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Mission co-worker Louise Maxwell ‘Coffee’ Worth led a wonder-filled life for 100 years

The pastor’s daughter, educator and racial reconciliation advocate in Korea and the U.S. taught by example

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Louise Maxwell “Coffee” Worth, as pictured in 1967. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Louise Maxwell “Coffee” Worth, a retired Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission worker, alongside her late husband, George, in Korea for more than 20 years, died on March 25 in Lakeland, Florida after a short illness. She was 100 years old.

Because of her given name, Maxwell, Louise picked up the nickname “Coffee” as a freshman at the then predominately male Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. When she transferred her junior year to Woman’s College, now known as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she took the nickname with her. It also followed her to the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, and everywhere else on two continents. After she married George Clarkson Worth Jr. in 1949, whom she met at an interracial conference in North Carolina, she introduced herself as “Louise Maxwell Worth, but you can call me ‘Coffee.’”

Coffee Worth earned her degree in early childhood education at UNC-Greensboro (Class of 1940), and she worked as a teacher in North Carolina and in Korean mission schools, beginning mission service a year after the end of the Korean War. She and George studied the Korean language at Yale University for nine months before beginning their mission journey, and they worked diligently to strengthen their language skills after they arrived.

The Worths developed close relationships with the Korean people, churches and the community. George taught education classes for secondary school majors at Keimyung College, a Presbyterian college in Taegu, Korea. Coffee and a Korean colleague, Kim Hwa Soo, started a preschool in the Worths’ home. The two women also worked together to establish a kindergarten teacher training department and a demonstration kindergarten at Keimyung College. Coffee later trained in London in order to establish Korea’s first Montessori preschool.

Coffee Worth (right) with a kindergarten class in Korea. (Contributed photo)

Coffee’s mission work in Korea and the U.S. included Christian education, racial equity and reconciliation, the promotion of peace and justice, English language studies for refugees and advocacy for quality housing for people with low incomes. She taught education at Keimyung College for many years.

One of her students, Wonza Keum, who also worked as a part-time assistant for the demonstration kindergarten class, wrote an essay about her former teacher in 1991. In it, she said:

“Coffee created several different projects for poor children. I knew she had been doing such a program for a long time. Her flexibility was incredible. Her personality fit into every place and situation. It was always a deep pleasure to me to detect and spy inside of her. What was her secret resource of all those varied ideas of touching somebody?”

When Keum began having financial struggles, she didn’t want to admit this to Coffee. Instead, she told Coffee she had decided to work with the children instead of continuing her studies. Keum recalled in her essay, “Coffee looked down silently and said to me, ‘You’d better finish your studies. What if I paid your tuition already? You can pay me back anytime.’”

Later when Keum had saved the exact amount of money her teacher had paid so that she could continue her studies, she met with Coffee and held out a white envelope, thanking her.

“She refused my offer and said, ‘Why don’t you do that for somebody like I did this for you?’” Keum said.

The Worth family in Taegu, Korea, 1957: David, George, Evelyn and Coffee.(Contributed photo)

George Worth was born in China to missionary parents — the Rev. Charles and Grace McAlpine Worth. His missionary grandparents, Dr. George and Emma Chadbourn Worth, members of First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, N.C., were sent by the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1895 to start a medical mission in China’s Jaingsu Province. The Jiangyin mission station included a hospital, a training school for nurses, separate high schools for girls and boys, a Bible School for women and a school for children in need. George’s maternal grandparents and great-grandparents served in Presbyterian mission in Japan.

George and Coffee’s daughter, Evelyn Worth McMullen, a Christian educator for more than three decades, served on mission in Brazil for two years, making her a fifth-generation Presbyterian mission worker in the family. McMullen and her brother, David, grew up in Korea.

“My parents were educational missionaries in a culture that valued education,” McMullen said. “The Korean Presbyterian Church valued education as an extension of evangelistic ministry.”

Of her father, McMullen said, he believed it was important to “work himself out of a job” transferring leadership roles to the Korean people, which he did twice from 1968–75 as a Peace Corps liaison with the Korean Ministry of Education and as director of the Population Council in Korea. Her mother supported his work, while continuing her own.

Coffee at Holt Orphanage, 1974 (Contributed photo)

Many of Coffee’s former students established kindergartens in Presbyterian churches in Korea. She wrote curriculum and, at one point, she and George lived at Holt Orphanage, where she trained teachers working with children who had physical and mental disabilities.

Born in South Boston, Va., Oct. 28, 1919, to the Rev. Columbus Wirt Maxwell and Evelyn Nisbet Maxwell, Coffee Worth celebrated her centennial birthday, surrounded by family and friends at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga.

She was known and loved for her resolute faith, selfless concern for others, humility, lively cheerfulness, love of nature and determination She is fondly remembered for her amazing childlike sense of wonder about everything and everyone and, of course, her gift of storytelling.

Here’s a favorite story of Coffee as told in her own words to Josina Guess in an oral history interview conducted last spring. The story is about catching, then setting free, lightning bugs with her late siblings— Edward “Ebby” and Elizabeth “Betty” — when they were young. The adventure took place during a Wednesday evening prayer service at the church her father pastored, First Presbyterian Church in South Boston, Va., adjacent to the parsonage:

“We assigned my brother, Ebby, who was maybe 7 years old, the job of turning off the lights when the time came, and I got the job of unscrewing the jars so the lightning bugs could come out. So . . . ready, set, GO. Ebby turned out the lights. I unscrewed one jar lid, and lightning bugs flew out! And they were lighting the room, the pulpit area! And there was silence, complete silence. And then, I heard my father’s voice from down in the area where they were praying — I heard him say, “Ebby? Louise?” That did it! We scrambled out the door, down the stairs and out into the yard.”

Growing up, the churchyard next door was a vast playground for Coffee and her siblings. In her interview at age 99, she recalled it’s where she learned the joy of giving, during an egg hunt.

In her own words, Coffee said:

“One of the mothers said to me, ‘See that little girl over there? She doesn’t have one single egg in her basket. I bet she’s sad.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, I’ll put some eggs in her basket.’ So I did. She was shorter than I was. When she looked in her basket and saw those eggs, she was so happy, so happy. I thought, ‘Oh, giving away my eggs was fun. I like giving things to people.’ I’ve always liked giving things to people.”

As a young child, Coffee often accompanied her father on pastoral hospital visitations, holding the hand of the patient as her father prayed and shared Scripture to bring comfort. She said her father taught her by example during these hospital visits.

“I learned from observation what compassion for people who were in pain and needed to be noticed [looked like],” Coffee said. “What it was, I saw it acted out.”

Coffee was an active member of Presbyterian churches wherever she lived. She joined First Presbyterian Church of South Boston, Va., at age 7. A faithful participant in Presbyterian Women events, Coffee attended Presbyterian Women synod gatherings and triennials for more than two decades. Last year she received a Presbyterian Women lifetime membership from Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga., and wore the pin every Sunday. For nearly a year, while living with her daughter Evelyn and son-in-law, Cary, in Lakeland, Florida, Coffee attended worship and Presbyterian Women circles. She joined First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland as an affiliate member one month before she died.

Looking back on her life, Coffee said, “I do things in 20-year stands, as it turns out.” She had 20 growing-up years as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Virginia and North Carolina; 20 years of teaching elementary school, working with college students through the Presbyterian church, meeting her husband and starting their family; 20 years as a mission worker in Korea; 20 years as a community member of Koinonia Partners intentional Christian community; and, as it happened, a little over 20 years living in the Jubilee Partners community.

In 1975, after Coffee and George returned to the U.S., they moved to Koinonia Farm, an intentional Christian community in Americus, Ga. As a member of Koinonia Partners, Coffee served as youth director and worked with colleagues to strengthen the outreach of Koinonia’s Child Development Center to the African American community.

From 1982–84, the Worths were invited back to Korea to assist with mission reorganization before and after the PC(USA) reunion in 1983, which ended a split dating from the U.S. Civil War. Their time there during the early 1980s was a time of political unrest in Korea. Coffee and George were supportive of the families of prisoners of conscience. Coffee served in Christian education teacher training and assisted Vietnamese refugees — women who were learning to be self-sufficient by producing income from the sweaters they made and sold.

Coffee’s beloved husband, George, developed Alzheimer’s and passed away in 1996. She moved to the Jubilee Partners community in Comer, Ga., where she taught English to refugees, walking a half-mile to school at age 80. She also devoted herself to peace and justice causes.

Photo contributed by Jubilee Partners

For her service to God and humanity, Coffee was honored in 2010 with the Alumni Distinguished Service Award at UNC-Greensboro and in 1991 the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

In 1954, as they entered the gate of the Presbyterian compound in Seoul, Korea, for the first time, driving by a church that had been bombed, the sound of familiar music was unmistakable. Coffee turned to George and said, “We know that hymn!”

They joined in the third verse of “This Is My Father’s World,” singing “That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” This was a comforting confirmation of their call — one they would recount many times.

“What a way to enter the mission field,” they said. “We knew that God was there; it wasn’t just us.”

A memorial service will be held for Louise Maxwell “Coffee” Worth at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia, at a date to be announced after social-distancing restrictions are lifted. She is survived by son David Worth and daughter Evelyn Worth McMullen and their spouses; two grandsons and their spouses; two granddaughters; a daughter-in-law; three sisters-in-law; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Memorial gifts may be directed to: Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); Jubilee Partners of Comer, Ga.; or Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia.

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