FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (BP)–Finishing up her master of divinity degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1996 at age 82, Margaret Burks admitted the toughest class her final semester had nothing to do with theology or ministry methodology, but athletics.
“It was required,” Burks said. “I nearly killed myself competing and playing soccer with those kids in their 20s.”
Instructors, however, did urge her to take it easy. Burks, now 96, didn’t take the conventional route to missions involvement either. In May 1985, she was recently widowed and serving as Woman’s Missionary Union director for Chattahoochee Baptist Association in Gainesville, Ga. She said Dorothy Prior, then leading WMU for the Georgia Baptist Convention, called and asked Burks if she was interested in going to Liberia.
The day after Christmas that year, Burks, a member of First Baptist Church in Flowery Branch, was on a plane to the West African country for her first mission trip. She was 70 years old.
“The [Georgia Baptist Convention] had a partnership with Liberia then and I went to work at a youth camp,” said Burks, who would go to Africa 21 times before graduating from New Orleans Seminary. She would return to the country to assist in establishing women’s ministries as well as working with a construction team that built eight church facilities.
On those construction efforts, the decades-younger men called Burks “Mud Mother” as she mixed mortar.
“It was just like mixing cornbread,” Burks said. “One day a man didn’t take his medicine, so he went home. I took his place laying bricks.”
Around the time she finished her degree at New Orleans, Burks’ attention turned to Tanzania. Six weeks before finishing her courses, Harrison Olange, president of International Baptist Theological Seminary of Eastern Africa in Arusha, Tanzania, had come to speak on the New Orleans campus. She visited Olange at the Tanzanian school, now named Mount Meru University after the nearby mountain of the same name. She wound up teaching English and the Bible — among other subjects — to women for three years.
“We taught in Swahili,” Burks remembered. “I only knew three words, but we were able to communicate. Women have a language all our own.”
In the mid-1990s, the school housed only around 240 on campus, Burks said. Now it enrolls more than 1,000. In all, she would return to Tanzania eight more times. An elementary school she helped build now has about 400 students and teaches English, which is unusual, Burks said, because “most schools there don’t teach English until the seventh grade.”
“She’s an inspiration,” said Earl Pirkle, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Gainesville and a friend of Burks. “She went back to Africa multiple times through 2007.”
Pirkle had known Burks for more than 20 years but only in the past few have they grown closer through a shared loved for missions. A January 2007 journey to Tanzania — Burks’ last international trip — gave Pirkle a firsthand look at her desire to spread the Gospel.
“I saw her passion to teach and minister to the people there,” Pirkle said.
Burks knew she was on the verge of beginning dialysis, he added, but wanted to make that final overseas excursion. In May she began the visits to aid her kidney functions.
“From that point, I continued with the mission work in Tanzania,” Pirkle said. “Margaret is still very involved in the planning of these trips and sponsoring students in the university in Arusha, Tanzania.
“She has a passion which is like a fire when you are around her,” Pirkle added. “She does not like anyone to tell her no! Her passion, at her age, gives me motivation.”
Burks’ time in Africa came with some harrowing moments, as well as God’s provision. She was with International Mission Board personnel who were forced to make a quick exit to avoid being caught up in Liberia’s 1989 civil war. In Tanzania, Burks recalls driving a seminary student to his church plant — students had to start a church as part of their degree — when her car ran out of gas “in the middle of nowhere.”
The two pushed her car to a tree where they were to pick up a passenger. Fortunately, not only did the passenger have a can of fuel, but it was diesel, the specific fuel the car required.
“God gives you a love for the people you serve,” Burks said. “They called me ‘Koko’ — Swahili for ‘old woman.’ I don’t think you ever retire from God’s service.”
You also don’t retire from encouraging others to pursue that service and the education needed for it. While at New Orleans, Burks came to know Stan Wilkins, who became one of her favorite professors. Wilkins was a longtime pastor in Georgia who directed Bartow Baptist Association before dying in 2006 following a fall at his home on Thanksgiving.
For the past four years, a motorcycle ride in Wilkins’ honor has raised money for a scholarship — named for Wilkins and his widow Gail — at New Orleans Seminary. Burks had always contributed to the effort.
Gail Wilkins contacted Burks last year about helping recruit a few extra riders for the event. The senior obliged, with one condition.
She wanted to ride too.
The request — though that may not be the right word considering Burks’ history of determination in doing what she wants to do — shouldn’t have surprised Wilkins. “Stan talked about her a lot,” she said. “He’d say she was so full of life and enthusiastic and driven to learn and do the work of the Lord. She never let anything stop her or stand in her way.”
“Mrs. Margaret thought the world of him,” added Wilkins’ daughter, Tamara Brock. “She was more than thrilled to be there at the ride and honor him.”
So Burks took part in the 100-mile ride, perched on the back of a Honda Goldwing Trike driven by Pirkle’s brother Paul.
“[Her activity] confirms that it doesn’t matter what age you have to be to reach people for the Lord,” Brock said. “She has a heart for ministry and reaching people.”
No longer an 80-something-year-old kid, these days Burks drives herself three times a week from Flowery Branch to Buford for dialysis treatments. It’s only slowed her down somewhat, as she drives others to doctor appointments. To her it’s nothing special.
“I just think [of my time of service] as normal,” Burks said. “Whatever you’re to do, He gives you the strength to do it.”
Scott Barkley is production editor for the Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of churches in the Georgia Baptist Convention.