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Appalachian woman gave voice to God’s call to NAMB couple

LOOKOUT, Ky. (BP)–Greg Whitetree knew he was going to say no. He had come this far only because his boss, Bob Jones, had insisted, “At least, go there and look around.”

“All right, I’ll go look,” Greg finally agreed.

A few days later, Bob and Greg and his wife, Alice, took the interstate southeast from Louisville, Ky. Five hours later, they reached Pike County at the state’s easternmost tip.

They had long since left the interstate. Here, Greg recounted, “the mountains got more and more steep, the valleys more and more narrow.” The Whitetrees had entered the western edge of the Appalachians, near land where Daniel Boone once scouted, where the Hatfields and McCoys once feuded.

“We crossed a one-lane bridge,” Greg continued, then they were on a very narrow two-lane. Many places, Bob had to drive with two wheels over the center line to keep from sideswiping a mountain or going into a creek. Somehow, he also had to avoid colliding with the coal trucks that whizzed past.

Finally, the three reached a small, yellow, concrete-block building. A sign announced, “Marrowbone Baptist Center.”

Greg couldn’t imagine how anyone could run a Baptist center in such an isolated place. Yet he had been asked to serve as its director.

No way, he thought again.

It wasn’t that Greg shied away from hard assignments. For 13 years, he and Alice had welcomed them.

In 1969, Greg was finishing his last semester at Memphis State University and working as a probation officer for juvenile court. Because his job required night and weekend work, he often missed church. But one Sunday, he took advantage of a rare opportunity to attend an evening worship service.

That night, he and Alice witnessed a commissioning service for two couples going out as US-2ers. It was the first time the Whitetrees had heard of the US-2 program, in which college students serve for two years as missionaries through the North American Mission Board.

The next year, Greg and Alice went to Honolulu as US-2ers to work with children in inner-city housing projects.

There, both realized God was calling them to be career missionaries.

After being students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, the Whitetrees spent seven years starting Baptist centers and churches in Davenport and Des Moines, Iowa. Then, they returned to Louisville, where Greg coordinated the work of two Baptist centers.

Now, Bob Jones, head of the direct missions department for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, was challenging Greg to give up his position in Louisville for a post that was extremely — well — rural.

Greg is a Native American. In his early years, he lived on the Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, only about 120 miles from Pike County, as the crow flies. But at age 5, Greg had moved with his parents to Memphis, and he’d lived and worked in urban settings ever since.

During their Appalachian visit, Bob said to Greg, “I want you to meet Freeda Harris.” Leaving the yellow concrete-block building, he, Greg and Alice made their way to Freeda’s home. There, the Whitetrees learned the story of the Baptist center.

“Freeda started the ministry by walking the ‘hollers’ inviting children to come to her house for refreshments and Bible stories,” Greg recounted. “Children came in large numbers.”

Southern Baptists took official notice of Freeda in the 1960s, making her a home missionary associate. She ran the Marrowbone Baptist Center until she had to take early retirement in the late 70s because of her health.

Afterward, two other center directors came. Both were single young women. Both were lonely in Pike County. Each stayed only about two years.

In the months since the second resigned, several people had been offered the position. All turned it down for various reasons: “Too far from medical care.” “Too far from places of continuing education.” “Too far from centers of commerce.”

“Freeda was talking to us, and she was crying,” Greg recalled. “The center had been closed 18 months. She was afraid it wasn’t going to reopen. Then the tears dried up. She said, ‘If you’re the one God’s calling — and I believe you are — he has a message for you.’

“She opened her Bible to Deuteronomy 11:10-12. Bob had to turn the pages for her because her arthritis was so bad. She read, ‘For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out … (But it) is a land of hills and valleys … a land which the LORD thy God careth for.’

“As Freeda read, God spoke to Alice and me. I was crying. Alice was crying. When we got back to the car, both of us said, ‘God is calling us here.'”

That was 14 years ago. Greg, a missionary with the North American Mission Board, still serves as director of Pike County’s Baptist center, renamed the Freeda Harris Baptist Center in 1990.

“We feel as strongly called here today, as we did when Freeda was talking to us,” Greg said of the frail, rural woman who had given voice to God’s call.

    About the Author

  • Deborah P. Brunt