Joyce Rice and Mary Jo Swaim still teaching first graders after 35 years
By Lonnie Wilkey
COVINGTON — Joyce Rice and Mary Jo Swaim have been friends for more than 35 years. More importantly, however, they have teamed up to share the love of Jesus Christ with first graders at First Baptist Church, Covington, over that same period of time.
Church leaders estimate that the two women have shown Jesus’ love and the plan of salvation to about 1,000 children over those 35 years of teaching together.
The two women agree that the opportunity to teach the Bible to children at a young age when they’re eager to learn has been gratifying.
Rice noted that First Baptist gives every first grader a Bible. “As the year passes, we are able to teach them how to find their Bible verses and Bible stories without looking at the table of contents,” she said. “They are able to see these are true stories passed down to us by God,” Rice added.
“When they leave first grade, it’s a pleasure to see how much they have learned, but it’s also exciting to anticipate the new first graders who will be coming in because they’re a new blank slate,” Rice said.
Swaim observed that the “bond you develop with the kids and the lasting relationship you have with each of them” is one of the things she has enjoyed the most about teaching.
The two women also share a special bond with each other. They knew each other before they began teaching together and their children were best of friends and their daughters were roommates together at Union University in Jackson. “Our families did and still do things together,” Swaim said.
Over the years they divided up the lesson plans and shared responsibilities in teaching. “We’ve done it different ways over the years,” they agreed.
Their love for the children and faithfulness to teach them the Word of God has made a lasting impression on the children they taught as well as First Baptist pastor Chuck Williams.
Responding to how the women have impacted the life of the church, Williams said two words come to mind: dedication and concern. “These two ladies have had hundreds of children pass through their class. Every one of the children were important to these ladies,” he observed.
He noted that when they discovered special needs of any of the children they did their best to meet those needs. “They set a high standard for what a Sunday School teacher is supposed to be,” Williams said.
Sara White is the children’s director at First Baptist. She knows better than most the ministry of “Mrs. Mary Jo and Mrs. Joyce.”
“They have impacted my life and the life of First Baptist in a lot of ways,” White shared. Noting that she is now 41 years old, she said the two ladies taught her as a first grader. “They helped teach me at an early age to hide God’s Word in my heart,” she recalled.
“As an adult, they continue to impact my life as well as the lives of other ladies by serving as godly role models. Not only do they teach children but they are also very active in other areas of ministry, such as serving in Woman’s Missionary Union, preparing and helping with funeral meals, or sewing dresses to send to children overseas. These two ladies are true servants of God,” White said.
Church member and communications director Kendra Parr also was taught as a first grader by the two long-time friends and co-teachers. “They have been role models to me my whole life,” she related. “Their faithful and humble dedication to the place of service God called them to is inspiring,” Parr added.
She observed that she often heard people say “it’s not my season to work with children” or that “I’ve paid my dues.” “I’ve never heard either of these ladies even hint at not wanting to teach,” Parr said.
Now married with children of her own, Parr noted that “both of my children have had the privilege to be in their Sunday School class. What an honor it is to know these ladies have made a generational impact in the life of my family,” she said.
From a pastor’s perspective, Rice and Swaim have made his job easier. “I never had to worry about ‘will they show, will they be prepared or will they show Christ’s love to all who are present?’ As a pastor, that is a huge blessing,” Williams said.
For the two teachers, just seeing the children they taught grow up to be adults and active church members has been a blessing to them.
“It is such a pleasure to see boys and girls we taught in first grade become young men and women who are taking leadership roles in the church as they have matured,” Rice observed. She told of a missions trip following Hurricane Katrina during which a teenager put his arm around her and said, “Miss Joyce, did you ever think you’d be on a missions trip with me?”
“Truthfully,” she said, “I’d never thought about that but I had prayed over the years that God would call someone we’d taught to missions or ministry.”
Though Swaim has battled cancer in recent years, neither lady has thought about giving up their teaching. “I plan to teach as long as possible,” Rice said and her friend and co-worker was quick to agree. “We have not made any plans at this time.”
For members of First Baptist, that’s good news concerning the ladies who mean so much to the FBC family. B&R