LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Pauline White thought she was just going to do a little light reading before bed, but instead the 72-year-old retiree opened the door to a call to missions that took her from her Florida home to the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
White was living a happy, active life in Sebring, Fla., when she picked up her regular issue of the North American Mission Board’s On-Site magazine and read an article about Lonnie and Belinda Riley. The Rileys are Mission Service Corps volunteers who gave up their home and jobs in Southaven, Miss., to live and serve in Lynch, Ky., a small town tucked in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
White was touched by the Rileys’ story in part because of her own tenuous connection to eastern Kentucky. Her father had been a regional supervisor for the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Just before Pauline was born, he was temporarily transferred to Harlan. Just five days after Pauline was born, her mother boarded a train bound for Harlan, where little Pauline spent the first two months of her life.
“I started reading the article and I thought, ‘Wow! Lonnie and Belinda Riley in Harlan County. My goodness, that’s where I went when I was just a teeny baby. And these people have given up everything to serve. Isn’t that wonderful?'” White recalled.
She finished the article, dropped the magazine in her recycling bin and went to bed.
That’s when the trouble started. White lay awake for hours.
“I couldn’t go to sleep. All I could think about was that ‘stupid article,'” she said with a wry laugh. She finally got up, fished the magazine out of the recycling bin and went back to bed. After her fitful night, she got up the next morning and reread the article. Throughout the day, she found herself drawn back the article, reading it again and again. Finally, she put the magazine in the recycling bin once again and went to bed.
“That night it was the same story,” White said. “I was wide awake.”
The pattern repeated for several more nights until, exasperated, White finally decided to send the Rileys some money to help with their work. She wrote the Rileys a letter, asking them what they needed.
Within a month, White had a reply. The Rileys said that what the really needed more than anything was her.
But she was having none of it. She made her argument to the Rileys and to God.
“Now Lord, we’ve had this discussion before, and you don’t need me in Harlan, Ky.,” White argued. She ticked off her points one by one: She didn’t like cold weather, she didn’t like to drive on mountain roads, and she couldn’t possibly leave behind her friends and all her volunteer obligations.
And last but certainly not least, there was the small matter of White’s age.
“When the Lord called me to Lynch, Ky., I told him that I would be 72 in January, and 72 is much too old to be doing something like this,” White said.
It wasn’t that White hadn’t been active in missions or didn’t feel called to missions. She was an active short-term mission trip volunteer and has visited 26 countries. She also volunteered for a number of local civic groups.
Then another letter came from the Rileys. They offered her three jobs, one of which was as director of Manna House, a food distribution ministry.
For the Rileys, White’s initial interest in their ministry appeared to be an answer to prayer.
“[We] had been praying for three years for God to send someone to do Manna House. We’re always in awe with our mouths hanging open when God responds,” said Belinda Riley. They didn’t have time to open Manna House for more than a few hours on a few days each month, making it difficult for people to get help.
Still, White resisted. She made up her mind to write the Rileys and refuse their offer.
But before White had the chance to put pen to paper and put an end to the whole affair, her pastor preached a powerful sermon that changed her heart.
Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sebring, told the story of a woman in Texas who was forced to retire from her healthcare job at the age of 65.
“I don’t think I’m going to like this very much,” White thought, sensing already that this sermon was going to hit a little too close to home. She, too, had been forced to retire at the age of 65 from her job as a federal administrator when her office was closed.
The Texas woman realized that elderly, infirm people needed healthcare services like those she was trained to provide. She knew she had the skills to help, and years later at the age of 84 continued to travel around the state, serving as many as 60 patients a week.
“No one is too old to do what God calls them to do,” Henry preached.
Henry’s words sunk into White’s heart. As she contemplated the message, she was sure she heard another voice speaking just to her.
“See, you’ve got at least 12 years to go,” the voice said. White glanced about for a moment, before concluding that the voice she heard was the voice of God. She knew what she had to do.
“I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ,” said White, her usually hearty, animated voice breaking with emotion. “What else could I do?”
She immediately began the work of resigning from her many clubs and volunteer organizations. Just as soon as she had resolved the last of her obligations, she put a sign in her front yard offering her house for sale. By 1 p.m. that afternoon the house sold.
She purchased a home in eastern Kentucky, sight unseen, and set out for Kentucky on March 3, 2003. Though her new home is just one-fifth the size of her Florida home, White said she has peace and contentment.
“We just praise God,” Belinda Riley said. “You just never know where he’s going to pull people from. I admire her so much to leave her home at her age and where she’s lived all her life and come to where it’s so different. She’s just a jewel.”
White’s enthusiasm and organizational skills are already transforming Manna House. The ministry is now open the first through fourth Wednesdays and Thursdays and third Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Rather than line up at the door, people seeking food assistance are given appointments and presented with already-prepared boxes of food. The streamlined process recognizes the dignity of the people seeking assistance from Manna House.
“There’s no judgmental attitude. I don’t know whether people are entitled or not and I don’t care. The Lord didn’t appoint me judge,” White said.
Age hasn’t been a barrier, she said, and in fact her life experiences have prepared her well for her new career as a Mission Service Corps missionary.
“And apparently, I have 12 years to go!” she said with a laugh.
For more information on Manna House and related ministries, visit http://www.meridzo.org. For more information on Mission Service Corps in Kentucky, call the Kentucky Baptist Convention at (502) 245-4101. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MOVED BY A MAGAZINE, RETIREE’S NEW HOME and PAULINE WHITE.