By Barbara Denman
NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Stories of faith from behind prison bars, in lives of at-risk youth, through the work of missionaries and church planters nationally and internationally, as well as the dedication of missions-minded women across the nation, affirmed during the WMU Missions Celebration and Annual Meeting that “The Story Lives On.”
The theme — focused on Jesus and His transforming touch, drawing from Acts 4:20, “As for us we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” — was celebrated during the second day of the Woman’s Missionary Union meeting, June 17-18 in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
In a video filmed behind the prison fences of the McPherson Women’s Unit in Newport, Ark., three women shared how they had found hope and a life of purpose despite their circumstances through faith in Jesus Christ.
Introducing herself to the audience, NAMB chaplain Stacey Smith told of her 60-year prison sentence after an early life of drugs and crime. While sitting in a jail cell reading Scripture she asked Jesus to come into her life.
Released after 16 years for good behavior, Smith has returned to prison for the past five years to organize Bible studies and reach new believers. She urged others to find a place of ministry behind the prison walls. “Prison is a mission field with a captive audience,” she said. “They hunger for the Word of God.”
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told how The Story Lives On in the Louisiana State Correctional Institute in Angola. Known for its violence, Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the nation, with 5,000 inmates, “many who will spend the rest of their days in prison and never walk out of there.”
The seminary began ministering there after the warden, Burl Cain, a Southern Baptist layman, became concerned about the spiritual condition of the men on death row. After starting Experiencing God studies for the men, he called the seminary for help.
Kelley and professors came to the prison with academic courses “to teach them how to be ministers and leaders.” The prisoners have enrolled in classes and graduated from the program. Among their class assignments was to lead Bible studies and start churches within their cell blocks.
Individual and cultural victories have resulted, Kelley said. The moral climate has changed, with incidents of violence decreasing by 40 percent.
Laurie Register, executive director of South Carolina WMU, told how the WMU’s Project: Help is transforming lives of at-risk and incarcerated youth within the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice system.
For three decades an Acteens ministry flourished on the campus of the Willow Lane Program for Girls located in Columbia, she said. Now that effort has evolved into multiple ministries as local churches and World Changers have led Vacation Bible Schools, constructed and furnished a transitional house and chapel-activity center and prayerwalked throughout the campus.
WMU national president Debby Akerman told of career missionaries and mission volunteers “empowered to tell the story” despite language and cultural barriers.
“I love to tell the story of unseen things above,” said Kathy Shafto as she quoted words from the beloved hymn and traced her journey as an IMB missionary to Burkina Faso. That journey began when a neighbor “allowed” Shafto to come to church and a mission leader invested time to “set my life on a course.” Her love for missions was honed through time in WMU camps and as counselor.
Now she and her husband Jay, in turn, invest their lives reaching new believers in the West African nation, planting new churches and empowering them to share the story of the Gospel.
The story lives on through church planting, said Damien Emetuche, who traced his spiritual journey from seeds planted by Southern Baptist missionaries to Ethiopia.
Serving as church planting professor at New Orleans Seminary, Emetuche challenged the group to plant new churches to reach the multitudes of immigrants entering the U.S. who bring their own world religions to convert others.
The Dellana O’Brien award, named in honor of the past WMU executive-director, was given to Mycie Vue, president of the Minnesota-Wisconsin WMU. Vue is a Hmong immigrant whose family walked for six weeks to escape persecution in Laos.
Re-elected to serve another one-year term were Debby Akerman, national WMU president, and Rosalie Hunt, recording secretary.
The next WMU annual meeting is set for June 9-10 in Houston, Texas.
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.
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