When Jenny Nethery sat at her desk and pondered ways to keep in touch with employees of the former Home Mission Board, she never envisioned a communications tool that would eventually span nearly 1,000 individuals from multiple agencies.
In 1997, the domestic missions arm of the Southern Baptist Convention was collapsed — along with the Memphis, Tenn.-based Baptist Brotherhood Commission and the Fort Worth, Texas-based Radio and Television Commission — into a new agency named the North American Mission Board. Nethery was one of the ones who made the transition to the new organization.
With her roots in the HMB and her future in NAMB, she decided to start an informal mailing list so those in both worlds could maintain contact. It was a rather unique group from the start with only those who retired from the two HMB locations — 161 Spring Street and 1350 Spring Street. After polling numerous individuals, Nethery chose “Annie’s Link” — in honor of legendary-trailblazing-woman home missionary Annie Armstrong — for its name. And it was a hit.
When in 2004 Nethery came down with an illness that eventually took her life, she asked Merry Romo, an HMB coworker, to step into the role in retirement. The fact that this small network has grown into a multi-faceted thread would have surprised Nethery a quarter of a century later this year.
Due to the fluid nature of Annie’s Link, it soon reached far beyond the Home Mission Board family and became an extended family to those throughout the denomination.
Missionaries, both domestic and international, who had ties through friends of the HMB, asked to be added. Individuals like then-WMU Executive Director Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler jumped on board. Former SBC Executive Committee Vice President for Public Relations W.C. Fields heard about it from brother-in-law Don Mabry at the HMB and asked to join.
As word made the rounds in the denomination, state convention personnel also wanted to be part of the venture to keep up with friends they had made through the years.
Today, Merry Romo continues to serve as the editor/coordinator/compiler of the mailing. Through the years, prayer requests were grafted into its DNA, along with births, deaths and employment changes. Now the distribution spreadsheet tops out at 892.
“It’s more than just a mailing list; it has become the premier source of people’s lives through the decades,” said Romo, who retired in 1995 with 27 years of service as executive assistant in the Language Missions Division.
Today, NAMB personnel will reach out for information on a former missionary or next of kin as they are contacted by others. Personal information such as phone numbers or email addresses are shared after first being cleared by the sought-after individual.
Romo has nurtured the list through its growing pains. She once was flummoxed by an early service provider when the mailing list approached 600, which triggered an algorithm as a possible spammer. That required breaking up its distribution into 16 different emailings — with three or four dispatches per week. That meant four mailings had to be sent out up to 64 times each week. A month could easily approach 256 mailings.
Now, due to the generosity of NAMB, the mailings have been switched to a provider without a cap on size of distribution list, which currently weighs in at 500. NAMB also covers all costs related to its distribution. Romo is thankful for the continuing care for retirees provided by NAMB and its leaders.
The highlight for many is the annual luncheon each September where many gather to reminisce and observe a brief moment of remembrance of those who died during the year. Pre-COVID attendance would approach 150 as individuals came from as far away as California and New England. This year’s meeting attracted about 60 as an estimated third of those who used to attend are no longer able to travel — even across town.
Mabry and wife, Eva Deil, were among those who did not attend this year’s meet-and-greet at Smoke Rise Baptist Church, although they were there in spirit.
“I can’t believe so many folks have stayed on the mailing list through the years. I think it’s partially because it has created such a strong prayer network that we have come to depend on,” he said from his home in Louisiana. “Merry can send out a special email in the morning and by lunch you can have 500 or more people praying for you; and if they share that with other prayer networks the number is unimaginable.
“You can know almost instantly if someone is entering the hospital with a hangnail,” he added with a laugh. “But that’s fine, we want to know how our friends are doing … and the older you get, the more important that becomes.”
Sandra Killebrew, who retired in 2007 with 28 years of service, calls Annie’ Link “a refuge, a place to share your joy and your sorrows. A lot of retirees may not be fortunate enough in their later years to still have the contacts they used to have. They are lonely and might be home bound. That’s where Annie’s Link steps in.”
Killebrew has hundreds of friends with whom she wants to maintain contact due to her service in human resources, evangelism, planning, and public relations. She saves and prints out the most important emails and files them away; one of her favorite mailings comes in the form of the monthly birthday list.
“It’s amazing how much that list with email addresses means to people to just get a few lines of birthday wishes from someone in their past,” she said. “Hearing from someone who you think may have forgotten you through the years is a blessing because people send so few birthday cards these days.”
“I’m sure Annie would want to be on her namesake list if she were still with us today. No doubt she would give it an A+.”
There is no doubt Killebrew is correct in her assertion and understanding of the Southern Baptist missionary enterprise.
In 1888, Armstrong lead in the creation of Woman’s Missionary Union, the fledgling denomination’s auxiliary that was launched to provide prayer and financial support for missionaries. In her role as its first corresponding secretary, now known as executive director, she coordinated communication between SBC leaders, local churches and missionaries.
She was known as an extensive letter writer as well as a missionary, handwriting 18,000 letters in one year alone. Eighty-four years after her 1938 death, her namesake email continues that tradition with the click of a computer mouse.
Dolores Waters, who served in Metro Missions and the Executive Office, recalls former HMB volunteer Mary Cannon — herself a retired Southern Baptist missionary to Japan — who championed prayer and was the first to compile and distribute a list of missionary birthdays. Annie’s Link expands on that early tradition and has taken it to a far greater audience, she observed.
Waters does not hesitate to respond to why she would never miss the annual gathering: “I need a lot of hugs, and there is nothing better than the Baptist touch.”
The most cited value of the email is the ease with which to reach out to someone without requiring a postage stamp, card and trip to the mailbox. “It’s just so easy to click on the link of the person and send a birthday wish and a quick note,” she explained.
Mabry could not agree more. And in case he forgets to send a note to Annie’s Link later this year, he wants his friends to know that he will turn 89 in December and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for 23 years at Calvary Baptist Church in Alexandria, La.
Joe Westbury is a veteran Baptist journalist who previously worked for the SBC Brotherhood Commission and Home Mission Board and ultimately retired from the managing editor position at the Georgia Christian Index. He lives in Atlanta.