SBC Life Articles

Ministering to the Poverty-Stricken of Arkansas

When the North American Mission Board and the Arkansas Baptist Convention appointed Diana Lewis as state ministry evangelism director almost fifteen years ago, it was something akin to throwing the wily rabbit into the proverbial briar patch.

A native of Springdale, Arkansas, the Ouachita Baptist University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate all too well knows the bittersweet taste of Arkansas.

"I am a missionary in Arkansas, my home state, so it's a lot of fun for me," Lewis explained. "I get to travel all over my home state and work with churches that are conducting ministries in the local mission fields.

"Arkansas' nickname is 'The Natural State.' We have lots of beautiful state parks, lakes, rivers, mountains, and farmland. We go from the Delta to the edge of the Ozark Mountains. It's a very, very beautiful state," she said. And whether the topic is football or basketball, Arkansans are proud of their University of Arkansas Razorbacks.

But Lewis would also be the first to tell you about the less attractive, more depressing parts and pictures of Arkansas that aren't played up in the glossy state chamber of commerce brochures or flashed during network TV broadcasts of Razorback football games in the fall.

In these areas, kids go without food. Seniors choose between eating or being able to buy their prescriptions. Children lack school supplies when school starts in the fall, and warm coats when Arkansas winter comes.

"In Arkansas, there are some counties — at least three — where over half of the children live in poverty. Statewide, about a fourth of the children and senior adults live in poverty. This requires the need for many ministries to help these poverty-stricken people," Lewis said.

"Now, much of my work as a missionary is traveling all over the state — helping, encouraging, and telling our churches about the mission fields right here in Arkansas," Lewis said.

She spends much of her time on a Southern Baptist project called "Mississippi River Ministry," started in 1992 following a comprehensive government study commissioned along the lower Mississippi River.

"This study pointed out the tremendous poverty along both sides of the Mississippi River, so we began this project to call attention to this huge mission field right in the midst of where we live. Arkansas' Southern Baptist churches could get involved right in their own backyards, sending mission teams and sharing the hope of Christ with those in poverty," according to Lewis.

Proverbs 22:2 is one of Lewis' favorite verses: The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all (NASB).

"I love that verse because it reminds me that we have a lot more in common with people who are in poverty than we think we do. We're all God's creation."

Tiny Dixonville in central Arkansas is one such poor, backwoods hamlet Lewis and her Baptist mission teams have been ministering to for sixteen years now.

"We have mission volunteers who come and work at Dixonville every week or month helping with the children, the women, or entire families," Lewis said. "One of the favorite parts of my work as a missionary has been getting to work with the children in places like Dixonville.

"I love going with the children there to camp each summer, spending the day or night with them, singing songs with them during Vacation Bible School, and telling them about Jesus. We hold Bible studies with their mothers. They're like family to me because I've known them so long.

"The most important thing I want to tell our churches across the nation is that poor people have many strengths to share. Unlike most of the world, we shouldn't measure people by money. In the Christian life, we should measure people by their strengths. The people I've come to know, like those in Dixonville, live in poverty but have many strengths — in family, in endurance, and in character."

Another poverty-stricken town is Helena in Phillips County. Phillips County is the poorest county in all of Arkansas.

Two years ago, with Lewis' support, Mercy Pregnancy Resource Center was launched in an old house in Helena. It reaches out to pregnant girls and women who need resources to both give birth and raise their babies. At this center, adoption — never abortion — is the recommended option of choice for those women who cannot raise their babies.

Ironically, the Christian women's center is located in a rental house that had once been a local drug-users hangout, based on the drug paraphernalia found inside. But it was also in a perfect location, secluded to ensure the confidentiality of the women who would later come there for help.

Glad to be rid of the previous tenants, the old house's owner — a local Christian man — gave the Mercy Pregnancy Resource Center an initial three months' free rent. A local hardware store offered the center discounts on the materials needed to renovate it. The Arkansas Baptist Convention, local churches, local businesses, and area citizens donated thousands of dollars to furnish the center and stock it with needed baby products.

Mandy Chaney is executive director at Mercy Pregnancy Resource Center, a branch of Mercy Ministries.

"There are so many opportunities here in the Arkansas Delta because the teen pregnancy rate here is so high, the highest in the entire state of Arkansas," said Chaney. "We believe in the ministry that God did not intend for twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-old girls to have babies — not while they're still in school, not when they have no way to support a child."

The center is not just another pregnancy welfare facility with free giveaways, according to Chaney. The center uses an "Earn While You Learn" system in which girls and women coming to the center "earn" tokens for keeping their appointments, sitting through classes, watching educational videos, meeting with their mentors, and other tasks. Tokens can be used to "buy" baby clothes, maternity clothes, diapers, baby wipes, and other items at the center's baby boutique.

"Diana Lewis has been the catalyst for this ministry," Chaney said. "When this ministry first came to my heart, I didn't know what to do about it. The North American Mission Board and the state convention told us to talk to Diana. She told us that she had been praying three years for God to raise someone up in the Arkansas Delta for a ministry just like this."

"We need our Baptists in Arkansas to realize there's a great mission field right outside the doors of their sanctuaries — that every time they leave their church they're entering a mission field where they can share the hope of Christ with someone they're going to meet," Lewis said.

"Thanks to those who give to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering," Lewis said, "because you make it possible for me to do the ministry God has called me to do. And you make it possible for us to have the things we need as missionaries to do God's work. You make it possible for me to get into my car and go wherever I need to go in Arkansas to encourage a church's ministry or provide them with the resources they need to start a new ministry."

Lewis says she loves to see people sitting in the pews of a church, wondering how God can use them, and finally realizing how He can.

"Maybe they know how to cut hair or swing a hammer. Maybe they're a professional — a doctor, dentist, or nurse who can provide free healthcare. What I love most is to see people get so excited when they discover how God can use them in ministry."



How 2007 AAEO Gifts Will Be Used

Last year (2006), receipts to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions exceeded $57 million. This year's goal of $57 million will continue to help more than 5,300 missionaries, many of them jointly sponsored through partnerships with NAMB and state conventions.

These missionaries start churches in rural and urban settings and reflect the ethnic and cultural composition of their communities. The missionaries also share the Gospel by focusing on evangelism and ministering to people's physical and spiritual needs in a variety of settings.

Here is an overview of how this year's receipts will be spent.

75% ($42,750,000) Missionary Support
• Salaries
• Health benefits
• Missionary orientation
• Ongoing missionary training expenses

15% ($8,555,000) Church Planting Support
• Rental of facilities
• Materials
• Promotional expenses

10% ($5,700,000) Evangelism Support
• Scripture distribution
• Sports evangelism
• Special evangelism events
• Media campaigns

    About the Author

  • Mickey Noah