When 82-year-old Betty Florence retired from Georgia Southern as a data control clerk in 1996 after 30 years and five months of employment, she had no idea another long standing career awaited her. In just a few days, Florence will go to Sierra Leone for six months to do mission work, something she has done every year since 2000.
“It’s all about him,” Florence said. “God has led me to Sierra Leone. Everybody’s got a purpose. This is the purpose God has for me, to work with the Sierra Leone people.”
Missionary work is not something Florence specifically trained for. In fact, far from it.
“My grandmother raised me,” she said. “I was born in 1936 on a farm behind where the mall is now, but moved to New Jersey eventually and dropped out of high school.”
Florence came back to Statesboro in 1957 with a daughter and eventually married and had two more daughters.
The hard-working woman raised a family, cleaned offices at Georgia Southern at night and pursued her GED. By taking advantage of continuing education opportunities offered to low-income individuals, Florence eventually received the training to become a data control clerk.
Florence said she didn’t have a relationship with God at the time, though she was raised in church.
“I was baptized as a child, but I recognize that I wasn’t really saved. I went down a dry devil and came up a wet devil,” Florence said with a smile.”There was no change in me. I just joined the church; I didn’t join Jesus.”
Years later, after being a part of the nightclub scene regularly, Florence began to feel God moving in her life. “I felt like somebody was watching me. I heard a voice say to me, ‘You’re in the wrong place.’”
Florence said she stopped going to nightclubs, stopped drinking and returned to the church. One particular Sunday, Florence accepted Jesus as her personal Savior when the pastor spoke of 2 Corinthians 5:17, that says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
“The presence of God rested on me,” Florence said. “I knew – I didn’t see lights or anything, but when I walked out of that church, I was born again. I felt a love. A love for people like I’d never felt before.”
Florence was 32 at the time.
She stayed active in church and served in the community in various ways, especially after retiring from Georgia Southern. Florence worked with prison ministry and senior living facilities and also helped start a church in Brooklet.
Florence began to feel the call to missions work outside the country in 1999 and it was affirmed by her pastor who told her the Lord spoke to him about her going into the mission field.
Because she was 64 at the time, many thought she was out of her mind to consider going to Africa. Meeting a friend of her daughter’s in Atlanta who was from Sierra Leone, Florence considered there for her mission work. ‘
“He thought I was crazy,” said Florence. “He said, ‘That old woman, she is going to my village?’”
But with his help, Florence secured a visa and a letter of invitation from a village chief in Sierra Leone by way of country’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
“I bought books about Africa. My daughters couldn’t believe it. I prepared for an entire year. When the power of God falls on you, you just have to accept.”
In 2000, Florence traveled for the first time to Sierra Leone, not knowing a single person. Surrounded by rebel activity and unrest, Florence made her home in the village of Fakonoh for the next six months and her work began.
Though she said there are times she is uneasy and many times she is frightened: “Nothing shakes my faith because I got a word from the Creator. ‘I sent you there for souls,’ God told me. The Lord told me, ‘Tell them who Jesus is.’”
Back to Africa
Florence has traveled to Sierra Leone every year since 2000, most of the time staying for six months, but sometimes staying for an entire year before returning to Statesboro.
Over the years, in the villages of Fakonoh and Gbesseh, Florence has worked directly with seven churches and is responsible for building four of those. She’s also established, funded and directed two schools during her years there.
“The needs are so great,” she said. “The people I work with can’t read the Bible. The children can’t read. That’s why the school is so important.”
Her current work takes place in a mission compound of 12 acres where the Our Mission for Souls Primary Christian School that opened in 2017 is housed. Ninety-one children attend for free, whereas education elsewhere must be funded by parents.
It’s a very difficult and dangerous mission for anyone, let alone an 82-year-old woman. But her passion and dedication doesn’t waver.
“I have to believe the Lord. I know God has sent me to the bush. I’m just as happy there as I am here. It’s two worlds. I know how to be content there and I know how to be content here. The only thing I had was a word from the Lord. I’m just obeying God.”
With a faith like that, Florence is bound to be returning to Sierra Leone for many years to come. To support her ministry or receive updates on her work, write to her at B. Florence Foundation; PO Box 3100; Statesboro, GA, 30459.