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‘Wish we had another lifetime’ to serve, missionary retirees say

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–“It was as if they were waiting for us.”

That’s how Southern Baptist missionaries Paul and Faye Burkwall felt about the Gospel-hungry people they served during their closing years in Africa.

After working for 30 years in West Africa, the Burkwalls spent their last five years of service among northern Ghana’s Fulani people. When they arrived, there were no believers. Today, God has raised more churches among the Fulani than the missionary couple ever could have imagined.

“With millions of Fulani yet to be witnessed to, we only wish we had another lifetime of service to give,” they said.

The Burkwalls joined 60 retiring Southern Baptist missionaries — representing 1,663 combined years of work — honored during services May 2 and 4 at the International Mission Board’s Richmond, Va., home office and the Missionary Learning Center in nearby Rockville.

“The people that you have served thank God for you because you brought life to them,” Avery Willis, IMB senior vice president of overseas operations, told the emeritus missionaries. “From all around the world we have these echoes of that message that you both spoke and lived. Thank you so much for being faithful to our Lord and giving a good witness to the peoples of the world.”

The decades during which these missionaries served have seen unprecedented growth, said IMB President Jerry Rankin. Not long ago, IMB workers rejoiced when they saw baptisms and churches planted overseas grow by just a few percentage points each year. Now, Southern Baptists are celebrating double-digit percentage increases in baptisms — and, in 2002, a 40 percent jump in new churches.

The task has not been easy, he emphasized. Some of the retiring missionaries lost spouses to early deaths. Others served in the midst of age-old conflicts in the Middle East. Some faced challenges from difficult ministries or debilitating illness. But through it all, God helped them serve faithfully.

“Your testimony is not what you have done, but God working through you,” said Rankin.

Ray Register worked with his wife, Rose Mary, in Israel. Like the biblical wedding feast at Cana, “God saved the best wine for last for us,” he said. After more than three decades of slow progress, Register received a phone call from a young Muslim man. The young man trusted Christ and became a bold witness as Register discipled him.

“In spite of ongoing persecution and numerous close calls with death, this man and his family and friends have brought a hundredfold harvest of Muslims into the Kingdom,” Register said. “It is a new day in the Middle East, with Muslims turning to Christ in numbers we could not have imagined when we left all for Him.”

And to a new generation of missionaries, Register said: “Stay long enough to let Him do it.”

Hazel Barron, who served almost 36 years with her husband, Tom, in Asia, told the IMB staff about her “astonished gratitude” that God had chosen and called her to missionary service.

She told of lives changed during their ministry in Asia: a western Nepali woman who teaches God’s Word to illiterate Hindus; a persecuted Indonesian woman who won her husband to the Lord through her patient witness; and an eastern Nepali pastor sustained by God when he was imprisoned for teaching the Bible to Hindus.

“They’re the treasure God gave me, the glow that warms me, the instruments that teach me faith and obedience,” she said.

Though the “official” careers of these missionaries have ended, they trust God will continue to use them to reach all peoples.

“We are deeply grateful to Southern Baptists for their prayer and financial support throughout the years,” said Ted and Mary Stanton, who served for 27 years in Middle America. “Together we must be faithful in helping to reach every nation, tribe people and language, because that’s God’s vision. Let’s get on with it!”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CATCHING UP, FOLLOWING GOD and WORK SHIRT.

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  • Manda Roten