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New England visionary Ira Craft dies at 80; aided 400-plus churches

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–To many people in New England, he was Mr. Southern Baptist. But to others, he was much more as he worked behind the scenes across denominational lines with anyone who was serious about spreading the gospel.
Missionary statesman Ira Q. Craft of Columbia, S.C., known for a deep and abiding commitment to ministry in New England and around the world, caught the heartbeat for home and international ministries in an unusual way more than 30 years ago.
As vice president of the Cecil B. Day Foundation of Norcross, Ga., Craft had many opportunities to demonstrate an unflagging interest in reaching people for Jesus Christ.
Craft died suddenly Jan. 21 following congestive heart failure. He was 80. A celebration service was held Jan. 25 at First Baptist Church in Columbia. Craft is survived by his wife of 57 years, Betty Jo, and a sister, Sarah Hite. Born in Pelion, S.C., he was preceded in death by 10 siblings.
Remarkably, Craft’s passion for ministry and missions began during World War II in Stalag 7-A near Schrobenhausen, Germany, where he suffered mistreatment for nine months as a prisoner of war and for which he received the Purple Heart for his meritorious service to his country.
While being forced to participate in work details and stand at attention for long periods of time in the hot sunshine, Craft had time to reflect on life and the meaning of the Christian faith. While working for the city of Schrobenhausen, he and his fellow prisoners gradually worked their way back across enemy lines to freedom, becoming among the first U.S. soldiers to escape from Hitler’s regime.
In an interview with the New England Baptist last year, Craft said, “That’s where I really made a commitment to follow the Lord in whatever way he led me.”
After the war, Craft worked for Butler Shoe Corp., rising quickly through the corporate ranks. In the mid-1960s, he was transferred to New England. The Crafts were members of First Baptist Church, Framingham, Mass. (now First Baptist of Sudbury), and there they developed a lifelong burden for the spiritual needs they saw in New England.
After two and a half years, the shoe company planned to transfer Craft, but God had other plans. With a vision to involve churches in the South in New England, he resigned from Butler Shoe as of Jan. 1, 1968, and moved to Atlanta. At age 49, he was at the height of his business career, leaving his position as vice president of store operation personnel.
Early in 1968, Craft brought a fellow church member at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Atlanta to experience New England firsthand. That man was Cecil B. Day, founder of the Days Inn hotel chain. Shortly thereafter, Day set up the Cecil B. Day Foundation to fund Christian work in New England and asked Craft to direct it. He continued the work after Day died in his mid 40s.
For the next 31 years, the Crafts were strong advocates for evangelical work in New England. Not only did the foundation help put Southern Baptist work on firmer ground, but it also worked closely with any evangelical church or organization that Craft sensed was preaching the gospel in New England.
Craft helped resource more than 400 churches in cooperation with the Baptist Convention of New England and other evangelical groups across the region.
For 15 years, he served on the board of trustees of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. He worked closely with the Evangelistic Association of New England, now Vision New England. In 1979, Craft was instrumental with EANE in bringing 300 pastors to Sturbridge, Mass., for a three-day prayer meeting for spiritual awakening in New England. Religious leaders still refer to the Sturbridge meeting as a turning point in the spiritual climate of New England.
Additionally, the Crafts traveled the world, leading lay evangelism schools, lay renewal weekends and retreats for pastors and spouses in more than 30 countries in Africa, South America and Europe, as well as in the United States and Australia. He served as a member of the Baptist World Alliance’s men’s department.
He served Southern Baptists as a member of the board of trustees of the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board), the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and the Southern Seminary Foundation.
While World War II interrupted Craft’s college education at the University of South Carolina, in later years he received two honorary doctorates: a doctorate of humanities from Dallas Baptist University and a doctorate of business administration from Southwest Baptist University.
The Baptist Convention of New England was represented at Craft’s celebration service by Executive Director Ken Lyle, missions/evangelism team leader Bob Brindle and his wife, Susan; church growth team leader Neal Davidson; Greater Boston Baptist Association director of missions Ignatius Meimaris; and David and Janet Davidson of New Hampshire. Former GBBA director of missions Larry Martin, now of Kentucky, spoke at the service.
“No earthly measurement can even estimate the immense growth of God’s kingdom through the life and work of Ira Craft!” Lyle said. “In fact, Ira was the epitome of the ‘stuff’ of which God’s kingdom is made … childlikeness. He came into the kingdom like a child … he lived by faith and cherished fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. He was always eager to grow spiritually. He was quick to forgive. He praised God naturally and totally. That’s childlikeness personified!”
Brindle described Ira Craft as “a faithful friend, a wise mentor, a confidant, an encourager and a benefactor. We drove many miles together across New England to visit church planters and pastors who needed some financial assistance. Ira gave them warm words of encouragement and usually provided a grant within a few days. Many times after such a visit he would ask me how each of those pastors was doing and how their churches were doing. He carried every one of them in his heart, as does Betty, his life partner. I celebrated his entrance into the eternal presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but
I shall miss him greatly.”
Douglas Hall, executive director of Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston said Craft was “the most consistently saintly man I have ever known. The body of Christ, particularly the local expression of that body here in Boston and New England, has lost a vision bearer. The vision bearer is now gone, but the results of the vision live on in the experiences of countless numbers of people in constantly growing numbers of churches in metropolitan Boston and beyond. The results of Ira’s vision are much like his life itself — quiet, but contributing powerfully to the growth of God’s kingdom!”