Woman's Missionary Union
BENTON – Missions has been a driving force in Diana Lewis’ life for almost as long as she can remember.
As a member of Girls Auxiliary (now Girls in Action) during her grade school years, she recalls the life-changing influence made by Muriel Smith, her GA leader at Elmdale Baptist Church, Springdale.
“She’s in heaven now, but she was a real blessing in my life,” Lewis reflected. “As a girl studying about missions, we didn’t just sit in a room and learn about what missionaries do somewhere else. We did that too, but she took us to do missions even as a girl.”
Recounting those childhood memories with vivid detail, Lewis said, “The most outstanding one of those adventures, in my mind, that we had was a Christmas when I was maybe 9 or 10. We went to take Christmas to a single mom and her children that lived in an old chicken house with holes in the wall.
“And we didn’t just go drop off food and gifts at the door. We went in and spent time with the family and helped the kids decorate a tree and just spent quite a bit of time with them. I never forgot that experience,” she explained. “I’m grateful that I had that experience as a girl because I really believe that’s where God began to speak to my heart about at least one of the calls He would have on my life to help people who live in poverty.”
The impact of obedience
Following those formative years, Lewis continued to sense a call to missions as a teenager. She went on to earn her undergraduate degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia with majors in sociology and religious education as well as a Master of Religious Education degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Affirming the impact of obedience to God, she said, “I’m so thankful that God led me to Louisville because that’s where I met my husband. He was from North Carolina and I was from Arkansas. I don’t know that we would have met otherwise.”
While in seminary, she and her future husband, John, both spent the summer of 1977 working in New Orleans. “I went to work at Baptist Friendship House in downtown New Orleans and he went to get a unit of clinical pastoral education at Baptist Hospital,” she noted.
“We actually started dating in New Orleans – cheap dates,” she recalled fondly. “We would get on the streetcar and ride it to the end of the line and then ride it back so that’s where we dated and fell in love. Then we both went back and finished our last year of seminary and then we got married in Louisville a week after we graduated.”
Over the years, John served as a pastor of churches in Arkansas and Tennessee. They later moved back to Arkansas where he served as a chaplain at the Alexander Youth Services Center and at McClellan Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Little Rock.
Diana’s work and ministry experiences ranged from her role as a pastor’s wife and Acteens leader to being a home health social worker and working with Northwest Arkansas Head Start. She then served 20-plus years in community ministries with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and North American Mission Board.
Serving people in poverty
“I think the call that God originally put on my heart about people in poverty was always there,” she affirmed. “Later in life, I went back to visit my GA leader before she passed away and she told me she knew even at that age as a girl for me, that she knew that God was calling me to do community ministries. That really impacted me when she told me that.”
Along with her husband’s strong sense of God’s call to chaplaincy ministry in Arkansas, she said he later told her, “Diana, I believe the main reason God called us back to Arkansas was for your role with the state convention to do community ministries.”
Even before she began serving full-time with the state convention, Lewis said, “God also very specifically called me to a poverty community that’s about 30 or 45 minutes from where I live here in Benton. I just knew I needed to go see about this place.”
She and two pastors from Central Baptist Association first delivered food to the community 30 years ago after the area was flooded by heavy rains. Over the years, ministry efforts have included planting and building a church, hosting Backyard Bible Clubs and after-school tutoring, leading women’s Bible studies, baptizing people in horse troughs and providing residents with clothing and food.
Noting that the women’s Bible study group “raised the first wall of the church building,” Lewis added, “I probably learned more than those women ever learned from me – just their strength, their endurance, their love of the Lord when they have nothing materially.”
Coping with tragedy and grief
Life took an unexpected tragic turn in 2007 when John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The Lewises, who had been selected the previous year as featured missionaries for that spring’s Week of Prayer for North American Missions, found out about his cancer shortly before the annual prayer emphasis.
“The day that we went to find out where else it was in his body and how bad it was, was the day that we were on the Week of Prayer,” she recounted. “That was a really hard day but it was such a blessing to us to know that people were praying for us. … I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that one of the reasons that God lined this up the year before was so we would have people praying for us.
“It was rough. Pancreatic cancer is terrible and usually found really late,” Lewis said. “John lived from early March until July 8, just a few months, a few weeks. That was a really hard time, of course, for us but God sustained us. We had lots of cards and letters from people that had prayed for us during that Week of Prayer.
“I’ll never forget an envelope of multiple cards that I opened that a GA and RA (Royal Ambassadors) group had done for us. One of those cards, I opened it up and the pre-imprinted part of the card before the child wrote and drew for us said, ‘Strength for today is all that you need, not strength for today and tomorrow.’ I kept that card in my nightstand beside my bed because that really spoke to me about I didn’t have to worry about the next day. I just needed God’s strength for that day. That really, really helped me and somewhere I still have that card.”
As Southern Baptist churches and missions groups observe the annual Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and Week of Prayer, “that’s just another reason that we need to continue to have children praying for missionaries,” she insisted. “When I have taught GAs at my church here in Benton, I’ve taught those children that God hears the prayers of children. … I want them to know what a difference that made in my life. We’ve got to find ways to continue teaching children and adults about prayers for their missionaries and giving to their missionaries and learning about what their missionaries do.”
Rediscovering joy on the journey
Following John’s illness and death, Lewis wrapped up her state convention missions work a couple of years later. “I just really felt like I just needed some time,” she explained. “There’s nothing more exhausting than grief. I believe you could go out and dig a ditch all day and you’re not going to be as exhausted as you are when you’re grieving. I was weary.
“It’s been a difficult journey at times but God has blessed me with wonderful friends, wonderful family who have walked with me along the way,” she said. He also has guided her to new ministry opportunities as diverse as volunteer missions projects in Peru; helping provide leadership for a local pregnancy resource center; hosting a weekly women’s Bible study in her home; and making beautiful, intricate quilts often adorned with Scriptures of peace and comfort for friends and acquaintances who are grieving or ill.
Another joy in her life these days is spending time with her two grandsons, Samuel and Ollie, who were adopted from South Korea by her son, Caleb, and his wife, Brooke. “I’m thankful for how God has enlarged my family,” she emphasized. “Now my life is very full with grandsons and local ministries and international ministries” as well as her ongoing support of a variety of Woman’s Missionary Union projects.
Reflecting on her longtime missions philosophy amid the high and lows of life, Lewis said, “All that I have is God’s and that’s the only way I know to approach my life.
“I’m not saying I do it perfectly, that I always give away everything that I should or that I always use my time wisely,” she acknowledged, “but I really have especially learned through the loss of John way too early in life that every moment is precious and every day is a gift.”
Pausing thoughtfully, she quietly added, “I don’t want one of those gifts to pass me by without sharing something about the Lord or what the Lord has done for me with somebody else” – just like her childhood GA leader and John would have anticipated.
Trennis Henderson serves as national correspondent for Woman's Missionary Union (WMU).