By Carl Stagner
Can you imagine taking Bibles into mainland China? Or negotiating the planting of Christian churches there? Can you imagine being met with fixed bayonets and machine guns upon arrival in Guatemala? Can you picture speaking to the inmates at a Latvian penitentiary? Or the prime minister of Guyana asking for your help? Donna Thomas can answer each with a yes, having stepped foot in eighty countries. She has led a fascinating life, marked by both challenges and triumphs. It all began when she followed the Lord’s call to missions after a hearing a sermon delivered by E. Faith Stewart. Since then, Donna Thomas has followed the Lord wherever and whenever he has said, “Go.”
“Why not?” She replies. “Why not try it?” Donna Thomas loves to respond to opportunities with this bold question. She can’t imagine the consequences of choosing not to walk through the open doors—or busting through the closed ones—as the Lord directs. The first door she encountered was at a Church of God in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at age thirteen. E. Faith Stewart, responsible for founding The Shelter in Cuttack, India, spoke, and the Holy Spirit tugged at Donna’s heart. “I knew my calling was for overseas missions, but I didn’t have a clue as to where,” she recounts. “I just knew I needed to be doing the kind of things Faith Stewart was doing.”
After completing ten years of local church ministry, Donna and her late husband Chuck were challenged to visit Mexico with ministry in mind. “In 1963,” she explains, “people just didn’t get up and go outside the United States. You didn’t just take a trip to Mexico, to Asia, to Europe.” But right after Christmas that year, the family traveled to Mexico, and discovered that the Lord was indeed also on the other side of the Rio Grande!
“After that, we started taking people. We tried to get people interested. We bought a bus. Eventually we bought a plane.” Eventually, Donna and Chuck even used a forty-seven-foot yacht for short-term mission trips. The short-term mission trip—a revolutionary idea at the time—really defined the organization they founded, Project Partner. Though the ministry has evolved over time to fit the needs of a changing world, Donna and Chuck continually emphasized the support of indigenous nationals already doing the work of the Lord.
A lifetime in missions has made a significant impact on Donna and her global perspective. “I learned to see people through the eyes of Christ,” she explains. “That is essential. You’ve got to see people—not just walk on by. Think of it this way. If Jesus were in Walmart with you, would he be looking at the stuff he could buy? No. He’d see all the people. So I think about who they are, where they may have come from, and how much they may or may not know about Jesus.”
Over the years, Donna Thomas has taken many pastors overseas with her, including Jim Lyon. Her travels have yielded in the construction of churches in restricted areas like mainland China, brought medical supplies to needy people in developing countries, and changed countless lives. Many of these incredible stories are documented in books she has written, including Climb Another Mountain and The “Why Not” Factor. One such story has been told again and again: When preaching the gospel through a translator in Peru on one occasion, the translator told Donna at about the halfway point that she no longer needed a translator. The people were understanding everything that was being said. “And they did understand,” Donna reflects. “It never happened before, and it never
When asked what advice she would give to believers who want to do better at sharing their faith, she replies, “Look at what Jesus did. How many people did he talk to that turned their backs and walked away? He tells us to plant the seeds. Start with friendship. Have some coffee with them. Talk about family. Then tell them about what the Lord has done for you. Then they will start asking questions.”
For the aspiring missionary, Donna’s words come from more than half a century of experience. “The first thing is not to pack your bag and go. Train yourself. Be a foreign missionary and sleep in your own bed. Do it right here. Would you like to minister to Afghans? They’re right here. Iranians? They’re here. Burmese? They’re here. Start here. Then learn the language (they can help you learn the language!) and the culture, and get your heart in the right place for wherever the Lord is preparing to send you. If the Lord gives you something to do, try it. Why not?”
Donna Thomas was called to missions during a sermon given by E. Faith Stewart. God is still using Stewart’s example, especially her founding of The Shelter, to inspire Church of God people to change the world. Learn more about the Church of God fight against sex trafficking at www.CHOGTraffickLight.org. Learn about Church of God missions at www.CHOGMissions.org.