Published March 2, 2006
TOLEDO BEND, La. — For spunky, fast-talking, fast-walking Mary Gore, it’s just another Saturday in bass-fishing paradise – Toledo Bend, La. Mary is busy doing what she does best. She’s out fishing – not for largemouth bass, but for souls.
To say “Miss Mary” – as she calls herself – has a passion for winning others to Christ, is like saying seafood prepared by Louisiana chefs is just another meal. Both fall into the “gross understatement” category.
On this particularly Saturday afternoon, she’s making the rounds of about 70 campsites at North Toledo Bend State Park, just outside Zwolle, La. At each campsite, she’s inviting campers who’ve come from all over the country to be guests at an 8:30 a.m. worship service the next day. Some Sundays, Mary may lead 30-minute worship services in as many as five different campgrounds. The services may take place in one of the lake’s gazebos or in a local bait and tackle shop.
A native of Silsbee, Tex. – with the east Texas drawl to match – Mary is a North American Mission Board resort missionary for Toledo Bend, a mecca for professional and amateur bass fishermen alike. The lake – located in the west-central part of Louisiana – actually makes up 70 miles of the Louisiana-Texas border. It includes 185,000 acres of surface water, 1,200 miles of shoreline and is one of the country’s largest man-made reservoirs.
Now in her 13th year at Toledo Bend, Mary is always on the go – working across four parishes (counties) and in five Baptist associations. And she’s only one of over 5,200 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. She’s one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries to be highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 5-12, 2006. The 2006 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $56 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like Mary.
“You know, people aren’t sitting still, waiting on me to show up. There are people all over this lake. We’ll probably have 30,000 people through this weekend. Now, I can’t talk to all 30,000 of them in one weekend, but I’m going to talk to as many as I can.” And one look at Mary, you know she means business – business for Jesus.
“We have to go where the people are,” Mary says. “We take the church outside. We want to give people the chance to not only know His creation, but also to meet the Creator. Sometimes, you just have to take church to where the people are.”
You’ve got to love Mary’s out-of-the-box, Christian mission strategy.
“Jesus, when He gave the Great Commission, said ‘Go, and make disciples.’ I’ve yet to find a verse that said, ‘Come and invite them to your air-conditioned, padded pew church building.’ Jesus went out with the fishermen. He preached on the seashore and He preached from a boat. He went to the marketplace. He preached up on the side of a mountain. He didn’t always stay in the synagogue. We’re just trying to follow Jesus’ example – trying to be His hands and feet to reach a lost and dying world.”
Inviting campers to a church service is only one of Mary’s methods designed to draw people to Christ. She may conduct backyard Bible clubs for children. Dressed in her “Jesus: That Is My Final Answer” T-shirt, she wows kids with puppet shows. She quenches the thirst of campers by distributing bottles of water with the plan of salvation imprinted on them.
The Jesus they see
“Our ‘Fun in the Son Club’ is a day camp for kids, which we conduct in parks, private marinas, neighborhoods around the lake and even in some of the local housing projects,” said Mary. “It has all the ingredients of a church’s Vacation Bible School – Bible lessons, music, crafts, recreation and snacks. We just do it outside.”
According to “Miss Mary,” the only thing some of the children in her “Fun in the Son Clubs” know about Jesus is what she tells them.
“They never get to go to church or Sunday School. In fact, some of them think God’s last name is a four-letter word. That’s the only time they hear about God. So we try to show them the cross and let them know that Jesus came and lived and died for them – and rose again so that they could have a relationship with Him.”
Because she sees her role as a calling and not merely a job, Mary’s work-hours are not the typical 9 to 5, Monday-Friday. Sometimes, she holds a “service” around a toasty campfire on a chilly, pine-scented Louisiana night – a service heavy with the strum of guitars, soft singing and casual conversation about what it means to be a Christian.
“I try to show folks that being a Christian is not a list of things they can’t do – that it’s not something that’s dull and boring and where fun is outlawed,” says Mary.
“People like to fish and camp. So I try to emphasize how fishing and camping are good things. I have a ball coming out here and visiting with the campers. Hey, maybe they’re frying fish and I may get a piece of fish out of it, who knows? I’ve been known to eat three lunches a day out here.”
Mary’s passion extends to those folks who wouldn’t darken the doors of a church – Baptist or any other denomination – to hear about Jesus or how to have a relationship with Him.
“As a resort missionary, I try to get the Gospel outside the four walls of the church building,” she said. “Whether people are camping at the lake, fishing in a tournament, attending one of our local fairs or festivals, or whether they’re just passing through Toledo Bend, I try to tell them about Jesus – that He has a plan for their lives and cares about them. It may be at the campsites, at a restaurant or at a store. I can’t just sit back; I have to talk to them.
“I’m not going to tell people they’re bad and do things we Baptists don’t approve of. I tell them they don’t have to suddenly become good enough to know Jesus. I just tell them they‘ve got to admit they can’t always run their own lives and that they’re not always going to get it right – that they need help. I tell them that I don’t get it right all the time. Sometimes I just slap dab mess up. I do tell them they need to confess their sins, commit their lives and give Him control,” Mary said.
“Letting people know that God loves them and has a great plan for their lives is the most fun anybody can have. And it just amazes me everyday that Southern Baptists will let me do this and even pay me to do it,” she said.
Leaving comfort zones
Mary believes God wants Southern Baptists to leave their “comfort zones.”
“He wants us to get out there and be in the world and not of the world. He wants us to get out of our comfort zones and to go where the people are. Use the things they like to win them to Christ. I grew up with people who hunted and fished and hung around a lake all the time. Today, that’s how I relate to the people at Toledo Bend.
“Without the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American missions, I wouldn’t be able to do this. I would have to worry about how I was going to pay my next electric bill!”
Jesus told his disciples – some of whom were former fishermen – to “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Mary Gore is not only responding to His call, she’s enjoying every “slap dab” minute of it.
The Reason We Give to AAEO: To help our missionary force reach for Christ an estimated 244 million lost people in the United States and Canada; that’s seven out of 10 people.
AAEO National Goal for 2006: $56 million
Amount given to AAEO in 2005: More than $54 million
Amount of AAEO used to support missionaries and their work: 100%
Number of NAMB Missionaries: More than 5,200 (About one-third are career missionaries, one-third are short-term, funded missionaries and a third are Mission Service Corps missionaries.)
Total 2006 NAMB budget: $124 million
Amount of NAMB budget that comes from AAEO: 44%
Amount of NAMB budget that comes from Cooperative Program: 36%
Year Offering started by WMU: 1895
Amount given in 1895: $5,000 +
Year Offering named for Annie Armstrong: 1934
What do AAEO-supported missionaries do?
• Start new churches
• Evangelize students on college campuses
• Serve the physical and spiritual needs of people through evangelism ministries
• Serve in Baptist associations as associational missionary or mission staff
• Provide training and ministry in interfaith witness evangelism
• Minister in resort settings such as lakes, campgrounds and ski areas
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