RESPONSE: JANUARY 2018 ISSUE

Walking in the Will of God

Deaconess Melba McCallum’s “second act” lifts her community and changes lives.

Walking in the Will of God
Deaconess Melba McCallum, front, pink cardigan, and her Partners in Ministry team in Laurinburg, North Carolina.

Melba McCallum bid farewell to a long and successful career in higher education in 2005 at age 50. But retirement? That was the farthest thing from her mind. For her second act, she was ready to embrace a calling that had been in her heart for a long time.

“God had been speaking very clearly to me. God was ready for me to do God’s work,” McCallum said. “I felt very strongly God wanted me to be a bridge between church and the world.”

McCallum, who makes her home in Rockingham, North Carolina, has taken her commission seriously. She spent more than two years to complete the coursework to become a United Methodist deaconess, a lay position that prepares people for a full-time vocation in ministry focused on justice, service and love. At the same time, she founded Partners in Ministry, a nonprofit that started modestly in her home with a few supporters and funded out of McCallum’s own pocket. It has since grown into a sprawling operation based in nearby Laurinburg with a budget of over $1 million, 15 full-time and about 25 part-time staff and nearly 200 volunteers.

“I saw an overabundance of churches and an overwhelming rate of poverty,” McCallum said. “We all know we are more powerful together than we are on our own to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems.”

That vision—made possible by McCallum’s refusal to take no for an answer—has grown into a substantial force. By developing partnerships with local congregations, teachers, politicians and community volunteers, PIM has a substantial outreach that serves the underserved, mainly at-risk youth, low-income seniors and women. And it does it through a range of programs that aim to uplift, empower and educate. Among them a youth leadership development academy aimed at teens, summer youth camps, a twice-monthly food bank for needy families, community gardens, a resource center and a housing repair program aimed at restoring dilapidated homes of the poor and elderly.

“One thing grew into another. We had a plan and that plan kept expanding,” McCallum said.

And there’s still room to grow. She says “the conversations have just begun” to find a way to build a much-needed community center that will serve all ages.

The odds may have been against her, especially in the early years. But longtime friend the Rev. Gypsie Murdaugh, who pastors both the Greater Piney Grove United Methodist Church and Saint George United Methodist in Maxton, North Carolina, says McCallum has what it takes to build a ministry from the ground up and make it a vital contributor to the community.

“She knows how to get just what she wants without compromising her values,” said Murdaugh, one of PIM’s original board members. “Even when it seems hopeless, she has no doubt that God will provide and open doors or put the right people in her path. Her faith is unwavering.”

As a church leader, Murdaugh spends much of her time counseling and giving spiritual direction to her congregants. So where does she go when she needs encouragement and inspiration?

“I go to Melba,” Murdaugh says. “She won’t let you give up. She’s got a way of making you believe you can accomplish anything.”

 

A solid foundation

McCallum says she was blessed with a solid foundation, something many youth don’t get today. She believes that a strong family unit bound by faith put her on a path to success.

She grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the 11th child of 12. They didn’t have much, but Alexander and Mary Goode created a good life and cozy home in their four-bedroom house in a tight-knit neighborhood. He was a mailroom supervisor for the state Treasury Department; she was a homemaker who insisted the whole family, no matter how scattered during the day, gathered at night for a sit-down dinner when her husband returned home from work.

“That’s a memory that will always stay with me,” she recalls. “My mother felt that time was special. And looking back, she was so right. We shared our day’s activities, we worked through problems.”

Church also played a pivotal role in the Goode family. Spiritual hymns played on the radio on weekends, filling the home with a joyous sound. They attended the nearby African Methodist Episcopal church and visited local Baptist and Holiness congregations.

And they had a family motto, one that would define McCallum’s life of service: One can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving. She also relies on Matthew 25:35-36 for her second act as a deaconess: “For I was hungry and you gave me me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

In 6th grade, McCallum became part of local history when her elementary school went from segregated to integrated. She didn’t miss a beat, keeping her head in her books with college as a goal. Her parents always stressed the power and importance of education—a lesson McCallum took to heart.

She wouldn’t disappoint them. She earned multiple college degrees: A bachelor of science in business administration and management at Fayetteville State University, a master in education administration at Pembroke State University and a doctorate in higher education administration from North Carolina University. All would be put to use working in administration and teaching in local community colleges.

“That was a very important part of my life,” McCallum says. “It’s where I got the business and financial skills that are so necessary to make a nonprofit work. All of it prepared me for what was ahead.”

It also provided the setting to meet her life partner. While working at North Carolina State University for three professors in the Agricultural Engineering department, a young man working on research caught her eye. She and Benjamin McCallum Jr. dated for two and a half years before tying the knot. She knew early on they were a perfect match. He, too, came from a big family—seven kids—where faith played a central role.

The couple recently celebrated 40 years of marriage, with three grown children and four grandkids. Yes, it was a good decision.

“God puts good things in your path,” she said. “Be open to receive them.”

Taking action

The fateful meeting that led to her lifelong union with Benjamin made other significant changes in her life as well. He was a United Methodist. When they married, she adopted her husband’s denomination, embracing its tenets and style of worship. That proved to be a good thing for the church. McCallum became a United Methodist Women member in 1977 and has tackled multiple positions within the organization. Among them: local and district president and an active volunteer on numerous committees at several levels. She is currently the chairperson of the standing rules committee for the North Carolina Conference United Methodist Women.

“You know how this happens, don’t you? Be careful what you complain about,” she says. “I wasn’t happy about a few things, and next thing you know, I’m district president.”

That’s how Partners in Ministry got its start, too.

In the mid-1970s, McCallum got a jolt when her husband took a job with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. It meant uprooting from Raleigh and moving nearly two hours away to Rockingham. Though she landed a good job in human resources at Richmond Community College in nearby Hamlet, it felt like she had moved to another planet.

“It was a big culture shock,” she admits. “There wasn’t much of a community and very few resources. With both of us working, we had to have after-school care and summer programs for our children. That’s when God planted it in my heart that if something was going to change, I was going to have to come up with a plan.”

So with little more than determination, McCallum brought together a wide spectrum of like-minded people from 10 churches of different denominations to form the community mentor program. With financial assistance from a few foundations and other donors, the nonprofit hosted summer camps that provided both activities and meals for the participants.

McCallum says she didn’t know it at the time, but that project laid the groundwork for Partners in Ministry, which would come years later. It opened her eyes to the vast needs in the low-income area and made her determined to be part of the solution.

One of her biggest fans is the former superintendent of the Rockingham District (now Gateway District) of the North Carolina Conference, Leonard Fairley, now a bishop for the Louisville Episcopal Area in Kentucky. He saw a special quality in his friend when they first met years ago while working on a church leadership program.

“I knew I wanted her on my team. She’s tenacious. The bigger the challenge, the harder she works,” said Fairley. “Melba has a heart for the kingdom’s work and an ability to surround herself with the right people to get a job done.”

The growth and success of the ministry she founded 17 years ago doesn’t surprise the bishop at all.

“I grew up in that area, and I can tell you it’s one of the poorest and most racially diverse in our district,” he says. “But that would never deter Melba McCallum. When she buys into a vision, she does it with her whole heart, soul and mind.”

Tracy Pratt admits she’s made a few mistakes in life.

At 23, the Rockingham resident is a single mom of two kids, ages 5 and 4. If she had to do it over, she would have made different decisions. But she believes in looking forward, not backward. And she thanks Partners in Ministry for giving her a second chance.

The nonprofit placed her at Burlington Industries in Cordova, North Carolina, where she spent about two months in on-the-job training in the textile factory. Now she’s making $11.55 an hour—$16.35 when she works overtime—with full benefits, sick time, holiday pay and short- and long-term disability.

“And I’ve learned how to sew,” Pratt said. She’s also taking courses at the local community college to meet her future goal: To become a probation officer and work at a state prison. Within five years, Pratt intends to own her own home, complete her college degree and pay off her car.

Partners in Ministry gave her that boost when she needed it the most, she says.

“In a small town, it’s hard to find opportunities to get you out of the rut of poverty,” she said. “I won’t let that happen to me. I want to make something out of my life. This program opened a door for me to let that happen.”

Vevely Malloy, director of State Line Children’s World, a day care center in Laurinburg, says there are hundreds of stories like Pratt’s, whose life was directly impacted by the ministry’s involvement.

“With Melba at the controls, this ministry has touched every corner of this county,” says United Methodist Women member Malloy. “She knows how to get volunteers to renovate an entire building. I think it’s because she’s right there with her sleeves rolled up, working right beside them.”

McCallum’s best quality? Malloy didn’t hesitate.

“She’s a people person. She can work with youth, she can work with seniors,” she says. “And for all her education, she’s the first to tell you that it doesn’t mean anything without a strong spiritual foundation. That is her guiding force.”

McCallum says it takes a village to make a ministry like PIM thrive. She knows that without her army of volunteers—from her retired husband to local students—success would not be possible.

At 62, her work is far from done. She says God will let her know when it’s time to slow down.

“So far, God’s not given me any sign,” she says with a laugh. When that day does come, her prayer is that she did all that was asked of her.

“If God says to me, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, well done,’ then I will know,” McCallum says. “I have spent my life walking in the will of God. Everything I am and do is because of God’s grace and mercy.”


Michelle Bearden is former religion reporter for The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV and is now a freelance writer specializing in faith and values. She’s a two-time winner of the national Supple Religion Writer of the Year award from the Religion Newswriters Association.

 

Posted or updated: 1/11/2018 12:00:00 AM
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