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Cowboy survives scare, shares Gospel in the West

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2010 Week of Prayer, March 7-14, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $70 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,300 North American missionaries.

BLACKFOOT, Idaho (BP)–North American Mission Board missionary Jim Ballard — all 243 lbs. of him — lay sprawled in agonizing pain on a snow-covered dirt trail high in the mountains of the Salmon National Forest in eastern Idaho.

Four of his ribs and a vertebra were fractured, and his sternum was cracked. His lung punctured, Ballard was spitting up pink, foamy blood, which dotted his full salt-and-pepper beard.

Ballard prayed to God and thought of Myrtle, his new wife, who was back at their RV campsite some 10 miles away. The nearest main road was a mile or two away. Panic was creeping in like the big black crow that perched only 10 feet away, cawing and waiting for what it thought would be its inevitable Ballard “buffet.”

“You’re not getting my eyeballs just yet,” Ballard yelled at the crow while whipping out his .45/.410 revolver and two boxes of shells. At least neither the crows nor the wolves would get ol’ Jim that day without a fight.

Several hours earlier that day — Oct. 17, 2008 — Ballard’s final day of elk hunting had started before sun-up, when he told Myrtle he’d be hunting all day and after dark. After all, this would be the last day of his week-long, elk-hunting vacation.

But this day, his life would be altered forever when, at around 10 a.m., he chose to turn off a main road onto a “Jeep trail” that grew steeper as it snaked up the mountain.

“I recall stopping to put the four-wheeler into low range four-wheel drive and first gear,” Ballard said. “I started up the trail and in a split second, I thought the front end seemed a bit light and that I should stand up and lean forward over the handle bars.” It was too late.

The 750 lb. four-wheeler flipped up and over backwards, slamming Ballard back-first into the rocky, snow-frozen ground. The handlebars and speedometer crushed his chest on impact. He remembers the crushing, grinding sounds and the severe chest and neck pain that followed. His hunting rifle was immediately snapped into two pieces. The four-wheeler rolled over and over until it finally disappeared out of view down the mountainside.

But Ballard was not out of God’s view.

“I prayed some more and in talking with God, I recalled the time I had accepted Christ. I was filled with an unusual peace that if I perished on that hillside, I would wake up in heaven,” he said. “I also thanked Him for blessing me with seven wonderful children, seven grandchildren and for another one on the way. I also was blessed with Myrtle, my beautiful, special new wife.”

(Ballard was married to his first wife, Beverly, for 34 years prior to her death in 2006.)

A practical man, Ballard turned his attention to scrawling out his last will and testament on the inside of a split-opened .410 shotgun shell box. Using a granola bar box, he scribbled out a final note telling anyone who found him — unconscious or dead — whom to notify.

“I wanted to help my loved ones understand my love for them and that if I didn’t make it, I was just fine in heaven with Jesus.” He carefully placed his will in his camouflage shirt pocket and the letter where it would be found. He fell into a merciful sleep.

Ballard had been in ministry 37 of his 57 years. For the past seven, he had served as a NAMB missionary and director of missions for the Eastern Idaho Southern Baptist Association. The association is made up of 13 counties and surrounded by three states — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

From his home in Blackfoot, Idaho, Ballard would put an average of 75,000-80,000 miles a year on his Ford Explorer or truck, handling the demands of his huge ministry territory. Grinding out 500 or 600 miles a day was not uncommon. Myrtle was his driving companion.

“Some people would call this work hard,” he once said, referring to his ministry. “It’s long miles and grueling work. It’s also fulfilling. But yet to me, with 90 percent of the people in eastern Idaho not knowing the Lord, we have the greatest opportunity on earth to take the Gospel of Jesus.”

Ballard had said he believed a movement is afoot in the creation of cowboy churches in the West. “Even if the folks have a Mormon background, if we’ll do a cowboy church in their setting, they’ll come.” And they did.

As a cowboy born in Pueblo, Colo., Ballard grew up working long days on ranches and farms.

“Westerners are very individual people but some of the finest people on earth. Morally, most of them are very sound. Cowboys believe in God because they see His creation outdoors,” he said.

But because of ranchers’ long hours and seven-day weeks, Ballard said Southern Baptist church planters must take their schedules into account when planting new churches and holding services.

“We have to find times that work for them,” he said, explaining that the typical 11 a.m. worship service is out of the question if pastors expect cowboys, ranchers and farmers to show up. Typically, cowboy churches meet late on Sunday afternoons, when chores are done.

Ballard recently reported that his area’s church planters had recorded three new church plants within the last three months. His vision was that every church and mission in his association would plant a church within the next five years, and then those plants would plant another one in the next five years — an increase from 11 to 56 churches in only 10 years.

On that cold October day on the side of a snowy Idaho mountain, God clearly indicated He was not yet ready for Ballard — the longtime pastor, cowboy preacher, mentor, missionary, church planter and elk hunter — to close up shop and report to heaven. God had more work for him to do.

Suddenly, Ballard woke up to the distant roar of another four-wheel ATV’s (all-terrain vehicle) motor. The ATV had stopped about 50 yards down the mountain trail, but close enough for Ballard to overhear the voices of two other hunters.

Knowing this was probably his last chance for help and survival, Ballard quickly picked up his pistol and fired off a shot that echoed down the mountain. He took off his blaze-orange toboggan, hooked it over what was left of his rifle barrel and waved it frantically until the two hunters below noticed him. It was about 4:30 p.m. Almost seven hours had elapsed since the accident that morning.

When the two hunters reached him, Ballard told them he was hurt bad. One of the hunters, “Jeff,” replied, “This is your lucky day.”

Thinking that if this was his “lucky” day he’d hate to see a real bad one, Ballard then learned “Jeff” and his hunting partner were emergency medical technicians and firemen from San Jose, Calif., who just also “happened” to be hunting elk in southeastern Idaho that particular October day. They also knew how to contact search and rescue and Flight for Life, using a satellite phone at an inn 12 miles away.

Several hours later — between a Salmon, Idaho, search and rescue helicopter and a ground ambulance, Ballard — with his broken ribs, sternum, back and punctured lung — arrived alive at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula, Mont. Later, he would be transferred to a hospital in Idaho Falls, closer to his home. Two-and-a-half months would pass before he would be completely healed.

“My entire story is amazing evidence of God’s provision and grace,” Ballard said, fully recovered and back on the road planting churches, preaching and encouraging other church planters in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Ballard is one of some 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. He is among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 7-14, 2010. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Share God’s Transforming Power.” The 2010 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like Ballard.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.
View video profiles of all 2010 Week of Prayer missionaries at www.anniearmstrong.com/2010video.

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  • Mickey Noah