Published June 13, 2017
COBBS CREEK, Va.—Robert Baker has learned a few things during 91 years of life and more than a half-century in ministry:
“It’s all part of the call,” Baker explains.
He learned obedience early, growing up as a farm boy in Depression-era North Carolina. His father didn’t issue commands twice. There were chores to do every morning before the mile-and-a-half walk to the school bus.
Milking Blackie the cow, for instance.
“She gave about a gallon,” Baker recalls with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, she didn’t give it; you had to take it.”
Those chores developed discipline—and muscles—in Baker, the seventh of 14 children. He grew stronger carrying his handicapped sister to school (she weighed about the same as the field pack he later carried during two years in the army).
Small and wiry, “I had the fastest feet in the county,” he adds.
In school races, he would leave other runners half a block behind. The quickest girl in the county, by the way, was named Ruth. She would later become Baker’s beloved wife of 64 years and the mother of their three children.
Farming didn’t work out for Baker as a young family man, so he tried his hand at shipyard work in Newport News, Va. Then he hired on at the Amoco Oil refinery in nearby York County. “Refinery work,” he says, “was tough, interesting and dangerous.”
The dangerous part didn’t much appeal to him as a husband and father. But he persevered and advanced on the job. “Miss Ruth” was always waiting at home with a smile—even when he came in after midnight, dirty and exhausted from another long shift.
“I had as much support as I needed from day one,” he remembers. “My darling always sent me away with a hug and a kiss. I never left home without it.”
Baker’s spiritual turning point came the day a serious fire broke out at the refinery. He helped quench it and save the lives of a number of men on the scene. While they celebrated survival, he sensed the voice of God: “That’s what I want you to do with your life,” the voice said. “I want you to spread My Word that men may live.”
Baker knew he had been called to preach the Gospel. “That fire served as the ignition point for me,” he says.
When he got home and told his wife he had been called to ministry, she sobbed softly for a while. Then she smiled and said, “I’ve been knowing that for months.”
That was 1964. The Bakers picked up and drove to Fort Worth, Texas, where he attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He went on to serve as pastor or associate pastor of five churches in North Carolina and Virginia—most recently, Spring Hill Baptist Church near his current home in Cobbs Creek, Va. He retired from full-time pastoring in 1994 but continued to serve in interim and pulpit supply roles.
“It’s all part of the call,” he says. “I preach the Bible and I love the folks.”
Baker still preaches from time to time, particularly at memorial services for relatives. He also enjoys tending the garden behind his house, where he grows collards, kale and sweet potatoes. If the rototiller breaks down, he remembers how to use a good old-fashioned hoe to till the soil in the hot sun.
However, age and medical issues have slowed Baker a bit in recent years. “Miss Ruth” died several years ago.
“She’s up there now,” he says quietly, pointing toward heaven.
His children faithfully check on him, and he can handle most of his living expenses. But the “little foxes” (as he calls them) of unexpected costs creep in—needed medical prescriptions, shots and the like.
“You don’t stop living when you retire,” he says. “You still have the same needs.”
That’s where Mission:Dignity comes in. A monthly stipend from the ministry enables Baker to cover medical expenses—and other needs—and keep the “little foxes” at bay. After so many years of serving God and caring for people, he appreciates the tangible way Southern Baptists now care for him in his twilight years.
Mission:Dignity Sunday (www.MDSunday.org) is June 25. It’s a day to remember and honor retired ministers, workers and their widows living on low retirement incomes. It’s also a time to give generously to help the nearly 1,800 individuals and couples assisted by the ministry. About $7 million is distributed annually, with most of the funding coming from direct gifts of individuals, Sunday School classes and churches. Every dollar given provides well-deserved monthly grants with nothing used for operating expenses.
GuideStone Financial Resources has free bulletin inserts, promotional posters and a DVD with several brief testimonies of people assisted by Mission:Dignity. The materials are undated and can be used anytime. Order online and find additional resources at MDSunday.org.
Mission:Dignity continually reminds Baker of the love and care of his Southern Baptist family. And that gives him the energy to head out to the garden and plant some more greens.
“It’s a ministry that is often ignored,” he says. “The help is more than a dollar. It’s knowing that somebody cares.” (BP)
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