Missionary’s love for her state includes its pockets of poverty

EDITORS’ NOTE: March 4-11 marks the 2007 Week of Prayer for North American missions. This is the fourth of eight stories in Baptist Press featuring North American Mission Board missionaries and their ministries supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)--When the North American Mission Board and the Arkansas Baptist Convention appointed Diana Lewis as state ministry evangelism director nearly 15 years ago, it was a bittersweet assignment.

“I am a missionary in Arkansas, my home state, so it’s a lot of fun for me,” Lewis said. “I get to travel all over my home state and work with churches that are conducting ministries in the local mission fields.

“Arkansas’ nickname,” she continued, “is ‘The Natural State.’ We have lots of beautiful state parks, lakes, rivers, mountains and farmland. We go from the [Mississippi] Delta to the edge of the Ozark Mountains. It’s a very, very beautiful state.” And whether it’s winning football or basketball, Arkansans are proud of their University of Arkansas Razorbacks.

But Lewis also would be the first to tell you about the other parts and pictures of Arkansas that aren’t played up in travel brochures or flashed during network TV broadcasts of Razorback football games each fall.

In these areas, kids don’t get enough food. Seniors choose between nutrition or buying their prescriptions. Children lack supplies when school starts in the fall, warm coats when Arkansas’ winter comes.

“In Arkansas, there are some counties –- at least three -- where over half of the children live in poverty,” Lewis said. “Statewide, about a fourth of the children and senior adults live in poverty. This requires the need for many ministries to help these poverty-stricken people.”

Diana Lewis is among the 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. She’s one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 4-11. The 2007 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $57 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like Lewis.

“Now, much of my work as a missionary is traveling all over the state -- helping, encouraging and telling our churches about the mission fields right here in Arkansas,” Lewis said.

Much of her time is spent on a Southern Baptist project -– the Mississippi River Ministry – which started in 1992 following a comprehensive government study commissioned along the lower Mississippi River.

“This study pointed out the tremendous poverty along both sides of the Mississippi River,” Lewis said, “so we began this project to call attention to this huge mission field right in the midst of where we live. Arkansas’ Southern Baptist churches could get involved right in their own backyards, sending mission teams and sharing the hope of Christ with those in poverty.”

Proverbs 22:2 is one of Lewis’ favorite verses: “The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all.”

“I love that verse because it reminds me that we have a lot more in common with people who are in poverty than we think we do. We’re all God’s children.”

Dixonville in central Arkansas is one such low-income hamlet where Lewis and her Baptist mission teams have been ministering for 16 years now.

“We have mission volunteers who come and work at Dixonville every week or month, helping with the children, the women or entire families,” Lewis said. “One of the favorite parts of my work as a missionary has been getting to work with the children in places like Dixonville.

“I love going with the children there to camp each summer, spending the day or night with them, singing songs with them during Vacation Bible School and telling them about Jesus. We hold Bible studies with their mothers. They’re like family to me because I’ve known them so long.

“The most important thing I want to tell our churches across the nation is that poor people have many strengths to share. Unlike most of the world, we shouldn’t measure people by money. In the Christian life, we should measure people by their strengths. The people I’ve come to know, like those in Dixonville, live in poverty but have many strengths –- in family, in endurance and in character.”

Another poverty-stricken town is Helena in Phillips County, the poorest county in Arkansas.

Two years ago with Lewis’ support, Mercy Pregnancy Resource Center was launched in an old house in Helena. It reaches out to pregnant girls and women who need resources to both give birth and raise their babies. At this center, adoption -– never abortion -– is the recommended option of choice for those who cannot raise their babies.

Ironically, the women’s center is located in a rental house that appeared to have been a drug-users’ hangout, based on the drug paraphernalia found inside. But it was also in a perfect location, secluded to ensure the confidentiality of the women who would come there for help.

Glad to be rid of the previous tenants, the house’s owner -- a local Christian man -- gave the Mercy Pregnancy Resource Center an initial three months’ free rent. A local hardware store offered discounts on the materials needed for renovations. The Arkansas Baptist Convention, local churches, local businesses and area citizens donated thousands of dollars to furnish the center and stock it with needed baby products.

Mandy Chaney, executive director at Mercy Pregnancy Resource Center, a branch of Mercy Ministries, said, “There are so many opportunities here in the Arkansas Delta because the teen pregnancy rate here is so high, the highest in the entire state of Arkansas.”

The center is not just another pregnancy welfare facility with free giveaways, Chaney said. An “Earn While You Learn” system is used in which girls and women who come to the center “earn” tokens for keeping their appointments, sitting through classes, watching educational videos, meeting with their mentors and completing other tasks. The tokens then can be used to “buy” baby clothes, maternity clothes, diapers, baby wipes and other items at the center’s baby boutique.

“Diana Lewis has been the catalyst for this ministry,” Chaney said. “When this ministry first came to my heart, I didn’t know what to do about it. The North American Mission Board and the state convention told us to talk to Diana. She told us that she had been praying three years for God to raise someone up in the Arkansas Delta for a ministry just like this.”

Said Lewis, “We need our Baptists in Arkansas to realize there’s a great mission field right outside the doors of their sanctuaries -– that every time they leave their church they’re entering a mission field where they can share the hope of Christ with someone they’re going to meet.

“Thanks to those who give to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering,” she continued, “because you make it possible for me to do the ministry God has called me to do. And you make it possible for us to have the things we need as missionaries to do God’s work. You make it possible for me to get into my car and go wherever I need to go in Arkansas to encourage a church’s ministry or provide them with the resources they need to start a new ministry.”

Lewis said she loves to see people sitting in the pews of a church, wondering how God can use them and finally realizing how He can.

“Maybe they know how to cut hair or swing a hammer. Maybe they’re a professional -– a doctor, dentist or nurse who can provide free healthcare. What I love most is to see people get so excited when they discover how God can use them in ministry.”

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