Waving her hand and waiting for the jeepney to pull over, Lorena Jane Armstrong, accompanied by a Filipino student, stands on a sidewalk in Manila, the Philippines.
As the 5-foot-10-inch woman jumps in the back of the colorful minibus, she locates a spot on the bench seat among eight to 10 other travelers and notices that she rarely ever meets Americans who travel like the average Filipino.
Armstrong passes a couple of pesos over to the other passengers. The money makes its way to the front of the bus, where the driver puts his hand back, ready to pass her change through the people.
“One thing I’ve loved about summer missions is we are actually talking with and getting to know the people of the country,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong has dedicated her whole life to campus ministry. Getting to know students and loving them in any way possible dictated her agenda for the past 46 years, 43 of them at Miami University. Through Cru, Armstrong, together with other staff members and groups of Miami students, traveled to 37 countries to reach the unreached and to equip students to be more like Jesus.
“I’ve lived overseas for more than five years, but I’ve never been there longer than seven weeks at a time,” she said.
Forty-three years ago, Armstrong moved from Pocatello, Idaho where she spent her first three years on staff with Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, to Oxford and has lived close to campus ever since.
When school is in session, 68-year-old Armstrong meets individually with nine disciples per year: four of them junior or senior students, five of them women currently on her team.
Armstrong’s work includes staff meetings, leading a women’s Bible study, attending Cru’s weekly meetings called “Campus Connect” and discipleship time, where she, together with her disciples, studies the Bible, prays, and reaches out to others who have questions.
Armstrong said the most loving thing she can do for someone is to explain how they can know God personally, as well as help them grow and mature in their faith, and understand how to walk with God each day.
Armstrong has no plans or desires to retire.
“It’s a privilege to be involved in student’s lives,” she said.
Raised from southern roots
Armstrong, born 1952 in Memphis, moved to Wynne, Arkansas, when she was five years old. Her father, Wayne, had tried to be a farmer in Mississippi but could not compete with the bigger businesses, so the family moved back to where they had lived before Armstrong was born.
Armstrong’s grandparents played a major role in her upbringing, providing financially “for a lot of things that rich friends could afford to do.” Grandfather James, whom Armstrong calls “Pappy,” owned the Western Auto appliance store in town.
“My grandparents bought the house I grew up in, and sold it to my mom for $1,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong recalls how her grandmother taught her all about hospitality, a quality Miami students highly value about Armstrong.
“I felt so welcomed here,” freshman Gabby Demidovich said. Armstrong texted her the first week of school and invited her over for lunch after the first Campus Connect meeting of the year.
“She doesn’t just want to know about the surface-level things, she really wants to get to know your heart.”
Accepting Christ changed her life
Armstrong remembers going to church since she was little and had accepted Christ when she was nine years old.
“Faith was necessary in my house,” Armstrong said, considering that her mother didn’t know whether she would survive being pregnant with Armstrong.
“She had one lung, she had seven ribs removed, she didn’t know if she could keep up with a kid,” she said.
At home, her mother would talk about God and pray together with her daughter. Armstrong’s parents grew closer in their relationship as they got older, reading the Bible and faithfully watching the 6 p.m. and the 10 p.m. news on television.
Armstrong was exposed to Cru for the first time during her junior year in high school. Rick Proctor came home from college and started a law practice nearby, challenging 14 young students individually to really get to know Jesus.
On Monday nights, he would have the kids over in his law office for a Bible study. On Thursday nights, he organized a weekly meeting that grew from 65 teenagers gathering at Armstrong’s grandparents’ house up to 500 students meeting at a nearby Baptist church camp.
From 1970 to 1975, Armstrong studied at the University of Southern Mississippi, majoring in recreation because she always wanted to work with kids.
In college, Armstrong pledged Chi Omega as a sophomore and became a Bible study leader within her sorority.
To this day, Armstrong cares deeply about her sisters and acts as a Chi Omega new member advisor on campus. A table coaster in her living room reads “Chi Omega – a lifelong experience.”
As soon as Armstrong joined Cru at Miami, a movement twice as big as she had previously experienced at Idaho State University, she started making connections with sorority girls.
“I have a heart for the girls in the Greek system,” Armstrong said.
A five-minute conversation at a sorority Christian breakfast resulted in a life-long friendship between Armstrong and Mary Pat Grossmann, a student in the class of ‘79.
“We went on walks, went out to eat, we talked, we shared, we’d just do life together,” Grossmann recalled.
Even though Grossmann moved to Cincinnati after graduation, she remained very close to Armstrong, helping her mail a little over 1,000 prayer letters all over the country.
“She’s just someone I can always go to if I struggle, and there are probably thousands of women that could say that now,” Grossmann said.
Becoming a missionary
On her way to her first Cru winter conference, a six-hour drive by herself, Armstrong committed to learning the book of Philippians by heart.
“The Lord took me on a little journey in my head,” Armstrong said.
Before she had made it through the first chapter, memories of her mother saying “there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who know Jesus and those who need to know him,” would interrupt her studying.
Armstrong thought if she really believed that making a difference in someone else’s life by sharing how to live a spirit-filled life is true, “then why am I trying to find a job that would let me do this on the side?”
“For the first time in my life, it made sense to consider full-time ministry,” she said.
She signed up for an interview with Cru at the very same conference and her initial intention of doing ministry for a year or two turned into a lifetime passion.
Not only did Armstrong dedicate her life to the movement at Miami; she continues to inspire others to do so as well.
Twenty-four years ago, Elizabeth McKinney, a freshman who had always been standing with “one foot in the church, and one foot in the country club,” approached Armstrong at the end of a women’s retreat.
McKinney heard that Armstrong had previously worked with girls who, like her, struggled with an eating disorder and was curious whether Armstrong could help her.
“Let’s go to Bob Evans and have a Coke,” McKinney remembers Armstrong saying.
Their continuing discipleship time changed McKinney’s life.
“I had never understood unconditional love or grace before I met Jane,” she said.
McKinney, who lives with her husband and four children in Columbia, Missouri, was inspired by Armstrong’s character and wanted to do what she did. She joined Cru staff 21 years ago, 17 of those years just like Armstrong, in campus ministry.
Similarly, Miranda Cash, a 22-year-old senior from Columbus, who wanted to go to medical school right after graduation will be an international intern with Cru in Madrid.
Sitting in a big Papasan chair and wearing jeans and a checked flannel shirt, as she does on most days, Armstrong wrote a letter of recommendation and encouraged her to “share Christ no matter what (Cash) ends up doing, whether that’s full-time ministry or being a doctor.”
“Jane has been a very constant influence in my life,” Cash said. “She’s always been there; her home is always open for me to ask questions.”
Adventures in mission work
Every summer and most spring breaks, Armstrong goes on missions with a team of staff and students.
Her summer assignments could send her anywhere in the world where the local staff team does not have the manpower to reach students, she said.
Over the years, she has experienced natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, political unrest, and even dangerous situations in which Americans received death threats and were advised to travel home immediately.
Among the countries that she visited, Armstrong has been to Albania after communism had fallen in 1992.
One day, Armstrong approached five women sitting on a bench while she was waiting for her local ministry partner, knowing only how to introduce herself in their native language.
“We ended up having a conversation and gave away 100 Gospel booklets,” Armstrong said. “People were so eager to hear because they had never had the opportunity.”
The Albanian Civil War forced all American Cru staff members to leave the country, but by then more than 100 Albanians had joined Cru’s staff and established their own ministry movement.
“That’s Cru’s whole thing with international missions,” Armstrong said. “Trying to reach nationals, because they can best reach their own people.”