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Lillie Carraway's legacy: Fighting for purity ...
3 generations strong

By John W. Kennedy

Early in life Lillie Carraway didn’t seem destined to become a champion of sexual purity. Her parents divorced soon after she turned 13. When her mother moved to Cleveland, Carraway stayed in Cincinnati with her dad, who turned to alcohol soon after the marriage dissolved.

Carraway sought solace from her broken home with her boyfriend, and found herself pregnant at age 15. Although illegal in 1948, some relatives saw abortion as the only solution to the dilemma. Yet Carraway’s mother arranged for her to move to a home for unwed pregnant girls — even though she had married the boyfriend. The marriage didn’t last.

The young teenage girl agreed to give up her newborn for adoption. Standard hospital protocol at the time called for a nurse to quickly whisk the infant away so that the birth mother didn’t have an opportunity to bond with the child. Yet the night nurse on duty neglected to read the chart, and brought the baby to Carraway for a feeding. Carraway changed her mind, and decided to keep the little girl.

The new mother named her baby Phyllis — after a comic strip character she had seen in a newspaper. Although Carraway dropped out of school in 10th grade, her mother insisted during her final semester that school officials permit her to take business courses normally reserved for white students.

At 21, Carraway and Phyllis moved to New York, where Carraway found work as a clerk for Reader’s Digest and later for Consumer Reports. However, drinking and partying occupied much of the nonworking time of Carraway and the man with whom she lived.

Meanwhile, Phyllis proceeded through adolescence and at age 13 accepted Jesus as her Savior at a local Pentecostal church. Every night, Phyllis prayed loudly in her bedroom for her mother’s salvation. Carraway repeatedly told her daughter to keep quiet.

Phyllis kept evangelizing, but her mother kept resisting. Carraway and her by now common-law husband continued to spend much of their time carousing, boozing and arguing. Deep down, Carraway felt she had a miserable existence.

As she turned 20, Phyllis made arrangements to marry her fiancé, Ostell Shippy, a street evangelist who made Jesus his Savior through Teen Challenge ministry. The joyous occasion didn’t brighten Carraway’s outlook. She bought sleeping pills, with the intention of ending her life on her daughter’s wedding night.

A week before the ceremony, Carraway became so distraught she had to be hospitalized. Even sedatives did nothing to stop her shaking and crying. Phyllis approached her mother one last time to talk about the Lord. “Mom, you’ve tried drinking, men and everything else; why not try Jesus?” Phyllis asked her. Then she walked out.

Carraway fell to her knees and confessed her sins. She felt burdens lift and God’s forgiveness fill her life. That night marked an end to her eight-year nightly ritual of downing a six-pack of beer and a half pint of scotch.

“It turned out I had carried my salvation in my womb,” Carraway says. “My only child — who I thought was a mistake — was a gift from God.”

Carraway moved back to Cincinnati and soon became active in children’s and youth ministries at Tri County Assembly of God. She joined a local ministry, Christians United Reaching Everyone (CURE), and made helping others her full-time vocation. She sponsored neighborhood Bible clubs at her home. She fed poor people in the inner city. She helped young mothers learn about nutrition and child-rearing.

Meanwhile, Phyllis and Ostell Shippy began ministering to high-risk kids at a 12-bedroom Cincinnati foster home. They started raising three teenage daughters of their own, Rachel, Deborah and Leah.

Carraway’s ministry focus changed when she found a note that Deborah, her then-15-year-old granddaughter, had written to a girlfriend about her sexual experiences. When confronted, Deborah told her grandmother the truth.

“I can’t tell people I’m a virgin because nobody will be my friend,” Deborah told her grandmother. “I had to lie to be accepted.”

Carraway decided the time had come to gather those friends for a heart-to-heart talk. In all, 21 girls came for that first meeting in 1986 in the Shippy living room to learn how to say no to boys pressuring them for sexual intercourse. The girls asked to meet again the next week, and then the next.

Every week Carraway and Shippy planned a lesson. As had been the case two generations earlier, Carraway understood a primary reason girls engage in sexual intercourse is peer pressure. Carraway and Shippy formally organized the group, which the young people dubbed Teens Against Premarital Sex (TAPS).

The next year teenage boys in the neighborhood lobbied Carraway to teach them how to remain sexually pure, so the group became co-educational.

Motivational speakers came in to talk about self-esteem. The youths learned about social skills. Attendees started taking trips to colleges and historical sites around the nation. The group expanded to elementary school students because Carraway discovered too many girls already had engaged in intercourse by the time they started junior high.

TAPS became the first program approved by the Cincinnati Board of Education to teach abstinence from primary grades through high school.

“The kids really listened,” says Shippy, whose husband died in 1997. “No one had ever told them they had the option to say no.”

Carraway wrote a grant application and TAPS received government funds that expanded the abstinence education program into schools. The three granddaughters began speaking to young people. Using her own life’s story, Carraway encouraged pregnant unwed teens never to abort the baby who might turn their lives around.

Within a decade, TAPS had spread to 80 Cincinnati schools and reached 27,000 young people. The group is now aligned with the Abstinence Educators’ Network, a national organization, which teaches 7,000 students annually.

While with CURE, Carraway attended various missions conferences, which sparked a desire to minister overseas. She went on a two-week trip to Nigeria in 1999 where she worked with youth abstinence advocates to make presentations in Gboko, a city of 170,000.

“I wept because I felt a kindred spirit,” Carraway says. The presentations to as many as 500 youth at a time brought requests for her to return the next year to train others. Today her overseas ministry to orphans and especially children who are HIV-positive is extremely effective.

The ministry tradition continues with Carraway’s granddaughters. Rachel Chima is a national abstinence educator who frequently works with the Assemblies of God’s National Youth Ministries. Deborah has opened a home for teen girls, which is supported by First Christian Assembly of God. Leah Shippy-Crew works with youth who have dropped out of school.

No one is more grateful than Phyllis, who attends First Christian Assembly of God in Cincinnati and married D.R. Sandy Messer in March. “Mom has been a great encourager for the whole family to work with those who might be considered the castaways of society,” Phyllis says. “She is a pioneer in moving outside the perimeters of what is considered normal.”

The irony of God’s providence isn’t lost on the family. It’s been quite a journey for a confused 15-year-old girl who would have relinquished her only child if not for a hospital mix-up. Now, at 73, Carraway is dedicated to teaching thousands of young people on two continents the benefits of remaining sexually pure.

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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