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God’s ‘miracle missionary’ in NW Nev.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2008 Week of Prayer, March 2-9, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $61 million to help support 5,000-plus North American missionaries. 2008 Week of Prayer missionaries are Daniel and Marta Caceres, Dewey and Kathie Aiken, Melanie Lawler, Jon and Mindy Jamison, David and Shirley Proffitt, Jon and Linda Hodge, Brad Lartigue, and Chris and Monica Woodall.

RENO, Nev. (BP)–North American Mission Board missionary Melanie Lawler is a real, talking, walking-around miracle.

To follow Melanie around northwest Nevada, where she serves the Sierra Baptist Association as a ministry evangelism specialist in Reno, you’d never guess she had to battle through life-and-death health issues to get there.

Melanie first began suffering seizures as a fourth grader in Leland, Miss., and was diagnosed with epilepsy. Then, when she was an 11th-grader in Carthage, Miss., doctors discovered a brain tumor. The tumor was removed, but then 17-year-old Melanie suffered a stroke.

Following the stroke, “they [doctors] said I would be a vegetable,” Melanie recalls. But the doctors forgot to consult God, who had other plans.

Melanie remembers that as a teenager, her pastor at First Baptist Church in Carthage, Russ Barksdale, challenged her to memorize Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (HCSB)

“And I memorized that verse, and shortly after God began speaking to my heart, saying, ‘Melanie, I have plans for you.’ And I would say, ‘Oh yes, God, I know. I’m going to be a pediatric neurologist. I’m going to be a good doctor for you, Lord.’

“And God would say, ‘No Melanie. I have plans for you.’

“God brought me through the brain tumor and the stroke, and today I’m OK. I realized that if God could protect me in the midst of great problems, then I could trust Him to dictate the direction of my life.”

Lawler is one of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. She is among the NAMB missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 2-9, 2008. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Seize Your Divine Moment.” The 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $61 million.

Lawler earned her bachelor’s degree at William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Miss. Her current assignment in Reno is actually her second stint in Nevada. She served as a US/C2 missionary in Las Vegas back in the late 1990s, after graduating from college and before receiving her master’s degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“After my time in Las Vegas ended in 1998, I told God I would never live in Nevada again,” laughs Lawler. “It was too hot, too dry, too brown and too ugly.

“Following seminary, I was seeking where God would use me in ministry next. I got a call to come back to Nevada, and my immediate response was ‘No! It’s too hot, too dry, too brown and too ugly.'” But God had His plan and Melanie returned to Nevada in fall 2001.

“Reno continues to grow on me and I’m even beginning to find beauty in the desert,” she says. “But I still go to Lake Tahoe at least once a month to get my tree fix. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Think of Reno, Nev., and one usually conjures up bright lights, casinos, gambling and other assorted sins and vices. Melanie, now 34, is ready to take them on.

“My goal is to see our churches reach all our communities for Christ,” she said. “So that includes the people working at the casinos and the tourists visiting the casinos. We don’t have casino ministries in Reno at this point, but it’s a dream I hope to carry out in the future.”

Assigned as a ministry evangelism specialist for the last six years, she serves cities in northwestern Nevada — Reno, Sparks and Carson City, the state’s capital — and smaller towns most have never heard of — Gerlach, Empire, Silver Springs, Minden and Gardnerville.

“Our association is a mixture of rural and metro communities,” Lawler explains. The Sierra Baptist Association extends from the California state line east 100 miles into the desert, and from the Nevada/Oregon border south to California. Lake Tahoe and Virginia City also are part of the Sierra association.

Lawler said the people in her mission field come from all walks of life — from the middle class and inner-city neighborhoods of Reno to the “second home” owners at Lake Tahoe and the ranchers in the desert country.

“I help our churches develop and do ministries that reach beyond the walls of the church and into their communities to share Christ. They can be ministries like a food pantry, an ESL [English as Second Language] class or a ministry presence at special events in our cities.”

One initiative Lawler is especially excited about is a food ministry that officials in Lyon County recently handed off to Southern Baptists.

“The county came to First Baptist Church in Fernley and asked if we would be willing to host a food bank,” she said. “So now, once a month the church receives all the food for the food bank and the church members box it up. On Fridays, members of the community come into the church and get their allotment for the month.

“It gives the church the opportunity to have people come in and see that the earth doesn’t break in two if they actually enter a church. It also allows the local people to see that the church’s members are normal people, too. I hope to begin to see these people coming to church as a result.”

Another ministry Lawler helps run is ESL classes. She says many people in northwestern Nevada don’t know how to read or speak English, and in some communities as many as 52 percent of the population speaks a language other than English.

“Our churches are beginning to say, ‘maybe we could do something to help with that.’ So we’re starting ESL ministries in different areas,” said Lawler, citing one for Koreans who speak some English but not well enough to communicate and get along in society.

Lawler’s favorite ministry is the Kid’s Club, an initiative geared to kids in Nevada’s apartment community. Lawler herself became a Christian when she was only 6 years old.

“It’s given an opportunity for many of those children — who have never been inside of a church, never heard of God, never heard of Jesus and never heard of the Bible — to be able to come and learn that God cares about them, loves them and desires to have a relationship with them.

“So at the Kid’s Clubs we do games, songs and stories. Sometimes we do a craft. Of course the children’s favorite thing is the snack at the end,” Lawler said.

Another ministry involves the “Nevada Day Carnival” each Oct. 31, which commemorates the anniversary of Nevada becoming a state. All the students get out of school for the day and, although it coincides with Halloween, Lawler said the day has nothing to do with goblins or witches.

“Before the actual carnival begins, we have a local church, First Baptist in Carson City, which cooks dinner for the carnival workers and shares Christ with them.”

Similar ministries are carried out for area Fourth of July celebrations and even for “Burning Man,” a well-known counter-culture festival held in the middle of northwest Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each August. For Burning Man, Melanie and her team distribute gallon-jugs of water, each with a Gospel of John and a tract attached.

What gives Melanie her greatest joy?

“Two things. First, seeing people come to know the Lord and being able to share Christ with them. Second, resourcing a church and watching the church realize, ‘Hey, we can do that. We can reach past our walls. We can share Christ in our community. We may be a little church that meets in a school or in somebody’s home. But we can do something to share Christ with the community.'”

She asks Southern Baptists to pray that churches in northern Nevada will realize the opportunities around them and cultivate their harvest fields.

“Ninety-five percent of the people here in northern Nevada don’t know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. On any given Sunday, only one person out of 10 here in Washoe County, where Reno and Sparks are, will to go any kind of church anywhere. That includes the Mormon and Catholic churches.

Southern Baptist support through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and the Cooperative Program are vital to this ministry, Lawler said.

“We would not be able to be here at all if it weren’t for the Annie Armstrong offering,” she said. “It allows me to be able to do my work without having to worry about how my bills are going to be paid. I know the money is there for me through our Southern Baptist churches.”

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  • Mickey Noah