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91-year-old is steady presence for 57 Vacation Bible Schools

THREE CREEKS, Ark. (BP)–Emma Mae New is going for the world record ­- that is if she doesn’t already hold it. The 91-year-old “lifetime” member of Three Creeks Baptist Church in southern Arkansas has worked in 57 consecutive Vacation Bible Schools conducted by the rural congregation.

Ms. Peg, as she is called, taught “Beginners” at the church’s first VBS in 1946 and hasn’t missed one since. The outreach has grown through all those years, reaching an attendance of 216 this summer.

New was the VBS principal for several years, but mostly she taught in the children’s classes. Now she helps with refreshments, takes the dishtowels home for washing, and visits with the “little chaps” enjoying snow cones on the large back porch of the church.

While still having fun at VBS each year, New remembers when things were “very different.”

A Ouachita Baptist College (now University) mission team started the church’s first VBS 57 years ago. A Ouachita student, Paul Shipman, became part-time pastor of Three Creeks in the spring of 1946. It was his idea to launch the church’s first VBS that summer. Ms. Peg says she had never heard of VBS before then.

The 15 miles of state highway between El Dorado and Three Creeks was a dirt road that became a very long mud hole when it rained. The church was meeting in an abandoned schoolhouse, and there was no plumbing or electricity. He may not have called it a mission trip, but Pastor Shipman enlisted four female students from Ouachita to bring VBS to this remote area of the state.

Then-26-year-old student Annie Hoover, now a Southern Baptist missionary emeritus who served in Sapporo, Japan, led the team and was principal of the VBS. They enrolled 42 and averaged 37 daily. More significantly, they taught the local women how to do VBS. They organized classes for all the ages: beginner, primary, junior, intermediate and youth. That added up to one more class than there were rooms in the old schoolhouse, so Ms. Peg’s class of beginners met under a big oak tree outside.

“There was no money for anything,” New said. She doesn’t remember any refreshments at this first VBS. When asked about crafts, she laughed and recounted that one of the more prosperous women of the church donated some old catalogs and magazines that contained colored pictures. She remembers the children cutting out pictures of food and pasting them on posters. She doesn’t remember anyone saved during that first VBS, but the week certainly had results for Christ. She recalled that most folks made their decisions public during the summer revival, after which 12 children and adults were baptized in the Three Creeks swimming hole.

The four students who brought Vacation Bible School to Three Creeks never got to return, but letters from them are preserved as heirlooms by folks who see them as an important part of the congregation’s history. The teaching methods they used have changed, but the vision they brought lives on.

New, who also participated in a mission VBS in Indiana in 1986 at the age of 75, has lived in Three Creeks all her life; her home today is less than two miles from where she was born and raised. Saved at the age of 14 during the annual summer revival, she has never been a member of any other church. She was baptized in the Three Creeks swimming hole and, yes, there are three creeks in Three Creeks.

The Three Creeks Church touched her life even before New was saved. After her mother died when she was 9, relatives from another community offered to take her in, but, she said, “I wanted to stay with my daddy.”

The women of the Three Creeks church stepped in to make this possible. They came to her home once a week to do chores and tend to young Emma Mae for two years until her father remarried.

The community had declined during the Great Depression. Cotton farms were no longer profitable. By 1946, many folks had sold out to the timber companies and moved away. The school had consolidated with a town miles away, and the post office was closed. Most of the country stores had gone out of business, but the Three Creeks Grocery, owned by New and her husband, Orland, was one of the few that held on.

“Things have changed a lot since 1946 when we had that first Bible school,” she said, except for her presence consistently providing love, encouragement and solid Bible teaching to hundreds of children during those 57 years.
Snow is a writer for the Arkansas Baptist News. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: VBS VETERAN.

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  • Lowell Snow