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Northeast Missions Celebration boosted by Ira, Betty Jo Craft

SOMERSET, N.J. (BP)–Ira Craft’s abiding commitment to
missions began in the 1940s in Stalag 7-A near
Schrobenhausen, Germany, where he was a prisoner of war for
nine months.
While being forced to serve on work details and stand
at attention for long periods of time in the hot sun, Craft
had time to reflect on life and the meaning of his Christian
faith. While working for the city of Schrobenhausen, he and
other prisoners gradually “worked our way back across enemy
lines to freedom,” becoming among the first U.S. soldiers to
escape from Hitler’s regime during World War II.
“That’s where I really made a commitment to follow the
Lord in whichever way he led me,” said the 79-year-old South
Carolinian who helps churches grow and missionaries survive
in his role as vice president of the Cecil B. Day Foundation
in Atlanta.
Craft and his wife, Betty Jo, have agreed to serve as
honorary chairpersons for the Northeast Missions
Celebration, a three-day extravaganza to be held at the
Garden State Exhibit Center, Somerset, N.J., April 30
through May 2.
The celebration is being sponsored by the Baptist
conventions of New England, Pennsylvania-South Jersey,
Maryland-Delaware and New York, along with the Southern
Baptist International Mission Board and North American
Mission Board.
Early in 1968, Craft brought Cecil Day, founder of the
Days Inn hotel chain, to New England to view the beginnings
of Southern Baptist “pioneer” work in the region. The Crafts
lived in Medfield, Mass., while Craft was working for Butler
Shoe Corp. in Dedham. They were charter members of First
Baptist Church of Sudbury, Mass.
During those years, Craft was treasurer of the Southern
Baptist association at a time when there were just 21
churches across the six-state region.
Craft helped the late entrepreneur catch the vision for
helping young churches on mission. Day’s foundation has been
assisting churches with pastoral assistance and other needs
ever since, with direct oversight from Craft.
Craft started working with the foundation at age 49
after 30 years with Butler Shoe. He retired as vice
president of store operation personnel, having started
selling shoes part-time while attending the University of
South Carolina. The war interrupted his studies, and upon
his escape Butler Shoe’s president offered permanent
employment, so Craft never finished college.
Nevertheless and many years later, Southwest Baptist
University, Bolivar, Mo., and Dallas Baptist University
honored Craft for his commitment to missions with honorary
doctorates. On a separate occasion, Betty Jo also was
honored with a doctorate from Dallas Baptist University. In
addition, Craft served on the board of Gordon-Conwell
Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Mass., on the
Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention and
its then-Foreign Mission Board and on the Baptist Foundation
of South Carolina.
Whenever he has a chance, Craft, who asked Jesus Christ
to be his Savior at age 12, tells young missionaries and
pastors in new work areas to “just remember that God called
you, he knows you’re there and he will never leave you. He
will always protect you with his right hand.”
At a commissioning service during the upcoming missions
celebration, he plans to tell North American and
international Southern Baptist missionaries the same thing,
having experienced that reality with Betty Jo for many years
by leading lay evangelism schools, renewal retreats and
retreats for pastors and wives, and other couples, in 30
countries in Africa, South America and elsewhere.
These missionary travels have helped the couple to, as
Craft said, “catch the heartbeat of missionaries, to find
out who they are serving and how God called them to be
missionaries.” They welcome the “joy” of watching
missionaries be commissioned and then years later in
participating in their retirement services.
During the missionary journey that has been his life
for 30 years now, Craft has been joined each step of the way
by Betty Jo, a Missouri native who found a personal
Christian faith at age 15. They will have been married 57
years on Feb. 1.
“I believe that missions is the ministry that God has
given each of his children,” Betty Jo said. “Missions is a
call from God and an everyday thing for the Christian. It’s
a lifestyle.” She plans to tell the missionaries being
commissioned May 1 that “God will not call anyone he does
not also equip, and he will always be right there for you.
You’re never alone. I’ve experienced that in my own life.”
More information about the Northeast Missions
Celebration can be obtained by calling toll-free at 1-888-