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112th missionary says vision of missions growth possible

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–When International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin talks about sending thousands of Southern Baptist workers to Russia, China, India and other parts of The Last Frontier, emeritus missionaries Wilfred and Esther Congdon believe it’s quite possible that vision will come to pass.
After all, the Congdons have seen the Southern Baptist overseas force grow from a tiny handful 60 years ago to more than 4,200 today.
“No, it (Rankin’s vision) doesn’t seem impossible because we’ve seen what the Lord can do,” said Wilfred Congdon, now 85 and retired from the mission field more than 15 years. “God can break down the Berlin Wall and remove any other obstacle that stands in his way.”
Though board records are imprecise on the matter, Congdon estimates he was the 112th missionary sent out from the board since its founding in 1845 when he was appointed Oct. 1, 1937. Esther Congdon, 82, who was appointed a year later and sailed immediately for Africa to marry Wilfred, was probably the 120th missionary in IMB history.
Today, the total number of missionaries appointed by the board since 1845 is nearing the 14,000 mark, with some 4,200 presently in active service.
The huge expansion occurred in the years following World War II, and record annual appointments are again driving the numbers up.
More than 670 retired missionaries, including the Congdons, gathered this summer at Ridgecrest (N.C.) and Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference centers to see old friends and reminisce about what life was like as Southern Baptists’ international missionary force grew from obscurity to become the largest non-Catholic mission force in the world.
The IMB celebrates “The Year of the Emeriti” every five years. The reunions at Ridgecrest and Glorieta are part of that celebration.
The 670 retired missionaries who gathered this year had a combined missionary service of more than 20,000 years. That’s equal to 10 missionaries on the field every year since Jesus’ birth.
The oldest missionary to show up was Ola Mae Daniel, 94, who served in China and Taiwan. She now lives in Austin, Texas.
Another retired missionary, Prudence Riffey, traveled to Ridgecrest with her daughter, Joan Sutton, also a retired missionary. Riffey and Sutton now live in Henderson, N.C.
The 263 who attended the sessions at Glorieta were on hand to see 43 new workers appointed, many to countries only a few years ago considered off-limits to IMB personnel.
Included in the 45 were Jonathan and Loi Beth King, son and daughter-in-law of emeritus missionaries David and Maxine King.
“Never forget God called you,” the Congdons advised the new missionaries.
“I never had it out of my mind that I was where God wanted me to be,” Congdon said. “He worked it out in such a marvelous way. I would suggest they always keep that call in mind.”
Nigeria was the only African country where Southern Baptists stationed missionaries when the Congdons went to Nigeria in the 1930s. Despite the board’s deep debt and a hold on missionary appointments at the time, Wilfred Congdon was appointed to replace retiring missionary Alexander McLean, who taught industrial arts. Congdon went on to help design some 400 churches, five hospitals, innumerable mission houses and a number of schools. Esther Congdon taught Bible, English, music and led women’s ministries in the African nation. Shortly before the Congdons retired in 1981, they moved to Malawi for two years.
“We expected some growth, but as we look back it just seems marvelous what the Lord has done,” Congdon said.
They described Southern Baptist international mission growth “like a little stream that just got bigger and bigger until it became a large river.”

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  • Louis Moore