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‘Totally out of my element,’ teacher embraces new calling

EDITORS’ NOTE: The Week of Prayer for North American Missions, part of the 2005 North American Missions Emphasis, is being observed in many Southern Baptist churches March 6-13. Baptist Press will present profiles on the featured missionaries, now through March 15th. For more information on the emphasis, visit www.AnnieArmstrong.com.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., (BP)–Grace McGraw ends the tutoring lesson and says goodbye to her young student. She steps outside to get a breath of fresh air and is reminded where her obedience to God has brought her.

McGraw had been accustomed to teaching school in an affluent section of Birmingham, Ala., to nicely dressed children of parents in a community known as Vestavia Hills. Her work environment was pleasant, grass covered the lawns, and streets were well-maintained.

Today she stands outside the M-POWER Ministries building where she guides a staff providing new hope to a community riddled by social and economic problems.

As she looks down the street she reflects how far she has come in the past five years. Her world is far more complicated with problems caused by crowded public schools where children encounter gangs, drugs are offered as a way to escape reality and prostitution is common. Her office is now located on the edge of a high-crime community known as Woodlawn/Avondale and, she says, she may as well be serving in a Third World country due to the economic, cultural and social barriers she has had to overcome.

“The community is not that far away from Vestavia Hills, just a short 15-minute drive, but it is a world away. For all practical purposes, the Lord picked me up from my comfortable career and dropped me in the middle of a foreign land,” she says matter-of-factly.

“It’s a good thing He didn’t reveal to me what He had in mind or I’m not sure I would have been as willing to follow Him.”

McGraw and her husband, John, are among nearly 5,200 missionaries in the United States and Canada supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are featured during the March 6-13 Week of Prayer and North American Mission Study, which this year focuses on the theme “Answer His Call.”

For 28 years McGraw had served as a schoolteacher and had plans to keep going for two more years to round it out at 30. She could have retired at 25 years but saw no need. She was happy and enjoyed her job; content with the world she had built for herself.

But at 52 years of age she felt a call to retire and, after a season of resistance and rationalization, heeded the call.

“My parents always taught me to be sensitive to that small, still voice of the Lord’s leading. They believed in it and instilled that value in me from my early years, and that’s why I’m here today, totally out of my element,” she adds.

“I retired with no clear direction of what I would be doing. I was not ready to retire and was enjoying what I was doing. I felt I was where the Lord wanted me to be. ‘Why would He change that?'” she remembers asking herself.

Shortly after turning in her letter of resignation, she learned from her pastor about a new ministry that would be started by the Birmingham Baptist Association and several churches. Her church, Dawson Memorial, was one of the partners in bringing the ministry to reality.

When she heard the new executive director speak, she could not shake the impression that she would be a part of the ministry — but as a volunteer, not as a fulltime employee.

As the ministry known as M-POWER began to take shape, McGraw realized that she was needed on a level that required more commitment, but still was hesitant.

“I didn’t know anything about working in a ministry to low-income residents. I was a schoolteacher, not a social worker,” she remembers thinking.

But that was exactly what the ministry needed.

“I questioned God over and over about why he would need a middle-aged, white woman working in that neighborhood. It was just not somewhere you would choose to go on your own.

“I kept saying, ‘Lord, You gifted me with teaching skills and I have been faithful to use those skills to Your glory. Why are You taking me out of this wonderful place of service and sending me over there?'”

But as she became more familiar with the residents and their needs, she saw exactly what God had in mind.

Most of the residents had no high school education, and their children were on the same track due to the overcrowded schools and lack of encouragement from adults to excel in their class work. The children were torn between temptations of either selling or dealing drugs. When they came to school hungry in the mornings, McGraw knew how difficult it is to teach children who were distracted by empty stomachs. And they came to school with so much baggage from home they could not focus on learning math, English or other subjects.

The solution slowly began to reveal itself to M-POWER workers as they opened such educational programs as literacy missions, tutoring children and youth, and teaching English as a Second Language as a means of ministry evangelism.

“I learned to come to the office every day and just say, ‘Father, show me what You want me to do today,’ McGraw recounts. “That taught me to be totally dependent on Him and to be sensitive to the needs that I began to see.”

Today, five years later, she oversees 20 volunteers and a popular after-school tutoring ministry that gives at-risk children the opportunity to reverse the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that has characterized their lives since birth. However, the ministry does not just relate to children but to their parents as well.

A popular GED program helps parents prepare to receive their high school diploma, and adult reading and writing classes help improve their literacy skills.

“The reading level of adults and children is such that they can’t even read or understand the Bible. Tutoring for both groups — with a healthy dose of Bible study — is changing that and bringing hope to Woodlawn,” McGraw says.

“Since few adults can afford a car, we pick up the children after school and bring them to the center for afternoon tutoring. We don’t have enough volunteers for one-on-one sessions so we usually have one teacher to two students. They are from elementary school through grade 9, so there is quite an age range.”

The tutor prays with each child, reads a Bible story, helps with homework and then ends the session with a board game. The game is an important part of the afternoon because the students learn social skills, how to follow directions and how to be both a good winner and a good loser.

“We are praying the children and adults will learn about Jesus and begin to live a Christian lifestyle if they already know Him and to accept Him if they are not a believer,” McGraw says.

“Many of those who come through our doors will tell you they are Christians but, to be honest, their lifestyles do not show it. That’s because many have never seen a Christian lifestyle consistently modeled for them. And it’s difficult to do that with all the temptations to do wrong which they constantly encounter.”

McGraw has had many of the children in her care since they were in the second or third grade and is encouraged with the change she has seen, knowing that the goal of the ministry is not just to teach the children and their parents how to read and write, but how to be more productive members of society because of the spiritual lessons they learn.

“I want to see them continue to be nurtured into their teens and young adulthood so they can learn to discern what wonderful plan God has for their lives. They are members of my family and I want them to catch God’s vision for their lives and to run with that vision.”

    About the Author

  • Joe Westbury