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100 Years of Hope and Care

A group of children posing outdoors in a rural setting, showcasing a snapshot of life from a bygone era.

The Rev. Dr. Beth Sanders, North West District Superintendent of the North Georgia Annual Conference, United Methodist Church, and member of Murphy-Harpst Children’s Centers Board of Directors, preached at the October annual meeting of the Conference’s United Women in Faith at Smyrna First United Methodist Church. She addressed the theme of the meeting – We Believe in Love in Action that Changes the World – with the scripture 1 John 3:16-19, and drew upon the life of Sarah McLendon Murphy, co-founder of Murphy-Harpst.

“God is love, and Jesus is God’s love in action,” Rev. Sanders began, “God’s love in action that we see and experience in Jesus is all compassion, a cross-shaped compassion, that touches everyone, including those left out and left behind. This sacrificial love and compassion reveals the life expected of those who believe in Jesus Christ. We believe in love in action that changes the world.”

Rev. Sanders reminded the gathered that the Methodist Women’s Home Missionary Society had appointed Miss Ethel Harpst to Cedartown, where she would establish a children’s home a century ago, and that it was two faithful women at the heart of what is today Murphy-Harpst Children’s Centers. She illuminated her research on the life of Sarah Murphy.* Born in 1892 to former enslaved persons, Sarah lost her mother at age 4. By 12, she was selling mail-order flavorings to support the household. At 13 she attended an industrial school in nearby Rome, landing a teaching job that funded her leaving home to attend Spelman College.

“Yet something kept her spirit of compassion uneasy,” Sanders explained. “She dreamt that she was walking ‘alongside a great canal. It was deep and swift, and on the other side was a fence. There was a woman in the canal digging the ground out from under me about as fast as I could walk. I was fenced in all around. Then I came to a gate. I heard a voice say, ‘Go through the gate, Sarah, and help your people.’”

Leaving Spelman to return home to open a school in Grady, she married Marion, called “Shug.” They welcomed a daughter, Divinia, and Sarah earned her degree studying summers at Spelman, while continuing to serve the children in her community. Yet tragedy visited, with the sudden death of Divinia. A broken heart did not cloud Sarah’s compassion. Caring for a neighbor who would die in childbirth, Sarah’s love moved her to action that changed her and other’s lives.

“The woman’s husband has long left,” Sanders told the gathered. “There was no food. At daybreak, spent and weary, Sarah bundled up the new baby, gathered the five older children and took them down the road to her house. That was when Sarah became ‘Mama Sarah.'”

As more children arrived in years following, Sarah saw that the vision of the gate she had seen at Spelman was about more than teaching, but also about feeding and clothing vulnerable children. “You come right in here,” said Mama Sarah. “We’ll make room.” Children continued to arrive at her door; reaching upwards of 50.

What came next changed Sarah’s life, said Sanders. “Sarah’s strength and courage was beginning to falter. She decided to put it up to the Lord she had believed in and trusted all her life. She got down on her knees and prayed. ‘If I’m intended to go on, God, send me a sign. A dollar, God, send just one dollar.’ She took a walk to hear a word from the Lord. When she came back, a little boy ran to meet her, waving a crumpled dirty one-dollar bill. ‘Look what I found by the railroad track, Mama Sarah!’ It was the sign Sarah needed to keep going.”

Sara was encouraged further when she won $1000 from a national radio Good Neighbor Award, inspiring dreams of a “real home” with modern comforts. Yet setbacks came. A fire burned the homestead while Sarah was out. Marion and the older children rescued all save for one infant. The tragedy gripped the community, which rallied to set up lodging in the schoolhouse and raised $45,000 to make the children’s home a reality. Shug did not live to see it built. Sarah would soon follow, stricken while working to ready the home.

Recalling the words from 1 John, Sanders concluded. “Though it all, Sarah Murphy believed in love in action, leaving a legacy of compassion for those in need. Though Mama Sarah and Miss Ethel did not work side by side in life, their legacies merged in 1984 when the Women’s Division brought the two homes together. Today Murphy-Harpst Children’s Centers is their legacy of love in action that changes the world.”


*Rev. Sanders learned many of the stories of Sarah Murphy’s life and inspiration from the revised edition of the book Mothers are Always Special, by famed Atlanta journalist and storyteller, Celestine Sibley (1985. Peachtree Publishers).