Building Hope Among Villages in Rural America

“I have sometimes seen, in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages, where no missionary has ever been.”

Those words inspired Scottish physician and internationally-renowned missionary David Livingstone to devote his life to bringing Christianity to the remote reaches of Africa in the late 1800s. They also inspire Larisa Craig, but she doesn’t travel to a foreign land to serve God and his people. The need hits far closer to home.

“This may sound funny but sometimes I think I invented that quote because it so describes who I am, in my core heart, as I struggle to continue to be faithful in the 30 communities I now serve. I am always feeling the tug on my heart to go to new communities in Nevada who have never heard of Jesus.”

The rural towns she serves — populations ranging from 100 to 8,000 — are located in the Sierra region of eastern California and western Nevada. It’s a rugged area, far from the picturesque ski resorts normally associated with the mention of the Sierras or the glitz of Vegas. This is an often-remote region with predominately gravel and dirt roads connecting communities whose citizens often feel forgotten in today’s uber-connected world. It’s a place where God’s light is needed more than ever.

Several years ago, a pastor who retired after 30 years of leading a thriving congregation started another church in one of those little Nevada towns Larisa calls home. He left after only three years, telling her: “In all of my years knowing the Lord I have never seen a darker place spiritually than the Eastern Sierras and Nevada — until my dying day I will never stop praying that God strengthens you, so you can go on serving Him.”

Keeping a Promise

Larisa stays because she promised she would. Her word is her bond with folks who were skeptical at first. Too many times they had seen “church people” come to the area for a week in the summertime, conduct their retreat, Vacation Bible School or revival and then disappear until the next summer — if they came back at all.

Larisa knows this because in her youth she accompanied her missionary parents on annual 6-hour pilgrimages to the areas she now serves. In 2003, she returned on her own, determined to show the local people they are not forgotten, that Jesus knows their names, and that a personal relationship with Him will open the door to glorious things.

Larisa began with a strong focus on children’s programs, starting with the Eastern Sierra Bible Camp. “When I first came I did not know of a camp in our area who could properly love or tolerate the kinds of campers we had. The two years before we began our camp we had driven kids 11 hours round trip to attend my parent’s camp to the south of us,” she said.

Larisa’s ministry soon expanded to include after-school Bible Clubs and Vacation Bible Schools. Now parents are getting involved through men’s and women’s retreats. It’s a full plate that requires traveling upward of 6,000 miles each month.

‘Thank You, God, for Cold Chicken Nuggets’

The Eastern Sierra Bible Camp opened with two buildings, 10 mishmash tents, one garden hose used for a shower, a swimming pool, one range oven, five bathroom stalls… and Larisa’s vision.

“I wanted to start a camp that was an example of what home could be like for kids who did not have good ‘home’ lives,” Larisa said. “Everyone would get 3 meals a day, and if a camper needs a blanket, we will give them a blanket. We started with 55 campers, ranging from third grade to 12th grade. Ninety percent of them had never been to any type of camp before — and 25% had never heard the name of Jesus.”

Daily fistfights and homesick meltdowns were common. “I once had a 17-year-old boy sitting on my lap, sobbing uncontrollably, because he had never been away from home before — and we were less than 100 miles from his house,” Larisa said.

These kids desperately needed to feel loved. The best way for that to happen, Larisa and her small staff determined, was to establish early on a desire for kids to know God’s Word and to feel safe “talking” to God. So, they started a tradition: “If you pray (publicly in front of the group) for a meal, you get to be first in line.”

There was a night when it seemed highly unlikely anyone wanted to be first in line. The oven was broken, and the staff was serving up cold chicken nuggets and macaroni & cheese. Faced with a bunch of unhappy campers whose grumbling was growing to low roar, Larisa stepped up to deliver the not-so-pleasant news that anyone who continued to complain would have to take it up with her directly. What happened next put things in crystal-clear perspective and eased tensions for everyone.

“A little boy in the front row interrupted me in the middle of my rant to ask if he could pray,” Larisa said. “It seemed so strange, because who wants to go first on cold chicken nugget night?!” She recalled his prayer went something like this:

“Dear God, thank you for this wonderful camp, I have never been to camp before but this one is so nice. Thank you for the blanket they gave me — because I didn’t have one the first night and I was very cold. Thank you for my hug before bed from my counselor, and for someone to say good morning when I wake up. That is so nice! And God, thank you for cold chicken nuggets. “I am so excited, I have never had a nugget before and I can’t wait to try it. Amen!”

Making Jesus a Focal Point

Fast forward to 2018. Larisa said they had 121 campers, and only one was not paid for through scholarship by a church or individual. Now the camp has 20 identical tents that each sleep 12, and two 4-bay shower trailers.

“We have always struggled to find godly staff who understand “tough” kids and love them anyway. The kids have not changed (though there were no fistfights last year), but the staff who surround them and lift them up when things get heated has,” Larisa said. “We have always done our best to offer classes and activities that have a “takeaway” so they are able to go forth and flourish in life.”

Kaylee is a perfect example of someone who has embraced God, thanks to her experiences at camp.

“I met Kaylee when she was just 12. Her single mom started raising her five kids when she was barely Kaylee’s age and I wanted a better life for Kaylee — one with Jesus as her focal point,” Larisa said. Years later, in 2018, Kaylee began coming to help with camp and has been at every camp since: Summer Camp, Winter Camp, Ladies Retreat, etc. Here is an excerpt from a recent letter Kaylee sent to Larissa:

“(Larisa) I have been praying for you A LOT!!! I love you. You’re my Big Sister! I am so thankful to have come back into your life. I love serving our Lord Jesus Christ. I feel so welcomed in this world, when I am walking with Jesus! Nothing is better than to share HIS sweet Love and Word! Thank you for welcoming me back with open arms. I know I fell short for a few years, but by the Grace of God I was saved and called back to Serve HIM. This Time I am not going ANYWHERE! I love HIM too much to walk away again.”

Inspiration is Always Present

Someone once told Larisa that they were ready for Jesus to return the moment they heard their last child had accepted Jesus as their Savior. Larisa said her inspiration “comes from knowing that all of my ‘children’ do not know Jesus. Sadly, some of the kids we will meet this summer will look up at one of our VBS or camp leaders and say, ‘Why has no one ever told me of Jesus before now?” That keeps me going, knowing that NOT ALL of the world knows my Savior; and, in fact, many in America don’t know Him.”

Larisa, who joined the Missions Door team last year, said one of the greatest lessons she learned from David Livingstone was that sometimes he was so focused on continuing his great “adventure” that the ones he left behind were not believers who could go on in their relationship with Christ. “So, I stay faithful in this season while always praying for and looking toward the horizon of the other villages I will one day see,” Larisa said.

Based on a recent Facebook post of a message from an unsaved mother, Larisa’s efforts are making a difference:

“Congrats Larisa M Craig and thank you for all you do for us. And thank you guys for putting our little “town” out there. Thank you for recognizing us and sharing that we are here, struggling, and yes, forgotten. God bless you guys.”