Pastor's Wife Turns Running into a Mission of Ministry and Compassion
Looking down the road at mile marker 22, it’s not difficult to pick her out — the deep red T-shirt with white lettering and wearing the red, white, and blue flag shorts — running along at a pretty impressive clip for a 58-year-old. But what really sticks out is the smile and what seems to be joy on her face . . . where does that come from when it’s common knowledge that the pain of a marathon typically sets in miles before that?
It began as an invitation from her then-boyfriend-now-husband, Scott Harper, to run the Detroit Free Press Marathon (26.2 miles) with him. Although some may have felt compelled to offer Scott some dating advice, Lisa, who had no formal marathon training, blindly accepted. She never would have imagined that race would one day lead her to train and race tens of thousands of miles for missions.
Although Lisa didn’t run high school cross country or track, she was a gymnast. She started running in college as (at that time) Oral Roberts University required every student to run a 3-mile field test every semester. She started dating Scott — who happened to be a D1 track All American — and discovered running long-distance seemed to come naturally for her.
“She would come out with the men’s team and run 17 miles with us,” Scott recalls. “It was our long, easy run for the guys, but we were still running about 7-minute miles.” So, when he asked her about the marathon, she figured why not give it a try.
The year: 1985. Her time: 3:09 — roughly 7:13 per mile. Lisa finished in fifth place overall in the women’s division. Not bad for her first attempt. But within the next seven weeks, she then raced a half-marathon and another marathon. After that, she says she was totally burned out on distance running and never wanted to run another marathon.
Although there’s no telling how dominant a runner Lisa could have become had she devoted her life to marathon running, she chose a different path. After graduating from ORU, she married Scott, following him into the ministry; they had four children while enduring five miscarriages; and she used her gifting as a musician to glorify God at every opportunity — a gift that she passed along to her children.
Lisa maintained running as a hobby, though the hobby was, by necessity, set aside over the years for extended periods of time.
And then came 2002.
“We were pastoring in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, when I opened the newspaper and there across the page spread in the Detroit Free Press it said, ‘Run, Run, Run!’” Lisa recalls. “For the first time in 17 years, I suddenly had the desire to run a marathon again.”
Two challenges stood in her way. First, her longest run since her last marathon in 1985 had been seven miles. Secondly, and more significantly, the marathon was just six days away!
“I thought it would be fun for her to go for it,” Scott says, “as long as she agreed that if she had to walk or stop completely, she would.”
Lisa agreed. She ran the first 21 miles of the race before having to intermittently walk and jog the rest of the way. And even though her body was not happy with her for a few weeks afterwards, there was an unexpected excitement birthed in her.
“I realized that God gave me endurance and the ability to run for a reason,” she says. “That’s when I believe He gave me the idea to do the next marathon for missions — a reason beyond me. And in 2003, at the Detroit Free Press Marathon, Marathon Mission began for me.”
In 2003, Lisa did run the Detroit Free Press Marathon, finishing in a very respectable time of 3:47. In doing so, through pledges and donations, she helped the church support five additional missionaries.
However, Marathon Mission was just supposed to be a one-time effort for missions, and then Scott uttered seven life-changing words: “Maybe this could be an annual event . . .”
Lisa says she initially laughed at the thought, but the seed was planted and began to take root and grow . . . maybe this could be an annual event! But why limit participation? Perhaps others in the church or family would also want to be involved?
As Lisa and Scott discussed the possibilities around Marathon Mission and its purpose, they came to some unique conclusions: It was to be its own 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization; no membership/participation fees required; individuals permitted to run for any charitable or faith-based cause; members could run any race for their causes (not just the Detroit events); and Marathon Mission (unlike other organizations that encourage running for a cause) would not take a percentage of funds raised by participants so 100% would go to the charity or ministry.
Of course, this meant that the Harpers would have to raise money to pay for the costs associated with Marathon Mission – website, mailings, promotion, booth fees, etc. while also relying upon family and other volunteer labor. But this is what they believed God wanted Marathon Mission to be.
Through her continued efforts, Marathon Mission became an official charity with the Detroit Free Press Marathon; Lisa created a monthly newsletter that is read by hundreds; she helps maintain a website, Facebook, and Instagram presence; and she has helped hundreds raise tens of thousands of dollars (if not far more) for more than 70 causes such as Speed the Light, Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge (BGMC), Chi Alpha, Coins for Kids, Marriage Encounter, missions, missionaries, food banks, and dozens of other charities, churches, and missions projects.
When a cause is the purpose for running a race, the side benefits often include new friendships, new communities, better health, and other positive life impacts.
Through investing herself for more than two decades in Marathon Mission, Lisa says she has seen numerous individuals discover the benefits and even joy of exercise while also being inspired to overcome challenges encountered along the way because they have a cause. Scott and her kids — now adults — also still continue to participate, with three of the kids having attended college on not-so-surprising track/cross country scholarships.
“I’ve seen people lose as much as 70 pounds as they trained to participate in a Marathon Mission event,” Lisa says. “I believe having a cause, no matter if you’re also attempting to lose weight or meet some other goal, helps people see things beyond themselves — a bigger picture where others’ needs become a driving force.”
She also points to her brother, Jeffery Nutt, who participates in the Detroit Free Press Marathon 5K every year — despite having three hip replacements, two knee replacements, and being legally blind.
“He was the last one to cross the finish line this year, but he loves the Lord and has a great attitude,” Lisa says. “He says that Marathon Mission is what encourages and inspires him to keep training and walking throughout the year.”
But it’s not just Christians who find themselves drawn to Marathon Mission. Lisa says the largest personal donation to Marathon Mission every year comes from an atheist she met while running a marathon several years ago.
“I told him a little about my life and Marathon Mission, and then I felt the Lord tell me to just listen,” Lisa says. “When he was done talking, he said I was one of the first Christians to ever listen to what he had to say. Now, every year, he sends a check to Marathon Mission, and I keep praying for him.”
More than just the voice and driving force behind Marathon Mission, Lisa is an active and exuberant participant. Since 2002, she has run in every Detroit Free Press Marathon, averaging 40 miles a week training and upping that to 60 to 70 miles a week for the five months leading up to the race.
For those counting, those training and racing miles since 2002 add up to somewhere in the ballpark of 50,000 miles and give or take 100 million steps. And for that, she credits Scott for his unending support and encouragement, as well as her physical therapist (Mike Swinger, who’s also an accomplished runner and author) who helps her avoid major injury.
This year, Lisa ran to raise money for their church, Clare (Michigan) Assembly of God, to be able to give their missionaries a “double blessing” in their monthly support.
“My heroes really are the missionaries who continue to lay down their lives for the least,” she says. “That motivates me to continue running . . . and I would love for others to join in as well. It’s my desire for everyone who participates in Marathon Mission to sow a seed (of God’s love) as well as a financial seed (God’s provision), and then watch how God blesses them in return.”
So, if you happen to be in Detroit some early October and see thousands of runners streaming across the roadway, maybe check for a deep red shirt and a pair of red, white and blue flag running shorts worn by a woman with excitement in her eyes and a big smile on her face . . ., better yet, perhaps consider joining her and the rest of the Marathon Mission team at the starting line in 2024 for your own Marathon Mission challenge? Lisa will tell you, it’s worth every step.
Editor’s note: The 2024 Detroit Free Press Marathon events — 1 mile, 5K, half marathon, marathon relay, or full marathon — take place on Oct. 19 and 20 in Detroit. Registration opens Jan. 1, 2024. Select "Marathon Mission" as the charity partner if the desire is to run under their name for a cause.