Editor's note: This article is from the recent "Homefolks: Faith" special section.
Marty Cordell's journey to the piano at First Christian Church in Jasper was filled with laughter, pain, personal sacrifice and hardship. Through it all, one thing kept her going through the good and the bad — her faith in and service to God.
Cordell's worship ministry began in youth worship and choir when she was old enough to join the youth groups.
“If we went to the beach, if we went on a day trip or anything that involved music,” she said, “the music pastor would say 'Hey, this is what we're doing.' I would practice and play the guitar for the kumbaya times around the fire pit. My church service that way started literally when I was 12 or 13.”
The love of music itself was a family affair, having watched her mother learn to play piano via lessons she received through the mail. She referred to a picture of herself at 2 years old in front of a toy piano when she would begin to pick out tunes of songs she heard. With a keen ear for music, she says her parents did what any good parent would do.
“They put me in dance,” she said, noting her lack of dance skills with a laugh. “So I didn't start piano lessons until I was 5 and then took some kind of music lesson through my second year at college. I had a babysitter that taught me ukulele and that made me fall in love with string instruments because as much as I loved playing piano and still do now, as a teenager you can't strap a piano on your back.”
When Cordell married her wife, Kimberly, on June 12, 2020, it was the first event held at First Christian Church since the building underwent a remodel during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. While their small ceremony was held at FCC, they had intended to look around at other churches, but she said it was one of those things where God said, “No, you belong here."
“I grew up Lutheran and Southern Baptist, an interesting combination from Mom and Dad,” she said. “When I married, that version of normal, I married into the Church of God. The first time I went, it was on a date with Him. I had no experience with Church of God. When he said 'Let's pray,' I was used to Southern Baptist where they all sit sweetly and wait, but at Church of God they all started praying and I was like 'Who does God know who to listen to?' I spent almost 18 years in the Church of God.”
Moving to wherever God places her has been a constant theme in Cordell's life, who is a native of Florida. She has spent years moving from place to place while maintaining a 27-year career in long-term care, 25 of which has been working as an activity coordinator.
“I always have fun in what I do and a lot of that comes from the activities background,” she said. “So having fun with the music is always a must. God gave us the spirit of laughter. It's music to your ears just as much as anything I could play on the piano, so by making it fun and making it something that people want to do.”
While her journey has been a fulfilling one, it has not come without personal pain.
Cordell, growing up in a a very conservative home in the late 1960s and early '70s, faced the reality that she liked girls at a very young age and was desperate to be “normal.”
“I remember around 9 or 10 years old knowing that I liked girls and not knowing what to do about it,” she said. “I remember praying to God at times that I would wake up as a boy, making it OK to like girls. Because in my young mind, it was the only way to do it and be 'normal.' I remember thinking, 'God, I already have jeans and Western shirts, so you wouldn't even have to change much' because that was already the way I dressed.”
Cordell was married to her first husband for just short of 18 years and says that while her mother did not like her husband at the time, she just liked the fact her daughter was married to a man.
“My mother still thinks I'm going through a phase and I'm 56,” she said. “My mother's idea of conformity was the very appearance of. So when I said, 'We're getting married,' her reaction was a startled, 'What?'”
When the father of her children faced jail time, a battle ensued for custody of her children, one that was an uphill battle for a LGBT mother in conservative Alabama.
“When their father and I divorced, he was sent to prison and my attorney told me I didn't have to worry about custody because I was the mother and of course I'd get custody,” she said. “Oh, no - his attorney was smarter than mine and the judge granted their father's parents temporary custody for 12 months. At the end of that 12 months he did it again. With Roy Moore stating publicly from the bench that he would grant no gay parent custody, then I could have fought to literally the highest court in Alabama and lost just because I was gay.”
As much as she hated it, she did not have the resources to fight that battle. Eventually, Cordell would get custody of her two sons but was met with the threat of being shot when she and two sheriff's deputies went to pick up her children. In a move that irreparably damaged her relationship with her children, their grandparents took them anyway and hid them from her for years.
“There was a hearing and the boys were brought out of hiding,” she said. “The judge awarded custody back to the grandparents. I was led into the room, not allowed to touch them, not allowed to be in closer than the table and there was a chaperone in the room. Because his family has kidnapped the kids and hid them from me, I not only had to say goodbye to my sons, but I had to be chaperoned to do it. Devastated doesn't cover it.”
Despite everything, Cordell remained strong in her faith and service to God.
“For me, I wouldn't have made it through without my faith,” Cordell said.
After returning home to Alabama from Tennessee and finding her home with First Christian Church, just one month after joining the church she once again had the opportunity to serve and praise in the best way she knows how.
“We started attending (FCC) in September,” she said. “Their regular pianist was having neck surgery, so I said 'Sure, I'll fill in.' She came back and said, 'I only really play it once per month. Will you take over?' That was around October.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hampered not only Cordell herself, being a natural-born hugger, but also the couple's relationship with their new church family. Like most churches around the country, services have been mostly digital since last year.
“Because of COVID, the largest number people we've had since we started coming was 50, but we're averaging 150 viewers online,” she said. “I am singing to an empty room, but I'm online, so I'm singing to the pews and trying to make eye contact with the corners of the pews so it doesn't look like I'm singing to an empty room. We really haven't had a lot of contact with the church family, just a few here and there.
“And we can't be late, because C.J. (Cobb) will call us out online,” she said through laughter, thinking of the relationship she and her wife have established with the church's reverend. It is a relationship among others at First Christian Church that both Marty and Kimberly are extremely grateful to have as they continue to grow in their faith.
“If it weren't for my faith, I'd have killed myself,” she said. “Between divorces and losing the kids and everything, I've gotten that low.”
Through a life of music, faith, laughter and prayer, Cordell remains as vibrant and upbeat about life as anyone, thankful for the love and support from her wife and her trust in God.
“I'm nothing but a class clown,” she said. "What I know for sure in my life, through the good, the bad and the ugly, is that God has been there the whole time. When I feel like I'm not as close to Him as I was, in JR's words, 'Baby, you moved, He didn't.'”