Writer, missions advocate Marti Hefley, dies at 70

by Joni B. Hannigan, posted Tuesday, June 01, 2004 (14 years ago)

HANNIBAL, Mo. (BP)--Known for her lively storytelling, author Marti Lou Smedley Hefley, 70, died May 30 at her home in Hannibal, Mo., after a lengthy illness. Hefley was preceded in death by her husband, James C. Hefley Jr., a key chronicler of the conservative resurgence in the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, who died March 20.

Marti Hefley also was a trustee of the former Southern Baptist Home Mission Board.

A celebration service is planned for both Hefleys at Immanuel Baptist Church in Hannibal at 11 a.m. June 5. Larry Lewis, former president of the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board), will officiate, along with pastor Mark Albee. Lewis is currently a mission church pastor and the national facilitator for the Mission America Coalition.

A family spokesperson said Hefley died peacefully with loved ones surrounding her, holding her hand, speaking softly to her and praying with her.

“The family will remember Marti as being passionate and enthusiastic in her love for the Lord, her husband, children and grandchildren. They will remember her beautiful big smile and twinkling blue eyes. Marti enjoyed quilting, painting, gardening and, above all, cheering for her beloved Chicago Cubs,” the spokesperson said.

Hefley served from 1989-97 as a trustee of the mission board, serving in 1996 as second vice president.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Hefley taught communications and drama courses at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Hannibal, where she founded the “New Edition Drama Troupe.”

Lewis, who was president of HLG at the time when the Hefleys were hired to teach there -- and then was HMB president when Marti Hefley served as a trustee -- said he remembers Marti as an “inspiration” and “just a joy to be around.”

“I don’t think I can remember a time when Marti wasn’t smiling, bubbly and full of enthusiasm,” Lewis said, describing her enthusiasm for people, missions and writing.

Recalling a chapel service at the college when she was asked to lead a missions commitment service, Lewis said Hefley told one story after another of missionaries who had gone out and given their lives for service.

“She had those students in the palm of her hand,” Lewis said, recounting that more than 30 young adults responded to the missions call -- the largest he had witnessed in more than seven years at the school.

In addition to her love for missions, Lewis said he also was impressed by Hefley’s significant contributions in Christian communications.

“Both of them had this lifelong ministry of writing, apart from anything Southern Baptist,” Lewis said of the Hefleys. “With many of the books Jim wrote coauthored by Marti, she had a significant part in the ministry.”

In his teens when he first met the Hefleys, Jerry B. Jenkins, coauthor of The New York Times best-selling “Left Behind” series, remembers Jim and Marti as “warm and generous” individuals who were “eager for updates and ever helpful with counsel.”

“What a wonderful legacy both have left,” Jenkins said.

Born in Traverse City, Mich., Marti Hefley coauthored “By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century” (Baker book House), which won the Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1980.

She traveled to more than 50 countries to cover dozens of stories of inspiration, hope and intrigue. She wrote and coauthored dozens of other books including “In His Steps Today” (updated, Hannibal Books, 1991), modeled after the classic by Charles M. Sheldon; “No Time for Tombstones: Life and Death in the Vietnamese Jungle” (Christians Publications, 1974); “The Liberated Palestinian” (Victor Books, 1975); “God’s Tribesman” (Victor Books, 1976); “Assignment in the Philippines” (Moody Publishers, 1984); and “The Secret File on John Birch” (Hannibal Books, 1995).

Hefley also coauthored the authorized biographies of President Jimmy Carter (“The Church that Produced a President,” Wyden Books, 1977) and the founder of Wycliff Bible Translators, Cam Townsend (“Uncle Cam,” Word Books, 1974).

In a November 2003 interview at the family home in Hannibal, Hefley told a story about her favorite Scripture verse, 1 Corinthians 2:9, “... Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

Hefley said she claimed the verse as a “brand-new Christian,” on her knees before the Lord, not realizing it was commonly used at funerals.

“Leave it to me to have a life verse that is something for a funeral,” she smiled, reminiscing.

The verse was perfect for one who went from “being a 16-year-old little girl living in government projects without a nickel to ride a ferry to seeing the pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal,” Hefley said.

Sharing her love for her family and her life of working together with her husband, Hefley said their unique gifts worked in tandem.

“I could always do better with giving people character and describing people,” Hefley said. “He could get more facts in a 1,200-word article and make it more readable than anyone I know.”

About the most important thing in her life, Hefley said, “Oh, my children, apart from the Lord, of course. Being a mother is the most special thing to me. Absolutely.”

After their three daughters were born, Hefley said she tried to take them along on most of their assignments.

“How many kids get to play with the daughter of the Russian ambassador or set up to play war at Uncle Cam’s house in Waxau, N.C.?” she asked. Or ride in a canoe on the Amazon River or sleep in a missionary hut deep in the jungle? The Hefley girls, of course.

Facing certain death from illness, Hefley said last year she broke the news to her Sunday School class by bringing in some really “gooey” donuts and inviting them to munch down on what had been considered “forbidden fruit.” Some of the ladies burst into tears, Hefley recounted, when she told them she was going to die anyway so she might as well enjoy the sugar while she could.

Even on the brink of death, Hefley recalled offering comfort to those who called to comfort her.

“A friend of mine called me up long distance and he was going to try and cheer me up,” said Hefley, chuckling. “He sounded so pitiful.

“I was just telling him, ‘When you get to the end of your life, and you have so many blessings, and so many people who love you -- I have no regrets.’ I have lived such a fantastic life and got to go to all of these places and meet all of these, God’s choicest people, and it’s just amazing,’” Hefley said she told him. “It’s my life verse worked out.”

Ever positive, Hefley said she counted on a lifetime of faith and memories to keep her encouraged.

“I don’t need any cheering up,” Hefley said. “I have a faith that sustains me, a faith that really works. To know where we stand scripturally, to know you’ve been forgiven for all your sins, the Lord is waiting on you and you have eternal life. I don’t have to be sad.”

Marti Hefley earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible from Hannibal-LaGrange College and subsequently studied at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Mississippi College.

Survivors include her mother, Leona Smedley of New Orleans; three daughters and their husbands, Cyndi Joy and Kent Taylor of Hannibal; Cecilia Faith and Ernest Benoit of Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Cheri Grace and Steve Grubbs of Chattanooga; and eight grandchildren.

Visitation will be 6-8 p.m. June 4 at the James O'Donnell Funeral Home, 302 S. Fifth St., Hannibal, Mo. Memorials may be made to the James C. Hefley Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Cecilia Benoit, 31 Holiday Dr., Hannibal, MO 63401, or in honor of Marti Hefley to Blessing Hospice, Quincy, Ill.


Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, the weekly newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. She is a 1992 graduate of Hannibal LaGrange College and a former student of both Marti and Jim Hefley. -- All of the Hefleys’ books currently are in print can be ordered through Hannibal Books' website (www.hannibalbooks.com) or toll-free number (1-800-747-0738).

(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MARTI HEFLEY.

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