BANGKOK, Thailand (BP) — Lorena Mayhugh’s small classroom in Bangkok, Thailand, smells of tacos. She is teaching English to her adult students while incorporating Mexican cooking lessons.
Wearing paper aprons, students chop lettuce and tomatoes and engage in culinary discussions. Forty minutes pass before they realize that instead of speaking Thai, they are learning vocabulary by practicing conversational English.
As one of her older students — a man in his 60s — prepares to leave, he folds his apron and tells Mayhugh, “Every time I see this apron, I’m going to think about this class.”
Mayhugh chuckles as she describes some of her teaching methods. “[Learning English while eating] was good for them and I enjoyed it. I won’t forget it, either.”
Four nights a week, Mayhugh leaves the tiny dorm-style room she calls home and heads to her classroom at the Baptist Student Center in Bangkok. Most teachers at the school are volunteers like Mayhugh, but there’s one major difference. Mayhugh is 91.
She laughs off looks of surprise when people hear her age: “I’m having fun! Why not?”
Mayhugh has been in Thailand 10 years, first as an appointed master’s missionary with the International Mission Board and now as a volunteer. She has taught nearly 3,000 students, mostly professional Thais who come to learn English. She estimates she’s gone through 200 brownie mixes and numerous batches of oatmeal cookies as teaching tools.
When others her age are slowing down, Mayhugh remains active. She’s made the choice to serve, teach and disciple on the other side of the world from her only son and grandchildren.
“God sent me here. This is where I belong right now,” she says. “When He wants me to go back home, I’ll go. When He’s through with me in Thailand, He’ll let me know.”
Despite her vigor, there are days Mayhugh feels the effects of living through nine decades. She’s had a hip replacement, suffered through dengue fever and recovered from a fall. Her eyesight is growing worse from macular degeneration and cataracts. Reading small print is almost impossible.
But her spirit is indomitable. “My hip hurts when I’m sitting at home just as much, so why sit?” she shrugs. “And by now I’ve pretty well memorized the books I teach from, so I don’t have to read them much.”
Since all the apartment doors look alike where she lives, she put a mat outside hers so she can easily identify it. The problem is the trend caught on. “Everyone has their mat out now. But I can still tell which door is mine,” she laughs.
In Bangkok, Mayhugh walks or rides public transportation. Living on the center’s campus offers independence without the upkeep of a house or yard. In a culture where age is deeply respected, people including strangers are always ready to help “Grandma,” a nickname she owns with pride.
Though she misses her family in California, Mayhugh considers her missionary friends and the Thai people she loves as her family. Jai, a former student, and his mother are Mayhugh’s especially close friends. When the three eat out, “Jai orders for me,” Mayhugh says, since she struggles to read menus. “He knows what I like.” Well, except that time he ordered squid egg soup.
Mayhugh’s commitment to serving God began at an early age. Born in 1921 and raised in Missouri, she rarely missed a church event or an opportunity for service. “We went by Model T Ford to church,” she says. “When it was muddy, we went by wagon and when the snow was on, we went by sled!”
After college she married Carl Terwilliger, a pastor, and followed him West to plant churches. In Alaska, Mayhugh used her ongoing passion for missions and served 1958-59 as the Alaska state Woman’s Missionary Union president.
She settled in California, taught elementary school and at age 42 gave birth to their son, Carl Jr. Mayhugh’s husband died suddenly, leaving her to face one of the hardest times in her life as a 48-year-old single mother who didn’t know how to drive.
“Bad things happen to everyone,” she reflects. “When bad things happen, we can get closer to the Lord or we can get bitter.”
She married George Mayhugh in 1971. When he retired from the Marines and she from teaching, they went back to college to become electricians and serve in that capacity at churches.
Both in their 70s, the Mayhughs were appointed in 1973 as Mission Service Corps volunteers through the then-Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). They traveled throughout California, helping maintain churches and Baptist campgrounds. They were serving at Jeness Park in the Sierra Mountains when George died of brain cancer. Heartbroken, Lorena wondered what the Lord wanted her to do next.
It was while attending a California Baptist Convention meeting in Bakersfield a few years later that she found the answer in an IMB job request for Thailand. In good health at 81, she applied.
“When I read they needed an MK [missionary kid] teacher for three boys, I knew as well as I knew my name. I knew I was supposed to go.”
Her assignment was to teach Martin and Carrie Chappell’s sons.
“She just loved our boys from the get-go,” Carrie Chappell says. Charlie, now 21, remembers how Mayhugh taught him and his brothers by telling stories from her own life — being a teenager during the Dust Bowl, living through the Great Depression and losing a brother during World War II. She and the boys had science fairs, cooking classes and graduations.
“She’s a grandma to the boys,” Chappell says. “We all just love her and think she’s amazing.” On a recent trip to the U.S., Mayhugh traveled an extra 2,600 miles to attend Charlie’s college graduation, an event she says she just couldn’t miss.
Mayhugh loves her life in Thailand but eventually would like to move closer to her son in California, where she’s already discovered Vietnamese and Hispanics who might need her English tutoring. She’s also praying about taking classes at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
And she’s got other plans as well — places she’d like to travel, people she’d like to meet. In the past two years, she has hiked the Great Wall of China with Jai and snorkeled in the Andaman Sea off Thailand with her son. She doesn’t think her adventures are complete.
“Jai thinks I’ll live to 120, but I don’t know about that,” Lorena quips, as if thinking through the possibility.
“We can’t stop. When God is finished with us, He’ll take us home.”
Marie Curtis is an International Mission Board writer.