James Fred Pennell’s father had died when he was just a child. As a thirteen-year-old hanging around the local gas stations, young “Babe” Pennell had seen that bootleggers had money, and money bought women and cars and nice clothes and gave you a name. At that point, his young life took a turn. Scottie’s bootlegger father dragged his little family from town to town, and was in and out of jails and prisons throughout the Southeast during the early years of Scottie’s life. Once, for a few months in Knoxville, Tennessee, he held ‘a real, honest job,’ they lived in a two-story home, had their first nice car, and “were a real family for the first time.” Scottie was so proud because when people would ask where her Daddy worked, for once she could say, “At the atomic plant!” He had a job!
It was during those brief days in Knoxville that two pivotal things happened in Scottie’s young life. She walked to Fifth Avenue Baptist Church and learned about salvation. Enthusiastically, she invited the white-headed pastor to pray for her Daddy. When the conscientious preacher came to visit, Scottie’s Dad went out the back door. As the pastor put his arm around an embarrassed eight-year-old girl, he assured her that it was okay:
“But you don’t quit praying; you keep the faith. One day he’ll be saved.”
When her Daddy got back home, he was irate and threatened to wear her out if she ever did that again. For many years after that night, a battle would rage in the child’s heart: the fear of witnessing to her Father versus the hope of the old preacher’s promise.
Of course, the honest family life of Knoxville was not for Babe Pennell. It was back to the old dishonest, nomadic pattern; and after that fateful day at the Greenville prison, the marriage broke up. Scottie lost track of her Dad. Upon high school graduation, she tried unsuccessfully to find him; and again after she got married.
When her first child was born, she tried again. He had a grandchild now: he needed to know that grandchild; he needed to know his own daughter. Scottie, growing spiritually, had learned how to lead people to the Lord and wanted to win her Daddy. She found him in an Atlanta penitentiary. He had moved on to the big city – bigger money, bigger crimes, bigger jail.
Once again, Babe was released and moved home to be close to Scottie. The succeeding years would see Scottie patiently praying for her father, getting reacquainted with him, building their relationship, learning to love him like God wanted her to, and trying desperately to reach him for Christ. Looking back on those days, Scottie sees God working His plan. Her father had a lot of money, and money meant women and things and fun and power and you didn’t need God. Scottie, suspecting it was drug money, questioned her Dad. He promised her his money was not coming from drugs.
When Babe had a massive heart attack in Myrtle Beach and wasn’t expected to live, his daughter rushed to his side and the Lord raised him up. Scottie was thrilled! “This time he’ll get saved,” she thought.
The next day he was sitting up in his hospital bed placing bets. But God was gradually breaking down and stripping away the things that Babe clung to. A second heart attack, a stroke, and Scottie heard her Daddy asking for prayer. After two more arrests of “The Drug Kingpin of North and South Carolina,” and Scottie’s appearance before a grand jury in Parkersburg, West Virginia, her Daddy sat on the sofa after getting home from a revival service and wept:
“I’ve done too much. There’s no way God can forgive me.”
“Daddy, it’s not what you’ve done, but what He did on the cross of Calvary.”
The next day, her 6′ 2″, 62-year-old Daddy was dramatically converted to Christ after 30 years of prayer.
James Fred Pennell died in the penitentiary at Lexington, Kentucky; but for the last two years of his life, a Father and Daughter walked together in the Lord, and Scottie Barnes finally heard her Daddy say, “I love you.”
Recently, Scottie brought closure to her own family life. For the first time, she met her two half-brothers and half-sister, sons and daughter of the woman who picked up Babe at prison ahead of Scottie and her mother. “We now have a wonderful relationship that only God could have brought about.”