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96-year-old: God gives strength to serve
Scott Barkley, Baptist Press
January 21, 2011

96-year-old: God gives strength to serve

96-year-old: God gives strength to serve
Scott Barkley, Baptist Press
January 21, 2011

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Finishing up her master of divinity

degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1996 at age 82, Margaret

Burks admitted the toughest class her final semester had nothing to do with

theology or ministry methodology, but athletics.

“It was required,” Burks said. “I nearly killed myself competing and playing

soccer with those kids in their 20s.”

Instructors, however, did urge her to take it easy. Burks, now 96, didn’t take

the conventional route to missions involvement either. In May 1985, she was

recently widowed and serving as Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) director for

Chattahoochee Baptist Association in Gainesville, Ga. She said Dorothy Prior,

then leading WMU for the Georgia Baptist Convention, called and asked Burks if

she was interested in going to Liberia.

The day after Christmas that year, Burks, a member of First Baptist Church in

Flowery Branch, was on a plane to the West African country for her first

mission trip. She was 70 years old.

“The (Georgia Baptist Convention) had a partnership with Liberia then and I

went to work at a youth camp,” said Burks, who would go to Africa 21 times

before graduating from New Orleans Seminary. She would return to the country to

assist in establishing women’s ministries as well as working with a

construction team that built eight church facilities.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Burks

Margaret Burks is protected from the African sun by Don Gardner, a volunteer at Mount Meru University in Tanzania. Burks, a member of First Baptist Flowery Branch, Ga., began taking mission trips to Africa in her 70s.

On those construction efforts, the decades-younger men called Burks “Mud Mother”

as she mixed mortar.

“It was just like mixing cornbread,” Burks said. “One day a man didn’t take his

medicine, so he went home. I took his place laying bricks.”

Around the time she finished her degree at New Orleans, Burks’ attention turned

to Tanzania. Six weeks before finishing her courses, Harrison Olange, president

of International Baptist Theological Seminary of Eastern Africa in Arusha,

Tanzania, had come to speak on the New Orleans campus. She visited Olange at

the Tanzanian school, now named Mount Meru University after the nearby mountain

of the same name. She wound up teaching English and the Bible — among other

subjects — to women for three years.

“We taught in Swahili,” Burks remembered. “I only knew three words, but we were

able to communicate. Women have a language all our own.”

In the mid-1990s, the school housed only around 240 on campus, Burks said. Now

it enrolls more than 1,000. In all, she would return to Tanzania eight more

times. An elementary school she helped build now has about 400 students and

teaches English, which is unusual, Burks said, because “most schools there don’t

teach English until the seventh grade.”

“She’s an inspiration,” said Earl Pirkle, pastor of Central Baptist Church in

Gainesville and a friend of Burks. “She went back to Africa multiple times

through 2007.”

Pirkle had known Burks for more than 20 years but only in the past few have

they grown closer through a shared loved for missions. A January 2007 journey

to Tanzania — Burks’ last international trip — gave Pirkle a firsthand look at

her desire to spread the gospel.

“I saw her passion to teach and minister to the people there,” Pirkle said.

Burks knew she was on the verge of beginning dialysis, he added, but wanted to

make that final overseas excursion. In May she began the visits to aid her

kidney functions.

“From that point, I continued with the mission work in Tanzania,” Pirkle said. “Margaret

is still very involved in the planning of these trips and sponsoring students

in the university in Arusha, Tanzania.

“She has a passion which is like a fire when you are around her,” Pirkle added.

“She does not like anyone to tell her no! Her passion, at her age, gives me

motivation.”

Burks’ time in Africa came with some harrowing moments, as well as God’s

provision. She was with International Mission Board personnel who were forced

to make a quick exit to avoid being caught up in Liberia’s 1989 civil war. In

Tanzania, Burks recalls driving a seminary student to his church plant —

students had to start a church as part of their degree — when her car ran out

of gas “in the middle of nowhere.”

The two pushed her car to a tree where they were to pick up a passenger.

Fortunately, not only did the passenger have a can of fuel, but it was diesel,

the specific fuel the car required.

“God gives you a love for the people you serve,” Burks said. “They called me ‘Koko’

— Swahili for ‘old woman.’ I don’t think you ever retire from God’s service.”

You also don’t retire from encouraging others to pursue that service and the

education needed for it. While at New Orleans, Burks came to know Stan Wilkins,

who became one of her favorite professors. Wilkins was a longtime pastor in

Georgia who directed Bartow Baptist Association before dying in 2006 following

a fall at his home on Thanksgiving.

For the past four years, a motorcycle ride in Wilkins’ honor has raised money

for a scholarship — named for Wilkins and his widow Gail — at New Orleans

Seminary. Burks had always contributed to the effort.

Gail Wilkins contacted Burks last year about helping recruit a few extra riders

for the event. The senior obliged, with one condition.

She wanted to ride too.

The request — though that may not be the right word considering Burks’ history

of determination in doing what she wants to do — shouldn’t have surprised

Wilkins. “Stan talked about her a lot,” she said. “He’d say she was so full of

life and enthusiastic and driven to learn and do the work of the Lord. She

never let anything stop her or stand in her way.”

“Mrs. Margaret thought the world of him,” added Wilkins’ daughter, Tamara

Brock. “She was more than thrilled to be there at the ride and honor him.”

So Burks took part in the 100-mile ride, perched on the back of a Honda

Goldwing Trike driven by Pirkle’s brother Paul.

“(Her activity) confirms that it doesn’t matter what age you have to be to

reach people for the Lord,” Brock said. “She has a heart for ministry and

reaching people.”

No longer an 80-something-year-old kid, these days Burks drives herself three

times a week from Flowery Branch to Buford for dialysis treatments. It’s only

slowed her down somewhat, as she drives others to doctor appointments. To her

it’s nothing special.

“I just think (of my time of service) as normal,” Burks said. “Whatever you’re

to do, He gives you the strength to do it.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Barkley is production editor for the Christian Index,

newsjournal of churches in the Georgia Baptist Convention.)

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