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Enduring difficulty forged a heart for people, missions

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Believe what you hear about Thurmon Bryant.

“Christian gentleman.” “Sterling character.” “Caring and compassionate.” “Superb missionary.” “Gifted administrator.” “Wise counselor.” “Hard worker.” “Ambassador for missions.”

It’s all true, though he won’t admit it. Add “unassumingly modest” to the list.

For all the praise lavished on Bryant as he retires Jan. 31 from the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board after 36 years, he would be the first to admit nothing came easily. As the Apostle Paul noted, godly character is refined by perseverance during difficult times.

The 12th of 13 children, Bryant worked as hard in school as he did in the cotton fields. In seminary, he juggled the responsibilities of family, pastorate, teaching and writing a thesis. As a missionary in Brazil for 17 years, he served as pastor; founded, managed and taught in a seminary; oversaw construction of missionary houses; and made long weekend preaching trips to outlying churches.

In the midst of that, he and his wife, Doris, lost a 13-year-old son in a drowning accident.

That heartbreak — unimaginable to someone who hasn’t experienced it — jolted him into realizing how precious and short life is and convinced him to make the best use of each moment God gives.

“Thurmon was the first person my wife, Noreta, and I met when we stepped off the ship in Brazil in 1965,” said Bill Morgan, a former missionary to Brazil who now directs the Foreign Mission Board’s Creative Access Network. “He took us under his wing and helped us get settled, and he was our first pastor in Brazil.

“He is one of the most gracious, godly men you will ever meet. He has a caring heart, and he really ministers to people.”

Bryant’s love for people explains the affection many Brazilians still feel for him even 20 years after he returned to the United States to accept an administrative position at the board’s Richmond, Va., headquarters, said Ann Fallaw, a former missionary who now serves as associate director of the agency’s work in Brazil and the Caribbean.

“Thurmon and Doris were the exemplary missionary couple,” Fallaw said. “They valued the Brazilians highly, and they made strong and lasting friendships with them. He’s almost revered in Brazil today.”

After 10 years coordinating the board’s work in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, administrators singled him out for a new associate vice presidency. He took on the enormous job of managing policy matters for more than 3,800 missionaries in more than 100 countries, as well as supervising the programs of missionary health, human needs and volunteers.

Six years later he was promoted to vice president of mission personnel to oversee the process that sends more than 500 people each year into career and short?term missionary service.

Through difficult years marked by major board restructuring and turmoil in the Southern Baptist Convention, Bryant helped keep the Foreign Mission Board on track, said Don Kammerdiener, the agency’s executive vice president.

“Many people approach missions from an anecdotal, rhetorical basis, but Thurmon approaches missions from a basis of missiological principles with biblical undergirding,” Kammerdiener said. “A desperate need of our time is to not get carried away with rhetoric and fail to analyze the Bible.

“Thurmon has kept his feet on the ground and kept us on track. He has made his mark by calling us back and being sure we made the proper mid?course corrections so we don’t miss the mark.”

Like most missionaries, however, retirement will be more a change of scenery than anything else. The Bryants are relocating to Fort Worth, Texas, where he will serve as a liaison between the Foreign Mission Board and students and faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also will continue his work with the Baptist World Alliance, coordinating BWA President Nilson Fanini’s efforts to stir Baptists worldwide to a greater emphasis on evangelism.

Bryant sees bright days ahead for Southern Baptist foreign missions. Hopeful trends to which he points include surging numbers of baptisms and new churches overseas, as well as record numbers of Baptists in the United States and overseas stepping forward to be missionaries. “I believe the Lord has brought Southern Baptists through difficult times to bring us to a point where we’d all be working together for a common cause and purpose,” he said.

“I just hope the Lord lets me see some of the exciting things that are about to take place.”

    About the Author

  • Mark Kelly