Edna Mae (Stone) Combs, American Baptist Foreign Society (ABFMS) alumna passed away peacefully on August 3, 2020, at the age of 91, from complications related to Alzheimer’s.
Edna was born on July 28, 1929, in St Paul, Minnesota to Albert and Evelyn (Ashby) Stone. Edna spent her early years in northern Wisconsin on a farm. She attended a one-room schoolhouse as a young child, where she and her younger sibling were the only African American children. She lost her father when she was about eleven years old. The family of six children returned to St. Paul where her mother later remarried, and four younger siblings were born. Edna wrote in her ABFMS application: “…the twelve of us began a rather ordinary and for the most part happy period of “being raised” and growing up.”
At seventeen, Edna made the decision to join the fellowship of the Christian church. The pastor, Rev. Floyd Massey, was a great influence on Edna and her religious experience grew greatly. She was active in youth programs at Pilgrim Baptist Church, which her great-grandparents had helped to establish. Edna also volunteered and worked at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center where she first met Milton (Milt), Combs. Following graduation from high school in 1947, Edna went on to study business at Rasmussen’s Business School. Edna and Milt Combs were married on June 28, 1949.
Together, they then ventured forth to get the necessary training for full-time Christian service. Edna began her studies at Macalester College (where Milt also studied) but withdrew with the arrival of her firstborn. In 1952, Edna and Milt, along with three young children, drove to Berkeley, California where Milt pursued his divinity studies at the American Baptist Seminary of the West. Edna managed the household and was also Milt’s study partner, independently auditing classes at the seminary, often learning the gospel as well as, if not better than Milt. It did not take long for Edna to realize the opportunity for service on the foreign field.
During their first year in Berkeley, they shared a dwelling place with two returned missionary families. Through fellowship with them, and through association with the foreign students in seminary, Edna and Milt began to understand clearly the needs of those who do not know Christ in other nations. Edna wrote: “Although I feel very inadequate to accept so important a service for the Lord, I feel at the same time that those things I seemingly lack will be given. I believe that through faith and effort on my part and through the power of the Master to take our limited gifts and make them adequate, I will be able to fulfill the task at hand.”
In November 1955 Edna and Milt, were appointed by the ABFMS as the first African American missionaries in the post-WWII era. The family moved to Cornell University in New York where Milt completed his BD while waiting for their missionary assignment. Arriving in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1957, news media reported that they were the first African Americans assigned to Burma by the ABFMS. Not quite two years later, their fourth child, Roy, was reported as the first African American born in Burma.
Edna and Milt became fluent in the Burmese and Karen languages. Edna used her farming skills learned in Wisconsin and her missionary training to assist with agricultural projects. She also taught classes in childhood health and hygiene. Along with Mr. and Mrs. Paul Clasper, Edna and Milt integrated the traditional Baptist social circles. Edna and Milt served five years in Burma (Myanmar), learning much about the diversity of the Burmese people, their culture, their faiths and practices, and their hopes and dreams. Edna had a warm, outgoing personality and a real gift for entering into the needs of the lives of those with whom she associated. Edna and the family returned to the United States shortly after the March 1962 military coup d’état in Burma.
The Combs family moved to Richmond, California where they lived for over 20 years, becoming active in civic and community affairs before building their dream home in Kensington. Edna loved children, reading, music, and gardening. She was a tireless community organizer and advocate for youth and public education in Richmond. She demonstrated her deep Christian faith through action and not just words.
Edna returned to college to become an educator earning her bachelor’s degree in 1971. Her teaching philosophy was grounded in the unwavering belief in the ability of all children to succeed, in school and life, if loved, respected, encouraged, and taught well. In 1972, at the age of 42, Edna became an elementary teacher in the Vallejo City Unified School District where she taught for over 20 years before retiring.
Retirement did not slow Edna down. She remained active by consulting with her daughter’s business, grandparenting, gardening, and sharing her love of music and literature. In her final years, Edna confronted the challenges of Alzheimer’s with dignity and grace, and at times unabashed humor, while never forgetting the name of her husband and often reminding people that “God is here.”
Edna is survived by her husband of over 71 years, Milt Sr., five children: Milt Jr., Karyn, Kris and her husband Rudy, Roy and his wife Barbara, and John; nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren as well as three brothers, one sister and a host of nieces and nephews.
An online Memorial Celebration for Edna will take place on Sunday afternoon, August 23, 2020, at 3:00 p.m. (PST). For more information on the Memorial Celebration or to send condolences please email the family at EdnaCombsMemorial@gmail.com.