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Woman spends decades serving church's children

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

In the 45 years that Elizabeth Lee, 73, has been a member of Riverdale Presbyterian Church, she has attended only a handful of services.

Most of her Sundays have been spent one floor below the sanctuary tending to the children of worshippers.

"The preacher who was here, Bill Satterwhite, he was the first person who asked me to come to church," Lee said. "I felt wanted, and I've been here ever since."

A native of Atlanta, Lee married a plumber at the age of 15, leaving Roosevelt High School, near Grant Park, before having a chance to graduate. In 1964, she moved to Adams Drive in Riverdale and, soon after, found her way to Riverdale Presbyterian Church.

Since getting married in 1952, Lee hasn't had a formal job, aside from taking care of her four boys and four girls and running a small nursery from her home. A few months after arriving at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, she decided to apply her child-rearing skills to the ministry.

Betty Freeman, a member of the church since 1960, remembers Lee becoming the foundation of the church's nursery very quickly. "It was very quick ... just the first couple of months," she said. "She had a real gift of communicating with children. It was amazing to watch. She's so levelheaded. She doesn't get frustrated. Even when she wasn't talking to them, she would look at them and they would look at her. You could see the communication."

Over the years, as the demographics of Riverdale has changed, so have the faces of the members of the church's congregation. While many members moved to other counties and other churches over the years, Lee has been a constant figure in the church's basement nursery, engaging children with puzzles, stories, coloring books, and building blocks.

Rev. Yolanda Thompson, who has been the church's full-time pastor since February, said that despite the fact many of the church's members come from different countries, Lee has provided the children of the church with a constant, calming presence.

"This congregation made a decision in the late 1970s to stay," said Thompson. "A lot of the members left. I admire the fact that when people were fleeing Riverdale, her heart was open to taking care of children from diverse backgrounds. There are children here from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, the Congo, and Korea. She has laid hands on all those children.

"When you research church nurseries, they will always say pick the right people," to run them, Thompson added. "God equips us for what needs to be done. Elizabeth has the gift to wait for children. She has that temperament to know what children need."

In addition to her duties at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, Lee has also worked as a babysitter at Morrow First United Methodist Church for the last 14 years. She said she has no plans of giving up her day job anytime soon.

"I know I'm getting old, but I don't want to quit," she said. "I like to do it. I like being here."

Thompson said that while Lee has not sat in on many of her sermons, her presence has been vital to the church's success. "The nursery allows the children to be free, and not confined to an adult setting -- allowing the parents to be free," Thompson said. "Elizabeth being here contributes to everyone getting the maximum joy out of the church experience. [The nursery] is her pulpit, and she is the pastor for the children."