Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Life Well Lived: Remembering Fanny Starns

Mindy and Fan, together in 1965 and in 2014

My Aunt Fanny Starns was, as I wrote in the dedication to The Amish Bride, my “own personal hero of the faith and lifelong friend.” I never take any of my book dedications lightly, but this one was especially meaningful to me. I adored my father’s sister and always aspired to be like her.
Fan's Thai Bible

That’s why it saddens me to report that my beloved Aunt Fan passed away on May 14, 2017. The loss of such a wonderful person is devastating, of course, yet her funeral seemed more like a celebration than a mourning. That’s because she was one of those amazing champions of the faith who lived the kind of life to which most of us can only aspire. Somehow, it wasn’t so hard to say goodbye to her knowing that even as her body was being lowered into the ground, her soul was being ushered into the massive mansion that had been prepared for her in heaven.

A missionary to Thailand for 35 years, Fanny Starns worked tirelessly for the Lord, both in that position and after she retired and returned to the states in 1988.  Here’s an excerpt from her obituary, which provides a nice summary of her life:

Fan Starns's Ordination and Commission Service
Fanny was born on December 11, 1923, in Hattiesburg, MS, the fourth of five children of Fred and Emma Starns. The family moved to Livingston Parish in 1925, in order to care for family, which began a life of service to others that would not end until May 14, 2017. Fanny was called to mission life while at a youth conference at Ridgecrest, NC, in July 1944. Not knowing how Christ would provide for her, she put her faith in the Lord and became the first in her family to graduate from college at Louisiana College in Pineville. She then moved to California for employment with a church before attending the Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, where she earned her Master's degree. In 1955, she was appointed as a Missionary in Bangkok, Thailand, where she faithfully served for 35 years founding churches and overseeing finances for all missions in Asia during some of the most tumultuous times in recent history. She lovingly served refugees and all persons who needed assistance. In 1988, she "retired" to Baton Rouge where she continued to serve with Victoria Baptist Church, which then assisted the Laotian community, which later became the Vietnamese Hope Baptist Church.
Letters from Thailand were always such fun

She was a devoted Christian whose favorite Bible passage was Romans, Chapter 8, which summarizes her life. Although she never married, she always loved children and took pride in their accomplishments. Her family was much larger than biological. She loved, and was loved by many worldwide, particularly those in the Asian Community to which she devoted her life.

When I was a child, my Aunt Fan wrote from Thailand often, and I can still remember the thrill of getting those airmail letters addressed in her neat hand to “Miss Mindy Starns.” Her life on the other side of the world was fascinating and exotic, and I thought she was just about the most interesting person I’d ever met. As was the practice back then, she spent every fifth year in the states on sabbatical, and thanks to our correspondence while she was away, she never felt like a stranger despite the long separations.

Traditional Thai dancer wearing dance claws on both hands
Whenever she came home, she always brought back the coolest gifts, things like tiny wood carvings, beautiful Thai jewelry, and once—my personal favorite—a set of Thai dancing claws. When I was in elementary school, I won a blue ribbon in the social studies fair for a project about Thailand. Needless to say, I had an edge on the competition, thanks to all the interesting items I was able to incorporate into my display!

The older I grew, the more I came to realize that my Aunt Fan wasn’t just this fun exotic woman who lived on the other side of the world, brought me amazing presents, and corresponded on blue crinkly airmail paper. She was a force to be reckoned with, fearless in ways I still can’t comprehend, and dedicated to spreading God’s love far and wide. In her older years, at restaurants, she would always leave an extra big tip along with a little tract urging her server to consider the “tip of eternal value” that could be found in Christ.  She did the same when she paid her bills, tossing in small cards that shared about “the debt only Jesus could pay.”

Fan honored at a ceremony in Thailand
She risked life and limb in her service to the poor, including driving weekly into some very dangerous neighborhoods, against boss’s orders, in order to pick up children and teens for Sunday School.

About ten or fifteen years ago, she came to Philadelphia on a mission trip, which was impressive enough given her age and frail physical state by that point. But then we were astonished to learn that she was staying in an area listed as one of the 25 Most Dangerous Neighborhoods in America.” There she prayer walked the streets daily and shared her faith with almost everyone she encountered. Clearly, God's hand of protection was on her the whole time.

Before she left town, we took her out to eat at a little Thai restaurant in Philadelphia. During the meal, we convinced her to speak Thai to the waiter, and he grew so excited that he brought out the chef to converse with her as well—who then sent out a huge, complementary dessert platter for our whole group. What a fun memory.

John and Mindy with Fan in 2012
Aunt Fan always charmed everyone she met. She was smart, funny, engaging, loving, and incredibly active. By the end of her life, she was also legally blind, thanks to macular degeneration, and she suffered from tremors and a severe curvature of the spine. Yet she never complained—or even seemed bothered by—such issues. Instead, she was always bright and cheerful, encouraging and loving, and fully focused on those around her. 

At her funeral, I had the pleasure of hearing a number of “Fanny stories,” tales of heroism and bravery and witness exhibited throughout her life. One Thai woman shared that she had been a “belligerent and angry” fourteen year old girl, living in Thailand, when she first met Fan Starns. “I resented all of the American missionaries with their western agendas,” she said, “and I always tried to argue with Miss Fanny, telling her to go home and leave us alone. One day, I demanded angrily, ‘Why are you here? What do you really want?’ Her answer shocked me when she said, ‘I just want you to know love, the same love I know, the love of a Savior who gave his life for you and me.’”

In knowing Fanny Starns, we all knew love. She embodied Christlike service, generosity, kindness, and selflessness, and I was proud to call her my aunt and my friend.

Spending time with her great nieces and nephew, all of whom adored her
Rest in peace, good and faithful servant. Yours was truly a life well lived.


  1. What a beautiful legacy she left with her love and work for God. Prayers for peace and comfort during this time. What a reunion one of these days in heaven with our loved ones.

  2. What a special lady! Thank you for sharing about her. So sorry for your loss.

  3. She sounds like an amazing lady - strong, courageous, godly, and hardworking. I'm sorry for your loss. What a comfort to know that she is now with Jesus. I'll be praying for your family today. May the Lord give peace and comfort in your time of grief.