Gospel worker who faced danger in Central Asia dies of cancer at 35
CMS regional director Katy Smith pays tribute to a woman who modelled Jesus in the lives of Muslim women
Stephanie* 26 January 1983 – 22 March 2018
I remember Stephanie’s commissioning as a long-term gospel worker for central Asia as though it was yesterday. I remember Stephanie and her father speaking about the risk of going to central Asia as a single young woman and the real possibility that Stephanie could be kidnapped or killed in an attack, and that, for some, this danger might seem foolish.
This possibility wasn’t academic; it was all too real as Stephanie herself experienced in 2014. We were prepared then in 2012 and then in 2014 to send Stephanie into a context where she may not return. We sent her first to H-Town and then to the slightly safer M-Town. We didn’t, we couldn’t, even fathom the possibility that Stephanie’s life with us would end, not by the hostility of extremists, but by the aggressiveness of cancer.
But Stephanie didn’t flinch from the cost. She knew she was going to a secure location. She knew that she was giving up her Western freedom of being able to walk and exercise in public unhindered. She knew that she would be separated by hundreds and hundreds of miles from her identical twin. She knew that the changed lifestyle of living in central Asia would cost her mentally, emotionally, and physically.
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We were prepared then in 2012 and then in 2014 to send Stephanie into a context where she may not return.
But she didn’t flinch because she loved Muslim women. Their stories tugged at her heart, and she knew that Jesus can heal. She saw an opportunity for Muslim women in central Asia to know Jesus and she could model knowing Jesus in her location. In her conversations, she could address issues of fear and speak words of dignity and being loved into the lives of women who felt they were worthless.
In a location where there wasn’t always running water, where food was beans and rice, Stephanie offered more than a one-dimensional gospel; she lived and modelled a holistic gospel, knowing that Jesus offers more than the spiritual. She knew that Jesus heals the broken-hearted and binds their wounds. And it was this love that motivated Stephanie to complete her Bachelor of Ministry and her Masters of Psychology so that she could be sent and used in an underdeveloped context in central Asia.
She wasn’t going to let her cancer get in the way of helping churches lift their eyes to see how God was working globally.
Once she had these skills, she offered them to God, and God honoured the gift of her service, and used Stephanie powerfully to bind the broken-hearted.
When Stephanie returned home for her third home assignment in October 2016, she came over for dinner one night and explained the symptoms she was experiencing. We had no idea what the following months would bring. Within less than two months, we knew the diagnosis of primary high-grade adenocarcinoma of the bowel. She underwent treatment, and procedure after procedure, with surgeons and specialists trying to help Stephanie fight. Her goal was to get well so that perhaps in a few years she could return to central Asia.
She never asked us to pray for healing, only that God would give her more time.
During the early stages of treatment, she was still doing deputations in churches. At one point, she was speaking at a church that wasn’t yet a CMS partner church and at several points during her talk about how God is at work in central Asia, she ran off stage to vomit into a bucket. She wasn’t going to let her cancer get in the way of helping churches lift their eyes to see how God was working globally.
But then there was the day Steph was wheeled into surgery. We knew that the surgery was going to be extensive, and when news came that the operation was done within half of the expected time length, it was the beginning of an uncertain few weeks, not knowing whether Stephanie had only four weeks left. Stephanie opted for a trial treatment, which we are very thankful gave Stephanie more time, her family more time, gave us more time, to process and sort through her prognosis.
God has heard the prayers of his people and has answered, taking Stephanie to her eternal home that is imperishable.
A friend observed in Stephanie’s last days that, after she received her devastating prognosis, she never asked us to pray for healing, only that God would give her more time. God heard and answered the prayers of his people since we have now had Stephanie for 11 months longer than we thought. Those months have not been easy, with Stephanie saying goodbye, with her twin still being hundreds of miles away in Dar es Salaam, with having to cope with feeling sick day in and day out, and feeling like she wasn’t being as useful as she desired to be.
In those months, she still purposefully met up with women to pray, to listen, to encourage, and to mentor in the Scriptures. Those sessions changed the lives of the women that she spent her precious time with. While Stephanie struggled to fathom the realities of heaven and an eternity being with Jesus, she remained standing firm in the Lord Jesus, knowing that he is the one who binds the broken-hearted and binds their wounds. Gradually, she started to ask us to pray that God would bring her home to be with him, as her eyes were fixed on the glories that awaited her.
Again, God has heard the prayers of his people and has answered, taking Stephanie to her eternal home that is imperishable.
Gradually, she started to ask us to pray that God would bring her home to be with him, as her eyes were fixed on the glories that awaited her.
Over the past day, I have tried to write words to say goodbye to Stephanie. I keep returning, though, to the same words that I wrote to her 12 months ago when we thought she had only four weeks to live. Those words still ring true now as they did then and I hope my words of goodbye might be echoed by many saying a temporary farewell to Stephanie, for it is only temporary – we will see her again.
There are no adequate words that capture this goodbye … I know that if God had seen fit to heal your body in this life, then your remaining here with us would have been for the progress of the gospel in central Asia. But while remaining would mean that we benefit from your life among us, departing from us holds so much more joy for you because departing means being with Christ. And there is nothing more lovely than being with Jesus.
Departing also means rest and the renewal of your body. In circumstances like these, we need to let you go because in the now your body is in pain, but by departing and being with Jesus, there will be no more pain, but life and flourishing. To want to keep you with us would be from selfish motives, although guised as gospel ambition. So now I’m letting you go and I’m saying goodbye. In saying goodbye, I know that the work that God began in you the day you believed in Jesus will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus, and he will preserve you until that day. I know this to be true and I know you know this to be true as well.
To want to keep you with us would be from selfish motives, although guised as gospel ambition.
Stay strong in the Lord until the end, my dear sister in Christ, because the end is the beginning of a beautiful new stage of life. Continue to the end with the same courage you have shown throughout your life. Take heart; our Lord will be with you. So until we see each other face to face in a new heaven and a new earth – among worshippers from every nation, in the glorious presence of the crucified and risen lamb – until then, goodbye.
Rev. Katy Smith is CMS SANT regional director based in Adelaide.
Published with permission from CMS SANT
*Stephanie’s full name has been withheld for security reasons.