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First Baptist women target broken lives

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (BP)–Pastor Stephen Davis and his wife Jonya prayed for someone to lead a recovery ministry. When God answered, He provided more than they could have asked or thought.

“My wife Jonya has really had a burden,” said Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Russellville, Ark. “For years, even while we were in seminary, she’s been involved in counseling women with a lot of struggles in their backgrounds.”

Jonya wanted to get women at First Baptist thinking outside the walls of the church, so they began to do things like hosting Thanksgiving meals in order to reach out to hurting women and get to know them.

“We found people to help Jonya, but we couldn’t find a key leader,” Davis recalled.

Then Davis came across the Celebrate Recovery program in Little Rock. “They have so many good things already laid out and proven to work,” he thought. “Boy, do we need that!” He told Jonya and they began to pray. “We talked to some people about leading it, but you know, that’s a scary and risky thing to be involved in,” Davis said.

Meanwhile, God had been working in different locations for several years to shape the lives of three women who, in 2005, would answer the Davis’ prayers: Nelda Alexander, Sheila Lambert and Vickie Henderson.

Both Alexander and Lambert were affected personally by some family members’ drug and alcohol dependencies — struggles that gave birth to their passion for others in similar situations.

The daughter of a judge in a large Texas city, Alexander described a childhood during which “we looked like a pretty good family. We wore the mask well. My dad was helpful to a lot of people, but he was a workaholic and a rage-aholic.” The family was involved in church, but one that taught mainly judgment and excluded grace.

Those legalistic dynamics were catalysts for Alexander and her other siblings to develop such patterns of behavior as alcohol, unhealthy relationships, divorce and abortion.

Alexander moved to Dallas and began attending a small Baptist church with a cousin. “I was 26 at the time and found myself no longer able to sit still in the pew…. [W]hen I got saved, I knew God was calling me.”

She also knew how messed up she was and wondered how God could ever use her. But through some Christian radio programs and involvement with “the awesome women” in the women’s ministry at Prestonwood Baptist Church, God grew her in substantive ways. She clearly recognized God’s call when she saw a presentation about Mercy Ministries, a recovery ministry in Nashville, Tenn.

“I cried through that whole presentation,” Alexander said. She knew that was how God would use her but had no idea how it would happen. Shortly thereafter, while reading Isaiah 42, Alexander got a vision for Bruised Reed Ministries, drawn from verse 3 of that passage: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.”

In 2001 Alexander and her husband Ron moved to Hot Springs where they led a Celebrate Recovery (CR) ministry at their church. Then in 2005, Ron took a job in Russellville. The couple visited FBC Russellville and inquired if the church saw a need for CR there. Pastor Davis told them the church had been praying several years for someone to lead that ministry. “A church staff can have all kinds of thoughts and visions and plans,” Davis said, “but without leaders you just can’t do it all.” The Alexanders became the leaders for which the Davises had been praying.

After the Alexanders began CR, Nelda, who had earned a psychology degree, was invited to assist at The Potter’s House, a local treatment program for women. When the directors were called out of that ministry, Nelda found herself running it. She said God told her, “I may be calling them away, but I’m not calling you away.”

“That was about two years ago. I took it and changed the name to Bruised Reed Ministries,” Alexander recounted. Since then, 23 women have benefited from having a safe place to restart their lives at the Bruised Reed Ministries home.

“Nelda is a special person. She is able to work in some of the saddest, most heartbreaking situations,” Davis said. “She is wise and discerning in her counsel. She has great organizational skills and she’s not afraid to take on anything — she’s such a blessing.”

Lambert, meanwhile, leads the co-dependent women’s group in the CR program at First Baptist and teaches weekday Bible studies at Bruised Reed. “I seem to be drawn to the young women,” Lambert said, “and they seem to be drawn to me. One thing they say is that they love to hear my story as a mother of a drug dependent son. It helps them understand what their families are going through.”

Lambert, whose husband had two alcoholic parents, reflected, “We raised our family in church because we thought it would make things different for our children. But it didn’t turn out that way.”

She rejoices that her son, now 27, is in recovery and involved in ministry. But during his teen years when they were dealing with his addiction, God took Lambert through a process of deep surrender to His will. She began to understand that she was living in bondage, trying to control the actions of her son and reacting out of false guilt that she had caused his problems. Trying to protect him, she became an enabler.

“In the very early stages of my toxic enabling it felt like rescue, undying love and compassion,” Lambert said. “But I began to gain insight into the role I was playing in the addiction. I was not helping him get off the ride, I was helping him stay there.”

In her brokenness and surrender, Lambert sensed God leading her to minister to hurting young people “who hadn’t found their way yet.”

Though some in her church she was attending were less than encouraging about a class like this, God opened a door. A young woman wanted to be part of a Bible study, but her job prevented Sunday morning attendance. She and a friend also wanted to take the “Breaking Free” discipleship study by Beth Moore. “Before long, I had about a dozen young people coming to my house for Bible study,” Lambert said.

Then came the Lamberts’ move to Russellville. The first Sunday the couple attended FBC Russellville, they saw the Alexanders being introduced as the couple who would start a Celebrate Recovery program at the church — and Lambert “knew then we were in the right place.”

Lambert has since led clients at Bruised Reed through numerous Bible studies, including three classes of Breaking Free, the study with which God began her ministry to young women at her prior church. Greg Sykes, First Baptist’s associate pastor, noted that Lambert’s transparency makes her effective. “Sheila is very honest and willing to call a spade a spade,” Sykes said. “You can’t really do ministry if all you are going to do is give them a shoulder to cry on.”

The third component of the recovery ministry began when First Baptist member Vickie Henderson, a local OB/GYN physician, felt compelled to reach out to some patients who needed more than just medical attention — they desperately needed help spiritually. God began speaking to her about starting a Bible study at the church for these women.

Henderson’s passions for Christ, God’s Word, and lost and hurting people are evident in the priorities she sets in her life, including annual involvement in foreign mission trips, serving in the international student ministry of the church, and her family’s recent adoption of 11-year-old Breanna.

Pastor Davis described Henderson as “an exceptionally gifted person, one of the finest medical doctors around, and a wonderful wife and mother. She has a schedule like you wouldn’t believe.” For many years Henderson has limited the number of patients in her medical practice in order to maintain a family-oriented schedule that includes taking every Tuesday off and regularly picking up her children from school.

For the mission field of her patients in the midst of serious struggles, Henderson knew that professional protocol prevented her from overtly evangelizing on the job. “What I can do,” however, “is tell them there are other things I would like to share with them, and invite them to a Bible study.”

At the same time, God was speaking to another woman, Beth Perry, with the same vision. Davis recalled, “The discussion [about a class for struggling women] came up with Beth in one situation and Vickie in another. We put it all together. They wanted to decorate the room so it would have a ‘welcome home’ feeling.”

Together Henderson and Perry began the Heartlifters Sunday School class.

“At first,” Henderson said, “only women who attended church by themselves responded — not the group I’d intended. Divorced women, those whose husbands don’t attend church, widows … they came. There was a ‘stained-glass’ barrier that the others struggled with. They didn’t know if they would be comfortable or feel welcome.”

But the original members developed into a core group, and God began to grow it more into the vision He had given Henderson. Now Bruised Reed clients, Celebrate Recovery members and others who often feel uncomfortable in church environments find unconditional acceptance in the Heartlifters class.

“To be honest, I’ve been humbled as a pastor by the commitment and consistency and discipline of these leaders,” Davis said. “They deal with some rough, hurting, abused people and work with them to restore their lives.”

His wife Jonya still mentors women as well. “That’s the way she’ll always be,” Davis said, adding, “And these women have been at it a while too — they stay engaged and involved in these people’s lives. It’s a witness to our whole church.”
Kay Adkins is a freelance writer in Mountain View, Ark.

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