Mrs. Mary Etta Gentry turns 100 years old on October 6, 2015. Remarkably, this centenarian is still a fixture in the Cornelia Pulliam Sunday School Class at King Moravian Church in King, N.C.!
Each Sunday morning Mary Etta greets her class, a cheerful group of older adults, with a smile, catches up on the week’s happenings, offers prayer, then opens up her David C. Cook leader’s guide and begins her Sunday School lesson just like she has done every week now for more than 65 years. As she crosses the century mark, she will most likely be in the same seat greeting her students for Sundays to come.
Mary Etta first came to King as a young first grade teacher in the 1930s. She and husband, Holton, who both grew up Methodist, visited several churches both in King and in Winston-Salem, but settled on King Moravian Church because “everyone was so nice and we wanted a good church to raise children in.” They joined in 1946.
Mary Etta, who had been active at Ardmore Methodist Church teaching Sunday School and leading children, soon began teaching a Sunday School Class at King Moravian for young adults and couples around her age. As her family grew to include children, Hughes, Mary Ann and Joseph, she never wavered from her teaching responsibilities both at the elementary school and at church. She even served as the substitute pianist for many years!
When asked what those early Sunday School classes were like, Mary Etta smiles. “Well I had to be sure my petticoat wasn’t showing and that I didn’t have a run in my hose because everybody was looking at me,” she replies with a chuckle. Everyone first gathered in the church sanctuary each week, sang a few hymns and prayed, then departed for their respective classes. Each class collected an offering during Sunday School that was given to the church. According to Mary Etta, everyone attended regularly. “Back then you were not asked if you wanted to go to Sunday School. You just went. It was expected of all of us.”
A local doctor who regularly attended her class asked her one Sunday why she repeated the scripture and lessons so much. “I told him that I teach first graders every day and that’s how they learn best, so I just repeated everything, and guess what? They learned every lesson!” said Mary Etta with a big smile. A lot has changed since the 1930s, but her Sunday School lessons are very much like they were many years ago.
She did not save all of those Bible stories just for Sunday mornings. In recent months, as word of her upcoming birthday spread around town, many former students have paused to say thank you and recount how Mrs. Gentry made first grade special for them. Most surprising to her was that so many of them remembered her reading Bible stories to them each day of the school week.
Mary Etta could not remember a time when she had considered not teaching, quitting or simply asking someone else to teach her class at church. “Somebody out there thought I would be a good Sunday School teacher and they asked me to do it. I just felt that if you were asked to do it, then well, you do it…. That’s just part of being a Christian. You serve the Lord.”
This centenarian is still teaching the Bible in Sunday School and beyond. Just ask her family, the youth at church or even the volunteers she works with every Tuesday at King Outreach Ministry. They will all agree that she is quite a convincing teacher of many things, but her love of God and living out His words are truly her greatest passion.
Yes, as Mary Etta Gentry approaches her 100th birthday, she has indeed served the Lord well!
Paula Hall serves as the Director of Christian Education at King Moravian Church in King, N.C.
From the October 2015 Moravian Magazine