Missionary Louis Spears did not let the tragic, sudden death in 2008 of his wife, Shelley, sidetrack his ministry to multihousing residents and "gypsies" in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. By Mickey Noah
As a Southern Baptist pastor for the last 30 years – and as a North American Mission Board missionary for the past six – Louis Spears has conducted many a funeral. But none of them prepared him for the long, lonely walk behind his wife’s casket almost two years ago.
A native of Guthrie, Okla., Spears and his wife, Shelley, had been married for 32 years – ever since they were both 20-year-old church planters in Oklahoma. But in May 2008, she succumbed to a pancreas-related illness only 11 days after its sudden onset.
“Shelley was an incredible person, a woman of many talents,” says Spears. “The main thing I miss about Shelley – other than just being together as not only my spouse but also my best friend – is the amount of prayer-time she spent on my ministry. She was really my partner in ministry. It’s a huge loss and huge gap in my life.”
Spears’ strong, tried-and-true personal faith prevented him from caving in to the temptation of chucking his whole ministry and blaming God in the process.
“I never thought about blaming God. I was not mad at God. The worst thing was being totally cut off from Shelley, missing her encouragement and positive reinforcement.”
Still after almost two years, the 54-year-old missionary said the grief is still “like big ocean waves that just swell up over you and you can’t fight them, but you know the Lord is the Lord, that He is supreme, and that in His design, He had a purpose for it.
“I can’t see it and I don’t understand it but I really don’t argue with Him about it. I really tried during Shelley’s 11-day crisis and through the last year to live my life without regrets. I didn’t leave anything undone or unsaid,” said Spears, who has a 24-year-old daughter, Amy, one grandchild and another on the way.
Spears is one of some 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. He is among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 7-14, 2010. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Share God’s Transforming Power.” The 2010 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like Spears.
While no one or nothing can ever replace the vacuum in his life caused by Shelley’s death, Spears depends on his challenging missionary work in Arizona to take up some of the slack, ease the pain and bring new victories.
With an estimated 71 percent of Arizona residents as unbelievers, Spears, a church planting strategist with the Valley Rim Baptist Association, faces a huge challenge. In addition to Mesa, the association serves 50 churches and missions in the Tempe, Scottsdale, Chandler and Gilbert areas of metro Phoenix.
Because land and buildings are so expensive in the greater Phoenix area, Spears focuses on planting “tactical” churches instead of brick-and-mortar churches, which can financially strap a congregation with huge indebtedness in its infancy and make survival more difficult.
“Tactical churches are collections of people who have not been reached before,” Spears explains. “We try to target an area where the Kingdom of God hasn’t been before. Some may be apartment complexes, mobile home parks, house churches or just a gathering of people at a Starbuck’s.”
According to Spears, the Phoenix area is the 12th largest metro area in the United States. “We’re in a vast multicultural setting. We have a lot of unchurched, unsaved individuals.
“We’re way behind on the number of churches we need in order to impact these individuals’ lives. We have only one church for every 23,000 people in Arizona. Since we don’t have many churches that run 23,000 every week, it’s vital for us to have funds to do evangelistic outreach, buy Bibles and other resources to help posture the churches we do have.”
Evangelical Christians – of which Southern Baptists represent the largest group – only represent two percent of the state’s population, trailing Catholics and Mormons.
“We have some churches that are in senior adult communities. We have multi-ethnic churches like Native American, Filipino and African-American churches. We have a large Spanish-speaking population. Over 35 percent of the people in Arizona speak Spanish.”
On top of the diversity, the uncertainty in the Phoenix area housing market is driving people to multihousing developments – whether apartments, townhouses, condominium communities or mobile home parks.
“Statistics show that only a small percentage of those people will ever come out and go to anyone’s church, so we believe it’s important to take church to them,” says Spears.
Spears begins by meeting a multihousing development’s property managers -- to get in from the ground up and establish good working relationships.
“We begin by asking the managers what their needs are,” he said. “We try not to assume that we know the industry better than the people who work in it. Most apartment communities know how to evict people, know how to charge the rent, know how to handle air conditioning problems and pest control. But what they don’t understand is the human element.
“They lose money every time somebody moves so by building a ministry and a partnership with them, it helps to build a sense of community. The people are more likely to stay,” Spears said.
To assist both the property managers and the tenants themselves, Spears and his team do things like forming kid’s clubs in the afternoon to give them a place to go and something meaningful to do. They often provide lunch to latch-key children, who are on a break from school and whose parents work. Afternoon soccer games are offered. Summer sports camps via mobile trailers can be deployed to various multihousing communities.
An offshoot of Spears work with multihousing communities was his introduction to the Travelers, the substantial “gypsy” culture and population of Arizona.
Spears says outsiders like him are usually not successful at trying to approach and penetrate the closed gypsy culture. “American gypsies actually discovered me and began to attend our church in Mesa,” he explains. “Eventually, I was accepted into their fascinating culture.”
The gypsy mission field is a natural extension of Spears’ missions work in multihousing since so many gypsies travel in RVs and live in mobile home parks throughout southern Arizona because of the area’s warmer winters.
“People who give through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering help supply a base of church planters and allow them to have a living while they’re beginning to build new congregations,” said Spears.
“Without the Annie Armstrong offering, I would be able to devote only a fraction of the time to tactical church plants, and even less to reaching the Travelers (gypsies) population. But because of the offering, in addition to my salary, I receive training, materials for evaluation and training, demographics for new and existing church areas, and am able to network with other church planters across the country.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC