Donna Bishop was one of the first agents of change that I ever had a chance to know. We met when I was a junior in high school. She was a transfer student I had never seen before, but it didn’t take long to realize that she was different. I’d often run into this beautiful young woman alone somewhere on campus, just praying and worshipping Jesus. We shared a couple classes and became friends, but she never ceased to amaze me with how serious she was about following Jesus.
Donna actually seemed like a character in a sappy Christian movie. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but she said and did things that “normal people” just don’t. She had an uncommon heart for intercession, often praying alone in the gym during her free time. I remember her telling me once about her “hit list”—her top ten friends that she was praying to see come to Jesus. She was the real deal, Donna was. So it didn’t surprise when I heard that she was going to become a missionary.
We lost touch after high school, but I reconnected with Donna when I became an assistant pastor at the church she attended. It was a relatively small church that was reaching out to marines who were stationed about forty-five minutes away. Donna and a few of her friends had started hosting Bible studies on Saturday evenings, and some of the marines would gladly use the excuse to get away from base and enjoy a few home cooked meals over the weekend.
One Saturday evening, her little group of friends headed to go get burgers after Bible study when the car that Donna was in got hit. While she seemed to be okay at the scene of the accident, Donna had several serious internal injuries. She was taken to the hospital later that night, and would spend the rest of her short life surrounded by friends and a small but committed army of intercessors.
I was out of town when the accident happened, but I got a phone call telling me that I should come home as soon as possible. I arrived at the hospital Sunday night to find the hallways, waiting room, and chapel all filled with family and friends. Prayer went on around the clock for the next several days as we waited to see what would happen.
I remember walking out into the hallway one evening to find five or six marines standing quietly outside of the doors that led back to the intensive care unit. I was astounded by the fact that most of them had tears in their eyes. I was even more astounded when I found out that only one or two of these men actually knew Donna. Most of them had only heard stories about her from her boyfriend or other people.
In that moment, my mind raced back to my last conversation with Donna, just a few weeks before the accident. It was one of those times when she said things that “normal people” don’t say. I had walked in on one of her prayer times and we started talking. She had been praying and meditating on Philippians 1:20-21. Her prayer sounded something like, “Jesus, be glorified in me, whether by life or death. For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
She hadn’t been praying this as a morbid death wish; on the contrary, she was excited to live and become a missionary. Her heart was filled with dreams of friendship, love and family, but her First Love was Jesus and she had given herself to Him in a way that made me a little uncomfortable. She talked about Jesus in such real terms, and lived her life in such a clear way, that it somehow made sense to me that strong men who had never met her were standing in the middle of a hospital with tears in their eyes at the thought of her condition.
That Wednesday afternoon, we all cried when Donna passed away, but we had no idea how God was about to use such tragic circumstances to answer her Philippians 1 prayer. Over the next several months, dozens of people gave their lives to Jesus as people encountered the God that was so real to Donna. Every one of the friends on her “hit list” became believers within just a few months.
Our “little church” was transformed. Over the next three years, over three hundred and fifty people gave their lives to Jesus, including scores of members of the United States Marine Corp. Within six months of Donna’s death, we had Bible studies happening on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea, in Okinawa, and across marine bases and air stations around the United States. The gospel was spreading, and Jesus was receiving glory from across the face of the earth, in part because of one nineteen year old girl who decided to pray and follow Jesus with a handful of friends.
Focus on the Family would later recognize Donna as one of their “Young Women of the Year” in Brio magazine, and our church dedicated a youth center in her honor where we shared the gospel with area teenagers every week for the next several years. As our church continued to grow, so too the number of people who had never personally met Donna increased, but her life had released an influence that still affected them. In fact, the influence of her radical love still affects people to this day.
But the greatest reward that Donna received was not the honors from well-known organizations, or buildings that bear her name. It comes from the answer to her prayer that she would glorify God, be it in life or in death.
Several years after Donna had passed away, a group of friends, most of whom she had never met, gathered on Saturday nights to hang out at the youth center. Afterwards they would go pray for their friends in the church sanctuary. I didn’t always make it to the youth center on Saturdays, but I remember being there one week when my friend, Al, was praying for his roommate, Jeremy. Al and Jeremy were both big, tall Marines, but right about there is where their similarities ended. Al was following Jesus, while Jeremy was a member of a pagan church.
As I watched Al and our friends pray for Jeremy that night, I was reminded of the dozens of people who had come to Jesus in our little church since Donna passed away. I joined in praying for this man that I had never met. There was great faith and expectation in my heart that night, waiting to see what God would do to bring Jeremy to His Son.
The next morning seemed to be a pretty typical Sunday at our church. I was halfway through the lesson I had prepared for the adult Sunday School class when the back door of the church opened. Everyone turned around in time to see a tall marine walk in wearing dark sunglasses a long, black trench coat. Jeremy had come to show his roommate that his pagan faith would not be shaken by a visit to church.
Jeremy came in and sat down on the second row for the rest of class. He kept his seat as the worship band filed in and our morning worship service began. I remember watching his face as praise filled the atmosphere. At first, his expression looked hard as a rock, but minute-by-minute I watched him struggle to keep his composure as the reality of God’s love and presence became real to him. Jeremy didn’t make it through the worship service before he was ready to give his life to Jesus.
I will never forget the tears that flowed from the eyes of the now former pagan as we went through the story of the gospel. Jeremy found faith in Jesus that morning, and we baptized him the following week. The change in his life was quite dramatic. I noticed it in measures as he began to grow over the next few months, but it was not until several years later that I discovered just how impactful Jeremy’s witness was.
Lee was a staff sergeant that had grown up in the church but had drifted away from Jesus as he entered into adulthood and the marine corp. He was assigned to the same squadron as Al and Jeremy. One of Lee’s responsibilities was to check the rooms for men in his squadron. He was so struck by the change in the atmosphere of Jeremy’s room and the change in the content of his locker that it brought him under conviction. He started hanging out with another friend who had recently started following Jesus, and it wasn’t long before Lee had rededicated his life to the Lord.
One man (Lee) had recommitted to following Jesus because of change in another man’s (Jeremy) locker, who had started following Jesus in part because of his roommate’s (Al) prayers, a roommate who had come to Jesus as a result of the gospel going out from a youth center named after a girl (Donna) whose life seem to end too soon.
During the seven years I had the privilege of serving as one of the pastors of that “little church” in North Carolina, my life was forever altered. One of the things that changed me the most was the truth God taught me from the events surrounding Donna’s life and death: You don’t have to be famous to change the world and eternity.
I left North Carolina in 2003, but I continue to see how the lives Donna touched are still making a difference. Most of those young marines have grown up to be husbands and fathers leading families that love Jesus. Their children have probably never heard the whole story about how a nineteen-year-old girl gave her life to Jesus through prayer and intercession. They may not know the story, but they have become a part of it.
“Jesus, be glorified in me, whether by life or death. For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
This is an excerpt from my new book, the Culture of the Few. Donna passed away 21 years ago today. In honor of her memory, I am inviting some of the people who knew her or who were impacted by her life to share how her life impacted them. If this post impacted you, please Like it and Share it with your friends.