Described as a “quiet force,” former International Mission Board (IMB) worker Holli Fish Lancaster died in Tennessee March 29, following a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 51.
Lancaster, a native Texan, and her husband Dan served in Southeast Asia for more than 12 years. Before moving overseas, the couple planted churches in the U.S.
Prior to her death, Lancaster’s family and close friends gathered in her room and sang songs, prayed and shared memories.
“The last few days, there was mourning and dancing, and they very much blended into one another, and although there was sadness, there was an appreciation of our lives being interwoven with hers,” Kara Garrison said. The Garrisons and Lancasters are close friends.
After the Lancasters’ daughter graduated from high school in Asia, the family returned to the U.S. to help her move to Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and then took a leave of absence from IMB to work in the missions department at Union. The family learned of Lancaster’s cancer in October.
“Holli embraced the beauty of life. She loved deeply and generously,” Marci Fish, Lancaster’s sister-in-law, wrote. “From her beloved Texas to remote villages and refugee camps in her beloved Asia, Holli lived and loved with her whole heart…. She is forever my hero.”
Steve Fish, Lancaster’s brother and Marci’s husband, wrote in memory of his sister, “Holli, you ran your race so well. You truly lived your 51 years to the fullest. You had a wonderful marriage and raised amazing kids in some of the most challenging environments,” he wrote. “From Texas churches to gatherings in remote villages of [Southeast Asia,] when God said, ‘Go,’ you went no matter what the cost, no matter how difficult the assignment. In the midst of earthquakes, bombings and unstable governments you went and brought the Light. You brought life, peace and freedom to so many.”
The Lancasters traveled and led trainings with Southeast Asian believers. The missionary couple frequently traveled with Garrison to training events designed for displaced women from a variety of ethnic groups. At one point, the Lancasters and Garrisons lived in a Southeast Asian country where living conditions were difficult, and Garrison said, “We needed each other to survive.”
“One thing that I will always remember is her commitment to me. … She was so supportive of traveling with me, and filling in, in a flash,” she noted.
On one trip, Lancaster had said she felt the Holy Spirit convicting her that they needed to train the women to use biblical storying. Garrison initially disagreed.
“I prayed about it, thinking God was going to agree [with me],” Garrison said. However, Garrison felt the Lord telling her to give Lancaster the whole afternoon. The women soaked up the Bible stories Lancaster told. The women were believers, but they had very limited knowledge of the Bible. Lancaster trained the women in the country’s main language, and the women were so excited by the material that they wanted to take it a step further and practice telling the stories in their individual people groups’ languages so they could share them with their families and friends.
Lancaster and Garrison felt they soon wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the area where these women were staying. Many of the women were hoping to be granted permission to move to other countries. But Lancaster and Garrison thought God had something else planned for them.
“Many of you aren’t going to be going to a third country. We sense you are going to go back to [your country],” Lancaster and Garrison told the women.
Garrison said the women started weeping and they sensed the Lord had told them the same thing. Most of the women did return to their country – to a place Westerners cannot travel – and they returned equipped to simply and effectively share the gospel.
Sarah Garrison, Kara Garrison’s daughter, called Lancaster “aunt,” and she said Lancaster “has been as dear to me as my own mother the past 12 years…. Her kindness, wisdom and love live on through the wonderful memories she has left with us.”
Tess Rivers,* a friend of Lancaster’s, said the missionary family supported her as she developed a strategy for reaching exploited women and children in Southeast Asia.
“It became obvious that Holli was the quiet force that sustained them all. She was very quiet … but she was always quick with a smile and a kind or encouraging word,” Rivers said. “She was a source of quiet strength, fun and immense spiritual depth, especially to her family but also to her many friends.”
Bethany White,* a close friend of Lancaster’s, said they regularly spent time praying in the red-light district.
“It is sometimes difficult to raise children overseas, and we both had four children,” White said. “We spent much time crying out to the Lord over our children and the needs of those around us. We went shopping and trying to find the goods our families needed, we celebrated holidays together, shared meals together – we were family. When we traveled, our children stayed in each other’s homes.
“One of those times, my youngest had croup, and [Lancaster] held him in the shower so he could breathe. She was often ready to love and encourage others with a smile and encouraging hug. Her home was open to so many people,” White remembered.
Lancaster was known for her hospitality, and the family was known for their Friday pizza nights, when they would invite friends over for food, games and stories.
Friends of Lancaster said she was musically gifted; she was a musician and a singer and could harmonize with anyone. The Lancasters led worship and used music to minister in the community. Friends say she tirelessly ministered to her family. Lancaster served as a substitute teacher in biology and anatomy classes at her children’s international school.
She devoted time to editing materials written by her husband Dan and her father, the late Roy Fish, former professor emeritus of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Lancaster and her husband met at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She graduated from Baylor with a bachelor of science degree in biology and later graduated from Texas Christian University with a master of science degree in biology.
Holli is survived by Dan; children, Jeff (Linnea), Zach, Karis, Zane; mother, Jean Holley Fish; and siblings, Steve Fish, Jeff Fish and Jennifer Pastoor.
Visitation is from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, April 1, at Northbrook Church in West Humboldt, Tenn. The funeral service will immediately follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions to the Holli Lancaster Memorial GO Trip Scholarship be sent to Union University, 1050 Union University Drive, Jackson, TN 38305, or given online at www.uu.edu/giving/lancaster. Click “I’d like to designate my gift.” Donations can also be made in memory of Holli Lancaster on an online ministry site for a memorial ministerial scholarship at Union University or to help cover hospital and burial expenses. Select which designation preferred on the donate page.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Caroline Anderson writes for the International Mission Board.)