EDITORS’ NOTE: In conjunction with the March 4-11 Week of Prayer for North American missions, this is the last of eight stories in Baptist Press featuring North American Mission Board missionaries and their ministries supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
GULF SHORES, Ala. (BP)–The Gulf Coast of Alabama is blessed with a usually warm, emerald-green ocean for swimming and sugar-white, soft-sand beaches. It’s a paradise that draws 6 million people a year, but 70 percent of them don’t know Christ.
Jeff and Thea Ford are North American Mission Board resort missionaries who head up Gulf Area Resort Ministries in neighboring Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., on the Gulf of Mexico.
“Someone once told me that lost people are most open to the Gospel two times in their lives,” Ford said. “The number one time is during a crisis. And the second time is during times of recreation, leisure or vacation.”
The Fords are among the 5,300-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He was one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 4-11. The 2007 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $57 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like the Fords. In addition to NAMB, the couple is supported by the Baldwin Baptist Association and the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.
Ford’s ministry varies in focus depending on the season of the year.
Fall and winter on the Alabama Gulf Coast attract senior adults -– “snowbirds” as Ford affectionately calls them — from the North and Midwest, who come to the Gulf Coast for up to six months to escape harsh winters back home.
“During our snowbird ministry in the winter, we hold worship services at local campgrounds and have a bicycle club where Thea and I ride bikes with the snowbirds, just trying to build relationships. We may have 200 of them at a worship service. Due to the snowbird ministry, Thea and I feel like we have hundreds of grandparents, and when we all get together we’re the only ones there not retirement age!” Ford said.
But Ford’s busiest time of year is spring break and summer, when college, high school and junior high students -– and kids with their families -– swarm the Alabama Gulf Coast beaches.
Starting with a website called www.barefootbelievers.com for potential volunteers and a NAMB-developed program called “Innovators” for collegians, the Fords use a myriad of methods to creatively spread the Gospel on the beaches. “Barefoot Believers” comes from Romans 10:15, where the Apostle Paul refers to a verse in Isaiah that says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the Good News.”
“We spend a lot of time barefoot on the beach -– handing out bottles of water, Frisbees with the Gospel message imprinted on them, setting up face-painting and hair-wrap booths or feeding people cold watermelon,” Ford said. “We just want to have a presence.”
Ford said his spring and summer ministry also uses worship services, Christian music concerts, backyard Bible clubs and other forms of beach evangelism.
“Last year, we worked with about 1,000 Barefoot Believers. These were senior adults, adults, families on mission trips and a lot of students -– from college-aged down to junior high-aged. We even had some children volunteers.”
Ford also uses “Innovators” teams of college-students for whom he finds summer jobs in the Gulf Shores or Orange Beach areas. They may work most of the day in a local hotel, resort or tourist attraction, then spend the rest of their day supporting Ford’s ministry by witnessing or teaching Bible studies to children at a local hotel, condo or resort.
“A lot of college students say, ‘I can’t be a summer missionary because I have to work and earn some money for school,’” Ford said. NAMB’s Innovators program allows them to do both.
“People talk about Gulf Shores and Orange Beach as being party places,” Ford said, “but I believe the true party is the abundant life, and that party only happens through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
As cliché-sounding as it is, many of the kids visiting the beach are searching for something. The student volunteers Ford supervises have found that “something” and are eager to share the secret -– a relationship with Christ -– with other kids on the beach.
“A lot of the spring break and summer folks are dealing with addiction and the emptiness that comes from a life without Christ,” Ford said. “I remember that life -– 10 or 12 years ago -– when my life was a mess. God can take such a messed-up life and make it beautiful. I’m able to share with them the hope that I found in Christ. I think that’s why God placed me here.”
Though Ford was raised in an Alabama church, after a time he fell away.
“I no longer had a connection to the church. I made choices that forced me to turn my back on the foundation I had started with. I remember finally being surrounded by drug dealers and users, who were my best friends by that point.”
It was in the middle of a drug- and alcohol-filled party at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa when Ford said God reminded him that he could choose life over death.
“I had chosen a path of death but the empty feeling that came with it led me to an empty bedroom during that party. I shut and locked the door and dropped to my knees. I just asked God to save me from the mess I had made of my life.” And Ford said He did.
When Ford felt a call to become a summer missionary, he didn’t feel qualified. At the time, a fellow summer missionary told him something he’s never forgotten: “God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the called.” From then on, Ford never looked back.
Ford noted that escape and denial are two traits he consistently spots in visitors to the Gulf.
“People, of course, come to the beach on vacation to try to find a little peace and quiet -– to find some peace of mind. They want their kids to escape from life for awhile and have a fun time. But the fact is, if they don’t have a relationship with Christ, they’re not going to find that real peace and experience the best for their families because Christ is not in the equation of their lives,” he said.
“Just the idea that someone can run away from their problems because they’re on vacation won’t work. A lot of people on vacation are running from someone or something. The problems they try to escape from on vacation -– the problems they want to leave behind -– follow them to the beach. I’ve even had Christian believers say, ‘I’m trying to take a vacation from my faith,’ only to later admit that it just doesn’t work.”
Ford said the emptiness that people feel in their lives can actually grow stronger while on vacation because they have fewer distractions to take their minds off their troubles and more time to think.
Early on, Ford took some ribbing over his job as missionary to the beach crowd.
“At first I felt guilty as a resort missionary,” he said. “I heard all the jokes about suffering for Jesus. I thought I was just having too much fun doing the work God had given me to do. But someone wiser than me told me: ‘Jeff, remember when you’re serving the Lord, it ought to be fun and enjoyable.’”
How important is the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering to the Fords and their ministry?
“The Annie Armstrong offering lets me do what God has called me to do and without hindrance,” Ford said. “So many of my missionary friends aren’t affiliated with Annie Armstrong and spend probably 50-75 percent of their time raising money themselves. And although they’re doing wonderful ministry, I think this prevents a lot of ministry because they’re always wondering and worried about the money coming in.
“I don’t have to worry about the money or the food on the table or the clothes on my back like they do. I think God has allowed the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering -– through Southern Baptists working together -– to accomplish mighty things. The hearts and minds of missionaries are freed up so that we can be more effective and healthy in our ministry and in our families.”