“Destination Unknown.” That was the stated course of the troop ship on which Julia Graham and her first husband, Henry, embarked in May 1945, with their 7-month-old son, as Baptist missionaries to the Middle East.
Julia and Henry and the baby Jimmie, when appointed to service in Lebanon by the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board during World War II, boarded a troop ship sailing from America with an unstated destination. All they knew is that this ship would take them closer to their intended place of service than they would have been otherwise; the rest, they would make up as they went along. And even though somewhere along the way, the suitcase with all the diapers and baby formula was lost, Julia and Henry pressed on; they did not turn back. Julia befriended one of the cooks on the ship, who allowed her in the galley each day to make baby food.
That ship eventually made landfall in Port Said, Egypt, which allowed the young missionary couple to travel by train to the land then known as Palestine. This all happened, of course, before the end of the war, before the creation of the modern state of Israel. In fact, Victory in Europe Day, VE Day, happened while Henry and Julia were aboard the troop ship, and they did not know about it until they came ashore. They had traveled through potentially hostile oceans on a ship full of sailors to a destination they did not know.
But this is only the beginning of the story. Their task, their calling, was to open Southern Baptist missionary work in this region of the Holy Land, to bring an evangelical witness in the place where the first Christian evangelists proclaimed the good news of Christ.
Within seven months of arriving in the Middle East, and shortly after settling in Nazareth, Henry died. Julia became a widow at the age of 29. She had a baby, and she lived far away from home. Destination unknown, indeed. The locals assumed she would immediately pack up and go home; they asked her not if she was leaving but when she was leaving.
In that moment, Julia said, she sought out a quiet place—which was hard to do in a one-bedroom apartment filled with mourners—and prayed to God for guidance. What flooded her mind was not so much a direct answer as a remembrance that pointed the way. She remembered that day 19 years earlier, when she was a 10-year-old girl in a small town in Texas who heard the call of God to missionary service. Had Henry’s death changed her call or just her circumstances? She determined in that moment that she would stay.
She soon took in an orphan girl to care for and then found a ministry working with many orphans. And she went to language school in Jerusalem, where she met Finlay Graham, her Scotsman language instructor and future husband.
The rest of the story is, as they say, “history.” Among Southern Baptists, among evangelical mission leaders in the Middle East, Finlay and Julia Graham became not only legends but heroes. We Baptists idolize our missionaries, and there have been few better examples of why this should be so than the lives and witness of Julia and Finlay.
Through 40 years of service together in the Middle East, they founded the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in 1960. This school eventually served the entire Middle East with students coming from as far away as Morocco, Iraq and Sudan. The first small Baptist congregation started in Lebanon in 1948 grew to 26 churches.
Julia’s lifelong motto was service, and particularly service regardless of what training you did or did not have. In her view, your gift is service for whatever is needed. When the students at the seminary needed to eat, she became a cook and a dietician. When children needed clothes, she became a seamstress. When the school needed a library, she collected and catalogued the books. When Bible studies needed to be taught, she prepared and gave the lessons.
Finlay and Julia retired from active missionary service in 1986 and moved to Dallas, where they joined our congregation at Wilshire Baptist Church. Even in retirement, even after Finlay’s death, Julia continued to demonstrate remarkable zeal for the work of the Lord. Her mission field changed, but her calling did not waver. Even as her eyesight failed, she continued to teach Sunday School, aided by a friend who each week read her the lesson material, which she internalized and then presented to the class.
We said farewell to Julia last week, as she died at the age of 98. You’ve heard, no doubt, of the Greatest Generation, and what they did for securing world peace and building America. There also was a Greatest Generation of Baptist missionaries, trailblazers in a world that was mysterious and closed to outsiders, a world where international travel happened on sea voyages rather than direct air flights. These are the folks who boldly went to destinations unknown and opened eyes both at home and abroad.
Julia’s journey to service only appeared to be labeled “Destination Unknown.” Her faith, her courage, her perseverance were made possible because she believed the words of Jesus that as a believer her final destination was, in fact, well known. That is what allowed her to persevere.
Now that Julia is gone from among us, I’ve been wondering who will take up the calling that carried her from age 10 to 98. Who will pray like she did? Who will serve like she did? Who will teach even though they cannot see clearly? Who will answer God’s call like she did? Who will board today’s ship marked “Destination Unknown?” Who will dare to venture where the Spirit leads and then stay put when difficulty strikes? Who will be the welcoming voice of God’s love to others who seek to serve? Is it perhaps you?