RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–When you’ve served for more than 26,000 years, you deserve to celebrate.
As part of the International Mission Board’s “Year of Emeriti” observance, nearly 1,000 retired missionaries united for the first time at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina, the very location where many of them first heard God’s call to missions.
The retirees who attended comprise two-thirds of the approximately 1,400 living emeritus Southern Baptist missionaries and served a cumulative total of more than 26,000 years on mission fields around the world, according to IMB estimates.
“You may feel that old, but you really aren’t,” IMB President Jerry Rankin joked as he paid tribute to the retirees at the Sept. 10-13 event. “As I look at you and realize what has gone before, how grateful we are that it didn’t start with us youngsters. You represent a biblical model of following God as Abraham did. You represent a passion to worship God as Isaiah did, to say to Him, ‘Here am I, Lord, send me.’ You had the vision of Paul, who was called to regions beyond and to do whatever it takes to get the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
“And long before we formulated a mission vision that we would lead all Southern Baptists to be on mission with God, you were fulfilling that vision.”
Some of the retirees are moving slower these days. Some use canes, walkers or hearing aids. But their passion for missions burns as bright as ever.
Jim Lochridge, 84, was the first to arrive for an evening celebration service at Ridgecrest’s Spilman Auditorium. He sat middle center, sporting a royal blue island shirt and expectantly tapping a shiny bamboo cane.
“You come early, you get the best seat,” he said, cracking a grin. His wife, Mary, soon joined him, wearing a matching shirt and smile.
“We’re on our 61st honeymoon,” Lochridge declared, referring to their recent wedding anniversary.
Beginning in 1958, the Lochridges worked for 27 years in the Philippines, where he was president of the Southern Baptist College in M’lang. It wasn’t his first time in the region, however. He saw action as a U.S. Marine in some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Like many members of the great postwar generation of missionaries, he returned to Asia bearing not a gun but the Good News of Christ.
“I saw the spiritual poverty in the eyes of those people, and I had to go back,” he recounted.
The Lochridges still lead Bible camps for boys and girls in their native North Carolina and other states, and some of their young campers have become missionaries. They also still tell people about Jesus. “I evangelize anytime,” he said.
The Lochridges’ ongoing commitment to missions is shared by many of the retirees who gathered at Ridgecrest. Mission statesman Winston Crawley, 87, first came to Ridgecrest at age 7 with his preacher father. He went to China as a missionary in 1947 and later oversaw the Foreign (now International) Mission Board’s overseas operations during decades of expansion to new fields worldwide. He retired in 1987 but continues to teach missions both in the United States and abroad.
“I flunked retirement,” Crawley quipped. “I became a wandering seminary teacher.” Next year he plans to teach in Taiwan, he said, “Lord willing.”
The emeritus missionaries, combined with the current IMB mission force of 5,234, account for more than a third of all the Southern Baptist missionaries who have served abroad during the board’s 162-year history, according to Rankin.
Five served 45 years on their mission fields. Thirty-eight served 40 or more years.
Merrel Callaway, 91, was appointed in 1942. He served in Morocco and Yemen, he told fellow retirees, adding emphatically, “It all was a joy!” Eleven others present also were appointed during the ’40s.
Many of the missionaries started Baptist work in their countries of service. Many saw their children and grandchildren follow them into mission work. Hundreds had to evacuate their fields or take cover during wars, coups and revolutions. Harold Hurst, who launched Southern Baptist work in Honduras half a century ago, remembers three revolutions in one year — including one on his birthday.
“The kids were asking, ‘Dad, are all those firecrackers outside for your birthday?'” he recalled. It was gunfire. Hurst still leads volunteer teams to Honduras several times a year as his health permits.
If the cliché “living legends” ever applied to a group of people, it applied to this group, which included:
— Carl Hunker, 91, a China missionary who left the mainland one step ahead of the conquering communists. He went on to lead the Taiwan Baptist Theological Seminary for many years as president and dean. “My life was evangelism, pastoring and teaching,” he said. It still is. “How much longer? That’s in the Lord’s hands.”
— Jim and Betty McKinley and Tom and Gloria Thurman, who braved civil war, devastating floods and famine to share the love of Christ with the people of Bangladesh.
— Sam and Ginny Cannata, medical missionaries who endured false arrest, life under communism and several wars to make disciples during 35 years in East Africa.
— David and Max King, who pioneered seminary education for students throughout the Middle East during decades of service in war-ravaged Lebanon.
— Jurhee Philpot, who returned to serve in Mexico and Costa Rica after her husband, Jim, was murdered in Mexico in 1985.
— J.O. and Mabelee Terry, missionaries to the Philippines and Singapore, who helped develop the Bible storying methods now used to evangelize people groups around the world.
— Catherine Walker, 34 years in China and Indonesia, who extended her impact globally after retirement as the first director of the IMB international prayer strategy office in the 1980s.
The retirees attended conference sessions on current IMB mission strategies as well as workshops and exhibits highlighting such topics as successful aging, navigating retirement, short-term overseas opportunities and mobilizing local churches for missions. But mostly they visited with each other, hugged old friends and traded mission stories.
They also welcomed 60 newly retired missionaries into their fraternity. At a special service Sept. 11 honoring the new emeritus group, IMB president Rankin said their ministry will continue. For missionaries, the word “retirement” is really a misnomer, Rankin said.
“Your call is irrevocable. You will continue to find avenues of service as you mobilize others in our churches. Many of you will be returning to the fields. You can’t turn loose of the peoples and the places where you’ve invested your lives for many years,” he said. “They’re too much a part of your heart, and your heart is still there.”
The new retirees included Bill and Susan Smith, the first Southern Baptist missionaries to serve in the revolutionary role of strategy coordinator — a mission worker who mobilizes all the resources of the Christian world to bring the Gospel to an entire people group.
Also included were 15 missionaries who worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa as the modern plague of AIDS swept the region. They brought help and hope to thousands of Africans nearly suffocated by hopelessness.
“During the early ’80s, AIDS swept over the country,” said Linda Rice, who served in Uganda with her husband, Jim, for 31 years. “It was a rich opportunity for witness. Christ’s Gospel transformed lives. Those once gripped by fear of the disease became desperate to make every minute count in bold witness and exuberant worship. My own faith grew as I walked with them.”
The new retirees and their older mentors also rubbed shoulders with 48 new missionaries appointed at Ridgecrest Sept. 12 by IMB trustees.
“We see it as being a link in the chain,” said one new missionary headed to work among an unreached Muslim people group in Africa. “They’ve gone before us, and they’re such an inspiration that we can do this too. It’s like the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11. Man, these saints have done it. The Kingdom is going to have a lot of people because of these folks. And when they say they’re gonna pray for you, they’re gonna pray!”
How did the older saints advise the new workers to relate to the people they will serve?
“Just love them,” urged Nettie Gammage, who served with her late husband, Al, in South Korea and the Philippines for 38 years. “And stay in touch with Jesus.”
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.