Her life's a mission

Thelma Braun has no doubt that she's living a miracle.

Nearly two years ago, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was given four to six weeks to live.

And yet, having undergone no treatment whatsoever, Braun is going strong.

At age 89, she's still globe-trotting to spread the good news (she's currently in India helping to lead a women's conference for 300 participants). When she's home in Wilmore, she works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday at her office with Evangelism Resources, the worldwide evangelism training ministry that she founded with her late husband, Willys Braun, in 1976. And she still recalls, in vivid detail 63 years later, the harrowing journey that first took her into the Belgian Congo, (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) where she and Willys devoted 30 years to training ministers, planting churches and educating the African people.

"I feel that it's the divine touch of the Lord," Braun said of her recovery. "I've lived a long and exciting life."

Indeed she has.

A promise fulfilled

When she was 10 or 12 years old, Braun said, her mother nearly died of goiter. Braun made the promise many of us do in desperation: that if God spared her mother, she'd dedicate her life to him. Her mother recovered, and Braun was true to her word.

She received her minister's license at age 14, pastoring her own church in her native Ohio — Newville Baptist — while in high school.

She and Willys were married for 62 years.

In his autobiography, Here Am I, Willys Braun, who died in 2003, wrote: "I have often wished I knew her in her earlier years and often stare searchingly at pictures of her high school days. How could she have lived so adult and so full a life in her teens? I have no answer except the very special intervention of God."

The valedictorian of her class, Braun went to Wheaton College, graduating in 1941 with a major in English literature and a minor in music (she's an accomplished pianist and flutist). She was a classmate of Billy and Ruth Graham, and it was at Wheaton that she met Willys, a native of St. Louis.

The two felt the call to mission work, signed on with the Christian Missionary Alliance, trained for more than two years learning French and missionary skills, and in 1945, in the heat of World War II, boarded a freighter for the 35-day trip to Cape Town, South Africa — a trip they narrowly survived when their ship encountered a rare at-sea tornado, scattering their lifeboats overboard.

Once in Cape Town, the Brauns journeyed 35 days by rail and riverboat to their first mission outpost, at Boma, Belgian Congo.

"It was full of adventure," Braun recalled, her mind still as quick and sharp as someone half her age. "We went across Victoria Falls. Baboons came on the path and met us. We were hesitant at first, but they seemed to be used to friends."

It was the start of a 30-year career in the Congo, where the Brauns lived alongside African villagers in Vungu and Kinkonzi, helping to start and run Bible schools and teach their students self-supportive trades, including carpentry, bricklaying, tailoring and agriculture. They led a nationwide radio ministry, published a widely read Christian journal and helped run an office in the capital city, Kinshasa, called Leco, La Librairie Evangelique Du Congo, then the largest printing operation in all of Congo. It fostered citizens' writings and publication of Christian books and journals. (A publication that Thelma Braun wrote there, Called to Shepherd God's People, a training manual for how to lead portable Bible schools, has gone through 43 translations and has been used to train 60,000 to 70,000 Evangelism Resources ministers in Africa, Southeast Asia and Southeast India.)

In the Congo, the Brauns learned to speak the indigenous language, Kikongo, and raised their three sons, all of whom became missionaries. The family returned to the United States only for short furloughs about every five years.

"We loved the African people so much," she said. "Our children had such an unusual life, such freedom growing up there. They were always biking down to the ocean. We had pet monkeys, pet antelope. All sorts of things. That was our life."

The Brauns stayed in the Congo, even in the harrowing time from 1958 to 1963, during the country's overthrow of Belgian control, when 200 white missionaries were slain and all but two of the country's missionary societies folded.

"There were very tense days. I won't say that I didn't fear," Braun said. "But we had close ties with the (new Congolese) president, who was a man from our tribe, and when the marauding terrorists came through, we were in conference with our pastors, and they stood guard for us."

During their time in the Congo, the Brauns helped to establish churches and train ministers in nearly all of the 50 African nations. "In those days when there weren't telephones and e-mails, it took some inventiveness," Braun said. Their home, a modest house with generator-powered electricity and water from rain barrels rigged on the roof, was so remote that it took two months for Braun to receive news of her father's death in Ohio.

Branching out in 1976

During a 10-year return home to the states from 1970 to 1980, the Brauns settled in Wilmore, drawn there by the chance to work with local evangelist Ford Philpot. Having worked with the Christian Missionary Alliance for nearly three decades, they decided to launch their own mission organization, Evangelism Resources, in 1976 to allow for more interdenominational work.

In 1991, the Brauns launched evangelism efforts, portable Bible schools and schools of evangelism in India, their first foray into work beyond Africa.

Today, Evangelism Resources works in 13 countries, operating 35 nine-month schools of evangelism with more than 1,000 students enrolled annually. Braun regularly visits their offices in Nepal, Haiti, Bangladesh and elsewhere, evaluating progress on the agency's mission to "disciple the planet" by training leaders in each country to become ministers to their own people, rather than sending outside missionaries there to preach.

Braun, Evangelism Resources' executive vice president, has no plans to stop. Currently on a three-week trip to India, overseeing and speaking at a women's conference in Jaipur, Braun also will visit Evangelism Resources' schools in Sikkim, near the border of Bhutan.

"I love it," Braun said of her mission work. "I feel that the Lord has given me a special favor, a special gift from him to allow me to continue for this long."

A ripple effect

Traveling with Braun to India are Becky and Josh Wright of Lexington, who became involved with Evangelism Resources through a trip to the agency's mission sites in India last year that were sponsored by Quest Community Church in Lexington. The Wrights were so inspired that they sold their home and bought a smaller one to be able to financially support the work Evangelism Resources does.

"To see in the middle of what could be called the most desolate, darkest places in society, to see in their work a Christian light being used by God to spread his message to villagers and communities is so inspiring," said Josh Wright, who is videotaping the India trip to help the agency create a promotional video about its worldwide evangelism efforts.

"It's shifted things in us, to see Christians there living in absolute poverty and amid social persecution yet still finding a deep faith. It challenges us to re-evaluate the way we live our own lives," Wright said.

In Nigeria, Evangelism Resources has helped to train 170 church leaders from throughout Africa and India, said Mawo Abaya, director of the Evangelism Resources International Center of Evangelism in Jos, Nigeria. Many ministers trained there have begun churches and schools in India, which has seen "a tremendous growth in the ministry," Abaya said.

The total number of worldwide citizens reached by Evangelism Resources in its 32 years is "in the millions, no question," said Stephen Liversedge, the agency's president. Its 35 schools of evangelism have trained about 9,000 ministers, and its shorter eight-week programs, known as portable Bible schools, 70,000 more. Those ministers have established thousands of churches worldwide, and they baptize and share the Gospel with tens of thousands, he said.

"Our main goal is to equip and train leaders of cross-denominational churches to reach out to people near them who don't know about Christ," he said.

Liversedge said Braun has been "like a mother" to him since he first traveled as a missionary to the Congo to live with her and Willys in 1984. "Her lifestyle is hard to match. I feel like I'm running to keep up," he said. "People literally around the world have prayed to God to let us keep her. The impact she's having on India right now — a country where white hair, where age is respected and matters — cannot be measured. When she gets up there to speak, people listen."

Rhonda Dragomir, Evangelism Resources' administrative assistant, said Braun is "consumed with one vision and one passion: to reach as many people as she can in the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

At nearly 90, Braun could have retired years ago. But that's not her plan.

"Her retirement plan is in heaven, and she's going to work until the Lord takes her home," Dragomir said.