Dreams come true for former Buffalo Island resident
Wanna Burks Branch of Zachary, La., grew up near the cotton fields in the Vail community near Bryant Gin. The oldest of six children of the late Charles and Fannie Burks, she is enjoying what some people call the "senior years" serving as a missionary. She recently returned from a missionary trip to Iraq that proved to be an eye opening, but rewarding, experience.
"I'm having the time of my life," Branch said. "Who would have thought that barefoot girl from Vail would someday have the opportunity to travel around the world."
Branch has become an international speaker/teacher. Her missionary work has taken her to Russia, Columbia, South America, South Korea, Haiti, Mexico, China, Africa, and the Philippines. Her longest trips have been two years in Russia and six months in Columbia.
She shows no signs of slowing down even though she is 70 years of age. On one of her last flights, she met a woman that was 85 and on her way to Afghanastan.
"That made me think I have a lot of years left. I just ask God for help and depend on one of my favorite scriptures, I can do all things through God who strengthens me," Branch said.
Branch is the mother of four grown children, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of one.
During her two year stay in Russia, the children from one of the orphanages she visited started calling her their American Granny.
When Branch surrendered to mission work and "stepped out on faith," she said she had no idea where it would take her.
She went on her first mission trip in 1977 to South Korea. She has been very active in missionary travels since 1990.
Branch is in the area visiting with her siblings, Linda Rushing of Leachville, Fred Burks of Manila and Glen Burks of Jonesboro. While here, she agreed to share the experiences from her recent missionary trip to Iraq. She was with a group of 15 from the World Mission Alliance.
The trip got off to a shaky start and Branch admits that she had never had as many problems getting to where she needed to be. She left New Orleans on March 31 headed for Memphis. First she encountered a two-hour delay due to airplane mechanical problems. Enroute to Amsterdam, Holland, a man on board had a heart attack. The plane had to make an emergency landing in Goose Bay, Canada.
"We had to wait while customs and immigration debated on who had authority over the plane. Eventually the airline said we had to fly back to the States. The pilots could fly no more than two more hours and we were three hours from our destination. So we ended up back in Detroit," Branch said.
Because they had landed on foreign soil, the baggage had to be rechecked with 160 passengers on board the plane. That took about four more hours.
"By this time, I was asking God if I missed him. By now I had missed both my connections, I had no phone numbers to try to catch up with the team, and I was thinking seriously about going back home," Branch said.
She doesn't know why, but for some reason, she took her badge, identifying the missionary group, out of her bag and pinned it on.
"I think God sent me an angel in the form of Mary. I did not have any idea that someone with the group was on the plane with me. When she saw my badge, she approached me. She had her cell phone and had already alerted the mission agency of where we were. All of the heaviness was lifted from me. That is the only time I questioned God if I should be there," Branch said.
The two arrived in Amman, Jordan, one day late but ready to meet the task ahead of them.
Branch said a familiar face, a fellow missionary she had worked with in China, was at the airport waiting for them. After gathering their luggage they headed across the dessert to Baghdad.
"Surprisingly, I went to sleep and did not wake up until we arrived," she said.
"When I started planning the trip to Iraq, it was fairly calm but two days before we arrived was the day the four contractors were tortured and killed and the calmness had disappeared," Branch said.
The group arrived with medical supplies, school supplies, clothing and 4,500 Bibles. Due to the violence earlier in the week, some of the churches and people had cancelled some of their appointments. It was unsafe to travel to other cities.
"Our plans were to minister to our soldiers but they were so busy, we only had the opportunity to talk to a few," Branch said. "The police officers had left the streets and we did feel unsafe."
Branch said in all of her travels, she has only felt unsafe twice -- in Iraq and in Haiti. As in Iraq, her group had a difficult time leaving Haiti.
While in Iraq, the mission team divided into groups traveling in three vans with drivers and interrupters. Branch said there are seven churches in Baghdad and they are growing.
"One is already up to 500 members," she said. "We went into homes and met with the Christians. The Christians in Iraq are living in fear for their families."
In addition to visiting in homes, they visited children in the orphanage.
"It may not have been safe, but surprisingly, none of our group was afraid. We went on doing what we came to do," she said. "The churches had been threatened that they would be bombed if they had any association with the Americans. If any of our team had been captured, our interpreter and driver would have been killed."
There is a $20,000 bounty being offering for the capture of Americans.
"Needless to say our enemy is at work," Branch said.
When it came time to leave, the danger was still not over for the missionary group. They found out that the roads to Jordan were blocked and a trap was in place. General Georges Sada, vice minister of defense, tried to get the group a military plane but could not. They finally chartered a plane.
"God was with us," Branch said. "I wanted to go to Iraq to let the people know that they are loved. If our soldiers can go and risk their lives, how dare me not go. I want to call all of America to pray for our soldiers, our leaders, the new leaders of Iraq, and the Iraqi people."
Branch said the news media does not tell the whole story. Good things are happening there.
"Our soldiers treat the children with love and respect. Not everyone there hates Americans," she said.
She said she was pleasantly surprised to see so many of the beautiful buildings still standing. The streets and countryside were cleaner than she expected to see in a war torn area. Many of the areas still do not have power restored.
Branch said she has no regrets about going to Iraq even though she did not feel safe as she did in other countries.
"I've never felt safer than when I was in Russia," Branch said. "I hitchhiked everywhere I went. We planted three churches in two years in Russia. We harvested what others planted. Many Russians died so we could be there. It was absolutely beautiful."
She spent a lot of time in a 500 year old Indian Village in Mexico. She lived with the people and worked with them.
"They begged me to stay when it was time for me to go. If I had been younger, I may have considered it," Branch said.
Branch has a wonderful story on God's work from each and every place she has been.
She has shared her work by speaking at women's conferences, women's retreat and individual churches. Persons interested in having her speak can contact her at: Hands to Serve: Missionary, Wanna Branch, 3204 Highway 19, Zachary, LA 70791; phone 225-654-7464, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
She raises her own funding for her trips and appreciates everyone that has helped in her ministry.
She is not ready to retire. She said she would like to go to other places including Thailand, Chili, Singapore and back to Africa.
"I am proof that God can use anyone," Branch said.
Branch attended school at Rocky before going to Leachville High School. She said she always loved geography and learning about people's cultures.
"I always wanted to know what people ware, what crops they grow, and anything else I could find out," she said.
Instead of just studying it from a book, Branch is finding her answers first hand.
She can remember as a child sitting with her mother and being told that it doesn't matter what color skin a person has, everyone is the same inside. Branch has never forgot her roots in Northeast Arkansas, the things she was taught as a child and the importance of sharing with others as she travels in the United States or in foreign countries.