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96-year-old Flowery Branch resident recalls a road well traveled as a missionary
Margaret Burks holds a spear that she brought back from one of her missionary trips to Africa. - photo by Tom Reed

To say Flowery Branch resident Margaret Burks has an adventurous spirit would be an understatement.

"My daddy said, ‘You will never live to see 50.' He told me that when I was on skates behind a car going about 40. I didn't know that crazy boy was going to go that fast in the first place," Burks said with a chuckle.

"In the second place, I couldn't turn loose, but when I did turn loose I landed almost in a tree. And my father came and picked me up and said, ‘You are so stupid.'

"And I said, ‘You're not supposed to tell people they're stupid.' But I was stupid for doing that."

She proved him wrong about 46 years ago. She did live to see 50.

Today, she's a sprightly, 96-year-old with more stories to tell than years she's been alive.

"I've lived in almost three centuries. I was born in 1914. I missed the 19th century by 14 years," Burks said.

"I lived 82 years in the 20th century and 11 years almost in the 21st century."

Her sense of adventure didn't die as she got older; if anything it grew. After losing her husband, Burks decided to take up a challenge offered by Dorothy Prior, who at that time was the leader of the Women's Missionary Union for the Georgia Baptist Convention. Prior was looking for volunteers to participate in a mission trip to Liberia.

Burks, who was the director of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association in Gainesville's Women's Missionary Union, agreed almost immediately.

That was 1985 and would be her first mission trip abroad. She was 70.

"I left the day after Christmas," Burks said.

She would ultimately make 10 more mission trips to the African country. Her trips were partly inspired by her mother.

"My mother was very mission-minded and just a wonderful Christian," Burks said.

Not content with travel, Burks took up a new challenge.

"God spoke to me one night at church and said, ‘I want you to go back to school,'" Burks recalls.

"I said ‘School? I'm 76 years old,' and He said, ‘I know how old you are. I created you.'

"The next morning, I enrolled at the Atlanta campus of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary."

For the next four years, Burks "messed around" and just took one class per semester. Apparently her half effort wasn't good enough.

"God spoke to me again, and said, ‘I want you to finish,'" Burks said.

So she buckled down and completed her degree within the next two years. She graduated in 1996 at the age of 82.

God was apparently pushing her to wrap up her studies because he had another plan for her, this time in a classroom abroad.

While she was still a student, the president of the International Baptist Theological Seminary of Eastern Africa visited Burks' campus seeking teachers.

"I didn't think they'd appoint me (because of my age). He said he didn't care if I was 142, he really needed a teacher," Burks said.

"I went over right after I graduated and taught from 1996 to 1999. I love Africa.

"I think God gives you a love for the people he calls you to serve. I told them, ‘Y'all were born African. I choose to be an African.'"

Embracing new things was a trait that Burks developed early on in life.

"I was saved as a Presbyterian. I was saved on the Wednesday night after my 14th birthday," Burks said.

"But I married a Baptist. He was 19 1/2 years older than I, and I knew we had to be in the same church and I knew he wouldn't change, so I did. It's not much difference."

Her recent need for kidney dialysis treatments has forced her to curtail her trips, but Burks still manages to squeeze a lot of memories out of her missionary career, which spanned three decades from 1985 to 2007.

"I've taken 21 trips to Africa. I've been to Panama eight times, and I've been to China," Burks said.

"Anywhere that God tells me to go, that's a trip I take."

Although she's no longer able to travel on the trips that she so loved, her legacy lives on.

"Each time we were either working to build a church, a school or a home," Burks said.

And if you think she was a bystander during the construction, you'd be very wrong.

"I used to mix up the mortar. I even had a ‘Mud Mother' T-shirt," Burks said.

"During one trip, one fella that was laying bricks forgot to take his malaria medicine, got sick and had to go home. I told them that I could lay those blocks."

And she did. On that trip, Burks and an assistant would go on to build 30-foot-long pulpits in five different churches.

Burks also helped to establish a primary school on the campus of Mount Meru University, the seminary where she taught in Tanzania during the mid-90s. The institution was named in her honor. It is formally known as the Margaret E. Burks School.

No longer able to go on the mission trips, Burks still has a role in planning different excursions and even helps provide scholarships to students in Tanzania.

To some, it may seem as if she's going above and beyond. To her, it's par for the course.

"When you go on mission trips, you become family," Burks said.

And if nothing else, you never stop caring for family.



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