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This is a story about a woman whose perspective is enriched by having lived in two very different worlds, and having lived for over eight decades. A single mom of two boys at 30 years old—a young widow, no less—Shirley Johnson became a teacher and taught at Baptist Bible College in Springfield for years. However, instead of retirement, Johnson packed her bags and moved to Kenya as a missionary, where she began changing the lives of impoverished kids. KSMU’s Rebekah Clark shares her story.
We sat down in Shirley Johnson’s small living room, clad with African decor. A blanket draped over the recliner is decorated with an elephant, and pictures adorn the walls. As I settle into her worn but comfortable love seat, Johnson starts her tale. In her mind, her adventures only began when she retired at age 65.
“I knew I wanted to go to Kenya so badly, and I thought, ‘Well I’m going to be 65—if I don’t start pretty soon, I’m going to be too old.’ And I looked around and they said, ‘Oh, well you can be so useful to our churches and schools.’”
She told me about her first mission trip to Kenya. For Johnson, it was a life-changing experience. She especially remembers her time with the local children in the village she visited.
“I had been telling them stories, sitting on a cold, stone step outside of a church. They were telling me, ‘Mama, tell me a story, tell us a story.’ I was telling them stories about Jesus. I made up my mind that time, I said to them, ‘I’ll come back, I’ll come back, I promise you.’”
And that she did. Soon after her retirement at BBC, Johnson said goodbye to the Ozarks and moved to Kisumu, Kenya, on the north side of Lake Victoria. She quickly got involved in teaching in the rural mountain villages. A few years later, Johnson helped create a small school in the Kisumu area for K-3 grade children called the Hillview Learning Centre. At recess, they play with soccer balls and hula hoops.
“I would like to live long enough—I’m eighty-one now—I’m not sure how long that’s going to last, but we’ll see. But I would like to live long enough to get that school up to the eighth grade. If I’m not here, though, there’s going to be those that come behind me that will, so that’s not a worry.”
This school, or as Johnson refers to it as “learning center,” is set up to specifically target a group of kids nicknamed “street children.”
“Street children are those that have no homes, no family. They may have family, but they’re family couldn’t afford to feed them, so when the kids came home from school that day, they’re families had moved. These children have no one. They’re there to fend for themselves the best way they can, and mainly it’s on the streets, thieving—they become robbers. The older street boys that have been through it all their life, they teach the little ones.”
According to Johnson, street kids run rampant in Kisumu. She chose to live in the slums, surrounded by these street children, and built her own rose garden there around her house. She was robbed a couple times, and this past year, the Learning Centre was robbed of its equipment.
Johnson also told me she used to pass out bread some days to the street kids, knowing that some of them would not eat again that day. Talk about a change of perspective: in this interview, Johnson tried, the best she could, to convey how different she views her life, especially in the United States.
“I can’t just tell you. Life is wonderful. We see the poverty that we have, and it’s just not a need of money. It’s almost pitiful to think that it could be greater someplace else.”
She said that Hillview gives the kids an opportunity to go to trade school. She told me of a few success stories of the students who attended Hillview, including a girl who is now a teller at a bank in Nairobi. Also, she talks of another former student who has just received a college scholarship and will be graduating this year.
I asked Johnson how the school is funded.
“In addition to the individual church organizational support, which is sparse compared to what I hear of other organizations of how much they are receiving, but we look at it this way: very Biblically, the Lord will supply our needs.”
Johnson did go on to mention, though, that the center is currently going through a problem. Because of the serious drought in the Kisumu area, many of the children do not get adequate food or water to drink. She is currently trying to raise money to buy a water tank for the school, as well as $5,000 to permanently buy the building in the fall. Right now, she’s leasing the school building.
“They have so little. When many of these kids come to us, they have one change of clothes. We give them uniforms. We buy them shoes. We get everything second-hand. Many of them don’t have even enough money to buy a two-penny pencil, much less a pair of shoes.”
She’s dealing with severe arthritis, and is back in Springfield until she can get back to her beloved children in Kenya. She says she used to pray for 10 more years so that she could change their lives. Now, she says, she just prays for any amount of time.
For KSMU News, I’m Rebekah Clark.
Click here for a link to Johnson’s webpage: http://www.mrsjmissionary.com/
If you have questions for Shirley, feel free to email her at shirleymrsj [at] yahoo [dot] com.