That shows no confidence in God, which translates to no confidence in yourself.
As the preacher said, we can’t see down that road, but the Lord can. And if we confidently take that first step, He’ll show us the next and the next, until we reach our goal.
But when I faced that first step, it was scary. After I went back to work part-time with the airline, I started looking for an apartment. The ones I saw were either too expensive, or I couldn’t see raising my daughter, Angela, and sons, Jordan and Dorian, in them.
Then a little voice within me spoke, and I recognized it as God speaking through His Holy Spirit: You don’t want an apartment, Marla. You need a house.
Before, I would’ve just rolled my eyes and dismissed the thought. Where would I even get a down payment? But then, as I thought about it, I remembered that my mother had left the children a little money. Also, I had a mite, and there was the United Airlines credit union.
It wasn’t much…but now I wondered: Shouldn’t I try that first step?
With shaking knees, I headed to a real-estate office. Strange, though—as I did, new confidence was building within me. And when the real-estate agent asked what kind of house I had in mind, I found myself boldly describing one with enough bedrooms for the children and a garden to raise vegetables to help with the food bills.
However, after seeing several houses, my confidence was badly shaken, I found two that were almost right (except neither had a garden), but just when I was about to make an offer, someone else swooped them up, pulling the rug out from under me.
I remembered the minister saying, “When one door closes, a better one opens.” Well, I wasn’t going to just sit staring at the closed one. So I got up and trudged on. Even if my shoes wore out, I decided, my faith wouldn’t.
One of those steps brought me to another real-estate agent. When I arrived at her office, she was on the phone. While waiting, I noticed on her desk a box of photographs of homes. I began leafing through it.
Suddenly, one of the cards was like electricity in my hands. It showed two small houses on one lot. The price seemed to be within my range.
The lady hung up the phone and looked at the card. “That’s out in Inglewood; I’ll take you there.”
When we pulled up in front, I could almost hear that door opening. The two little pale-green stucco houses with tile roofs seemed perfect.
We walked through them. The little one in back would be ideal for Angela to share with one of her girlfriends. The bigger one would have plenty of room for my sons and me.
But when we stepped outside, I caught my breath. There was what the other houses lacked—a large garden of strawberries, zucchini, squash, eggplant and greens. And over the garage, what should I see but a basketball hoop, just the thing for Jordan and his playmates.
The owner, an elderly woman, was excited too. “I just know this place is for you,” she said. “In fact, I’m going to move right away to a house I bought in Anaheim You can move in now.”
“Well, we’ll be in soon,” I said with a laugh.
I had to scrape up $3,000 for a down payment and get a mortgage. Common sense argued that a mortgage for a single mother working part-time was doubtful. But there was enough God-given self-confidence in me by now that I didn’t listen to common sense.
So I walked on. The children gladly lent their money to me. And I had no trouble with the credit union. It was the mortgage that threw me.
After applying to the Federal Housing Administration, I put my need into my church’s prayer box so that everybody in the congregation would lift it up. Even so, I was on pins and needles. After some weeks the real-estate agent said she expected to have an answer in the mail that Friday. If it didn’t arrive till Saturday, she would be in her office Sunday. That afternoon, following church, I had taken the children to Hamburger Hamlet on Wilshire Boulevard. After ordering, I went to the phone booth.
“I hate to tell you, Marla,” said the real-estate lady, “but they turned you down—didn’t think you could handle it.”
I sank against the booth, stunned.
“We do have some recourse,” she suggested.
“What’s that?” I quavered.
“You can appeal in a letter.”
Soon as I got back to my aunt’s place, I started the letter. I don’t think Martin Luther King Jr. worked any harder on his “mountaintop” speech. I went on for three pages telling how I could raise my children in those houses, how the basketball hoop would let me keep an eye on the boys, how the garden would help our budget. Don’t worry about me losing the place, I emphasized; I would fight like a tiger to keep it.
I posted the appeal and continued to put my request in our congregation’s prayer box. For hadn’t the Lord said, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there will I be also”?
Then several days later the real-estate agent called. “Marla, I can’t believe it,” she cried out. “Your loan application came back approved!”
“Thank You, Lord!”
Far more important than getting the house, however, was my new self-confidence. Later, when I began filling small parts in television productions, that self-confidence showed. I’d always done my best to play the role as I thought the director wanted, but now I found myself freer to interpret it. I was more natural, more me.
Then I was called to play a bit as the maid in the first episode of The Jeffersons. In that show, I met the Jefferson family and asked if they honestly and truly lived in such a luxurious high-rise apartment. Mrs. Jefferson answered, “Yes, indeed.”
“How come we overcame,” I asked, “and no one told me?”
It brought down the house and I was invited back again and again until I became a regular.
I believe that when God put us on this earth, He gave us a good dose of self-confidence to make it through life. Trouble is, we drift away from Him and lose it. Best way I know to get it back is to step out on faith with Him. It can be scary at first. But I know that each time I take that step, God takes two big ones for me.
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