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7/23/97 90-year-old’s work with children garners national missions award

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–Attempting to bear all of the world’s worries on his little shoulders, Robert strolls into his Mission Friends classroom. Troubling thoughts of his father’s hospitalization weigh heavily on the perplexed preschooler’s fragile mind.
The overburdened youngster quickly seizes a warm embrace from his teacher, Esther Miller Lilley, already aware of his concern and confusion about his father’s health. “Mrs. Lilley,” 90, has spotted Robert from among the steady flow of arriving children and quickly becomes glued to him for a moment.
Like the hundreds of other preschoolers who have studied missions under Lilley at Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., Robert has grown to expect an encouraging embrace and listening ear from her every week. She hasn’t failed to meet those expectations for Robert and even the many adults who visit her to rekindle Sunbeam and Mission Friends memories.
“At the time of the day when I have them, the children have been through all they can take. It shows in their eyes, in their facial and vocal expressions and in how they carry their bodies,” Lilley said. “Children change every day, and no two of them are exactly alike. Their unpredictability helps me to keep up with them and keep my mind clear.”
The individualized attention Lilley has unselfishly shown to her missions education students has earned her Woman’s Missionary Union’s national Sunbeams/Mission Friends Teacher of the Year recognition. WMU President Wanda Lee recently honored her with a plaque and a $100 gift certificate during WMU Week at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Baptist Conference Center.
Participants in the celebration of Lilley’s 75-plus years with Sunbeams and Mission Friends included Dauphin Way Baptist Church member Betty Vinson, who nominated her for the recognition, and WMU preschool consultants Kathy Burns, Rhonda Reeves and Jennifer Law. WMU Executive Director Dellanna O’Brien pinned a corsage on Lilley in recognition of Sunbeams/Mission Friends’ 100th anniversary.
According to Vinson, several of Lilley’s Sunbeams and Mission Friends have become preachers, home and foreign missionaries and strong leaders in their local churches. Each year, many of the 6-year-olds who have been in her class make professions of faith in Jesus Christ due to her sharing the plan of salvation with them individually.
“She imparts far more than simply the materials provided by WMU and the state convention,” Vinson said. “Mrs. Lilley was so pleased with the name change from Sunbeams to Mission Friends in 1970. She has used the idea of children making friends around the world in her programs: She and her children often eat foods from a particular geographic area, play games related to that place and create stories about that area as they take make-believe trips.”
Burns commented, “Reading Mrs. Lilley’s testimony on the importance of missions education for the little ones was like hearing a modern-day Anna Louise Elsom and the words of ‘Cousin George’ Braxton Taylor, the ones who began the Sunbeam Band. Changes have taken place in missions programs for preschoolers over the years, but the focus is still the same — Jesus and his mission!”

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  • Bob Murdaugh