100 years of giving: Reflections from Rosemary Russell

Did you know NCF has eight givers who are at least 100 years old? With nearly 1 in 10 nursing homes in America reporting cases of COVID-19 and the highest percentage of related deaths in those over 85 years old, we want to honor and look out for our older givers.

Ms. Rosemary Russell at her home in an assisted-living facility

As we think about those whose long lives of generosity inspire us, we’d like to share the story of one of our centenarians, Ms. Rosemary Russell.

Born on a farm in rural Michigan in 1920, Rosemary credits her mother’s sacrificial example of generosity as the guiding force of her own giving journey. “We didn’t have much, but my mother was always quick to give of herself,” Rosemary says.

“When traveling preachers or missionaries came through our town, she always invited them to Sunday dinner. And when I was 17, a missionary family came home on furlough. They needed a place for their three youngest boys to live, so they could go to school when the family returned to the mission field. My mother took them in and raised them as part of our family. They were 16, 14 and 12 and very much like brothers to me.”

Her mother’s giving spirit and love of missions set Rosemary on her own path as a life-long missionary to Africa. “Ever since I was a child, I knew the Lord was calling me to be a missionary. I’ve often wondered if the missionary from the Philippines who visited our home when I was a child laid hands on me to be a missionary.”

I’ve often wondered if the missionary from the Philippines who visited our home when I was a child laid hands on me to be a missionary.

In 1944, Rosemary set out to serve in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, where she worked as a secretary, because that was the only opening at the time. Several years later, when a position opened up, she began teaching Uduk school children while learning their tribal language from them. The mission where she worked was “first and only” in many ways – the first school, the first Christian believer, the first church, and the first orphanage (which Rosemary also ran).

In 1957, Rosemary was called to return to the U.S. She finished her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and taught in public schools for 13 years before returning to the mission field.

When an opportunity arose, Rosemary jumped at a chance to move to Kenya, where she worked with a team of other female missionaries serving the Massai people. She was often called on to do things that were typically considered “a man’s job” at the time. “I did tasks that all the women either didn’t know how to do, or didn’t care to do. My dad had taught me a lot growing up on the farm, and I had a talent for fixing things.”

Her ingenuity and pioneer spirit proved essential for many tasks in the bush. She recalls, “Once, my job was to keep the water system running, and a buffalo broke the pipe. I cut strips of a tire inner tube to patch it.”

She was also in charge of the garden and organized a Sunday School class in a house she had built. She worked distributing Bibles in villages throughout the region and carried a generator for showing Christian films in schools, bringing literature and the gospel to many tribes.

In her last five years on the mission field, she became the secretary to the principal of the nurses’ training school at Kijabe Mission Hospital, where Kenyan high-school graduates were trained as nurses to serve in their home areas.

Finally, after 31 years in the field, Rosemary was asked to retire. “The only reason that I had to leave the mission field and return to the States was because I turned 70,” says Rosemary.

No longer able to serve in person, Rosemary continues to financially support 12 different ministries through a charitable gift annuity at NCF. Africa Inland Mission and Sudan Interior Mission are the nearest and dearest to her heart.

Today, Rosemary loves to stay busy because “staying busy is the secret to staying young.” Every day, she knits, reads her Bible and prays, listens to religious radio programs, and prepares the lessons for a weekly Bible study, while studying for another one as well. There are five other people in her nursing home who are over 100. Her oldest friend is 104.

With a century of generosity under her belt and a long lifetime of loving Jesus, perhaps we’d all do well to follow the advice of this godly saint who looks and acts much younger than her age.

In these trying times, Ms. Rosemary reminds us, “Seek the Lord and lean not on your own understanding. As he opens doors and gives you new opportunities, walk into them, and do not be afraid because he is always with you.”

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