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At Michigan State, his outreach relies upon spiritual eyes

LANSING, Mich. (BP)–Larry Woods’ job would be so much easier in Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge.

After all, most students at Florida State, the University of Alabama and LSU grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line. If they’re Baptist or Methodist, as a kid they probably attended Vacation Bible School and at least know some -– if not most — of the books of the Bible.

But since 1982 -– with the help of his wife Joanne — Woods has been director for the Lansing-area Christian Challenge and state director for Christian Challenge in Michigan. A North American Mission Board missionary, he serves Michigan State University and Lansing Community College.

“Students coming to Michigan State come from a more secularized background,” Woods said. “We meet more students every year who claim no religious affiliation at all. The last time surveys were done -– many years ago -– 37 percent of students claimed to be Catholic. The next highest denomination was Lutheran at 10 percent, and then it went down from there.

“Today, most students come from a totally unspiritual, unchurched background. Even if they claim a religious affiliation, most say they aren’t involved at all. So with these kids, you have to start a lot further back down the road,” Woods said.

“The kids often don’t have a clue about things in the Bible. For instance, we have to spend a lot of time in our weekly Bible study groups just helping someone find the Book of Romans.”

Because of their secular backgrounds, many students don’t believe there even is a God or, if they do, they don’t understand the true nature of God. So Woods’ fundamental efforts must be in persuading students that there is a God.

“Once they believe that God is a loving, personal God who really cares about us and wants to be involved in our lives, then we can go on to the next level and teach them about Jesus and the Gospel of Christ,” Woods said. “But if you go ahead and try to share the Gospel with them –- and they don’t even believe in God -– you’re just sharing information that’s irrelevant to them.”

For 23 years now, Woods has seen his opportunities as a campus missionary at Michigan State through spiritual eyes, not his physical ones. He has been legally blind since birth. A jogger in good shape for a man his age -– with white hair and a distinguished face — Woods looks no more blind than anyone else. Only his white, collapsible cane gives him away.

Stressing the positive, Woods believes his “thorn in the flesh” is really an advantage in some ways.

“Because I have to rely on people to lead me sometimes, that provides a lot of opportunities for ministry. You have to talk to people more. You pray with them. You have more contact because you’re forced to be with people even more than you otherwise would.”

Woods grew up in northern Oklahoma and graduated from the University of Oklahoma in the ’60s. After becoming a Christian as a sophomore Sooner, he worked with the local Baptist Student Union at OU. He discovered that 95 percent of the BSU directors in America were south of the Mason-Dixon Line, while 75 percent of the college students in America were to the north.

“I caught a vision of what I wanted to do in missions and had a real burden to minister to college students in places where there weren’t as many opportunities for them to come to know the Lord,” Woods said. The door to minister at Michigan State opened for Woods in August 1982.

Michigan State is the seventh-largest university in the country, with 45,000 students. It has the largest on-campus student population, with 20,000-plus students who live in dorms, fraternities and sororities and in married student housing.

Less than five miles away from MSU is Lansing Community College, a commuter college with another 19,000 students. So when you throw in those 65,000 students -– along with a business college, Christian school and another law school apart from MSU’s in the Lansing area -– Woods has a mission field of some 80,000 students.

Larry and Joanne Woods represent NAMB’s Mission Service Corps missionaries, who make up a third of the 5,300 Southern Baptist North American missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories. Woods is one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries to be highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 5-12.

As a Mission Service Corps missionary, Woods is supported by gifts from churches, family and friends, while receiving NAMB support for travel, training and special needs.

“Having the support of NAMB gives us credibility among local churches and pastors,” Woods said.

Woods loves to quote the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which Paul said: “It’s not that we are seeking your gift but we seek the fruit which increases to your credit.”

“Being an MSC missionary is a faith stretcher,” Woods admitted, “because you really have to rely on the Lord to be the provider.

“God’s just really been good about helping us to hang in there and keep going,” Woods said. “We trust in the fact that God loves us and has our best interests at heart.”

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  • Mickey Noah