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Tragedy moves church to double Lottie Moon offering

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–Her name is synonymous with international missions, but this December a congregation in Little Rock, Ark., may have someone else in mind when they collect their Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

No, it’s not Annie Armstrong or any other Southern Baptist luminary. Chances are, you’ve never even heard of him. Relatively unknown in the evangelical community, this person has no fame, notoriety or clout. But that doesn’t make him any less of a hero to the members of Cross Road Baptist Church.

John Savage stood before his congregation on Dec. 24, 2005, just as he had done for the past six years. Proud to have his family together on Christmas Eve, the 58-year-old pastor told the story of Jesus’ birth. He led communion with bread he had baked himself. He also offered a challenge for his church to double their Lottie Moon goal of $2,000.

It was one of the last sermons he would preach. Six days later, John suffered a massive heart attack at his home and died. Janis, his wife of 19 years, was with him.

“I was in shock,” Janis said. “But the church was so supportive. There were 10 people in the house within 30 minutes of John’s death, and people have been with me ever since.”

Gwen McCallister was one of them.

“I had to be there for her,” said Gwen, one of 65 people who attend the church. “There wasn’t much time for thinking. I just held Janis and prayed.”

Days later, mourners crowded the small church to say goodbye to John one last time. The funeral was so full that the county’s volunteer fire department where John served as chaplain had to sit in the choir loft.

Janis sprinkled her husband’s ashes across a row of trees on Cross Road’s grounds. It was a fitting resting place for a man who had spent most of his life at church.

John felt God’s call to fulltime ministry early. He began leading his first church as pastor at age 19. Later he earned his master of divinity degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. When he wasn’t at church, John volunteered with International World Changers, a ministry of the International Mission Board providing students with mission opportunities around the world.

Above all these things, John’s heart for ministry was most evident in his relationship with his wife. Janis suffers from chronic, debilitating pain as a result of rare complications from a surgery she underwent in 1992. The pain is so intense doctors had to place a pump inside her abdomen to supply continuous medication.

The disability forced Janis to quit her job as a registered nurse and it limits her energy and mobility. She relied on John for many of the daily things others take for granted.

“He cooked for me, drove me back and forth to the doctor, gave me shots. He was my backbone,” she said.

Janis remembers the good times, too. Some of her happiest moments with John were watching him work outdoors.

“He loved to garden,” she recalled. “I would get the lawn chair and sit out there and visit with him. That’s when we would really talk about things.”

John used his green thumb to grow vegetables and plant flowers.

“The first year I had him plant tulips just for me,” Janis said.

Green beans were John’s favorite; he canned 60 quarts from one particularly good crop.

Sadly, John never got a chance to see the fruit of the final seed he planted at Cross Road. Less than two weeks after his death, the church met John’s challenge, more than doubling their Lottie Moon goal. The total came to $4,091.16, the largest missions harvest in Cross Road’s history.

McCallister wasn’t surprised.

“Our church is committed to missions,” she said. “After John’s death it was just one of those things. We have to do this. It was something to honor him.”

Janis echoed her sentiment.

“John would be so happy and so proud to know that we met the goal. He would always try to set it a little higher every year and encourage our church to do missions-minded things,” she said.

Despite his years in the ministry, John had never been on an overseas missions trip. He had planned to lead a team from Cross Road to Brazil in the fall of 2001 but had to cancel because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He never got another chance.

“Missions was something God laid on his heart,” Janis said. “He felt like taking salvation to the rest of the world was what God wanted him to be a part of.”

Today, the healing process at Cross Road continues. Judy Wood said she hopes John’s successor will be someone as missions-minded as he was. She serves as director of Cross Road’s Woman’s Missionary Union. With a laugh, Wood remembers time spent brainstorming with John over ways to promote the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. She said John’s leadership will be greatly missed, but she believes God is using his death to bring new purpose to Cross Road.

“It’s made us draw a lot closer and be more determined to carry on John’s vision,” she said. “We are realizing that the time is drawing near, and the Lord will come back, and we have a job to do.

“It never ceases to amaze me that it’s the small churches, per-person, per-income, which seem to give just as much or more to Lottie Moon. In that sense, John could stand proud of his people that we didn’t sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re small, not much is expected of us.’”

As for Janis, she’s staying on to help make the transition at Cross Road and in the meantime, making a transition of her own.

“God is leading me one step at a time,” she said.
To learn how your church can support the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, visit ime.imb.org/LottieMoon.

    About the Author

  • Don Graham