By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
TOWNSEND — Joe and Linda Ledford and other Baptists were in the parking lot of the only grocery store in this small resort town in East Tennessee.
They were standing at a table giving out free ice cream cones, Bibles, and Bible storybooks to people.
As the couple and other Baptists explained that the ice cream was free, they told the people that another gift was free — God’s love and eternal life.
Often people were interested in their comments, said Joe. They have seen people, including children, accept their first Bible, added Linda.
They have had many deep, spiritual conversations with people here and have seen many people make professions of faith in this and similar settings over the 20 years they have served as Southern Baptist Mission Service Corps missionaries. They also have given away thousands of Bibles.
We believe God is “in the gospel, life-changing, saving business … . We do what we’re supposed to do and tell people, hand them a Bible, and point them in the right direction. … We don’t have to worry about the result,” said Joe.
The Ledfords, who served in Townsend for 12 years, Canada for six years, and Elizabethton for two years, retired May 31.
In Townsend the couple worked with Chilhowee Baptist Association, based in Alcoa, where Chilhowee Area Ministries (CHARM) developed by Kelly Campbell, Jim Snyder, director of missions, Chilhowee Association, and Kelly Snyder, was already ministering in the many campgrounds drawing visitors to the nearby Smoky Mountain National Park.
The Ledfords have developed the ministry to host about 350 short-term missions volunteers each year. Their ministries still include outreach in campgrounds, but also include ministry during festivals, ministry to motel workers, schools, businesses, and motorcycle riders, and servant evangelism.
They want to thank people for funding them, they said. MSC missionaries who serve through the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board raise their own support.
Their situation was scary at first, said Joe, but soon that subsided as people began to offer to support them.
“To God be the glory, we have never had to ask for money. We’ve never had to stop what we were doing to try to get money. God has been faithful through His people, many of them Tennessee Baptists,” said Joe, a former writer for the Elizabethton newspaper. Linda operated a beauty shop.
They also are so thankful for the cards, prayergrams, and gifts from churches and people they didn’t know which came regularly and for years, said Linda. Often, “it would be the very thing we needed to hear that day, that prayer for us,” she said. They especially loved reading the notes from children, she added.
“It was the prayer that we came to realize that really made a difference for us personally and in the things we were doing in missions,” observed Joe.
Sharing their faith
To be full-time missionaries, the Ledfords have learned how to share their faith.
“You can’t just use some book or formula or strategy or plan. It takes listening to God and doing what He shows you to do,” said Joe. They also have learned that simple things that can “start a conversation” lead to witnessing.
Joe said he has learned that “God has made each person who they are, each believer is who they are in Christ, in order for many individuals to reach many other individuals who would be like them or could relate to them.”
Laypeople need to be turned loose so they don’t worry about their knowledge, education, ability, or experience, said the couple. For example, the Ledfords ask people, even ministers, if they can serve ice cream or blow bubbles or lead a hulu hoop contest and talk to the people they meet, possibly about their faith.
“We just see joy in people said Joe.
In Canada, they observed a lot of people who were confused about religion. They got to know people so they would want what the Ledfords had, noted Linda.Then back in Tennessee they have seen the same behaviors.
Especially through spending time with people in Bible studies, they became friends to people who needed friends. These people probably wouldn’t seek out a church member or minister to talk to. But they would seek out one of them, who would meet them, often just outside their house in a vehicle, to talk, they noted.
They have seen people become Christians and the experiences have all been different and all “beautiful,” they agreed.
God sent volunteers to carry on ministry
God has sent them about 20 local Baptist volunteers to lead the ministry as they return to Elizabethton, they reported. Townsend is the first place they have had a team and it is thrilling to see the individuals take ownership and develop their unique ministries, said the couple.
For instance, Kathy Myers of East Maryville Baptist Church, Maryville, and Pat Flynn of Valley Grove Baptist Church, Knoxville, are leading the motel workers ministry, or what Linda has dubbed the “five-mile Bible study.” The motels in Townsend stretch along a road in the town for about five miles.
Jim Snyder said the Ledfords will be missed. They are “two of the most dedicated Christian servants I know. … Their zeal for sharing the gospel with everyone they encounter has been a contagion that has spread across many individuals and churches who have served through CHARM.”
Back in Elizabethton, the Ledfords are renewing acquaintances with former children, now adults, they ministered to through Big A Clubs in apartment complexes. They also are looking forward to new ministries.
Their service hasn’t always been easy, admitted Linda, but has been a joy. God “uses laypeople. … If people just knew how much fun this is, everybody would be doing it … ,” said Linda.
The Ledfords can be contacted at email@example.com.