When Mary Jane Woods Rice and her husband, Paul, residents of Branson, Mo., honeymooned in Destin 28 years ago, little did they know that one day they would be part of a ministry started in Destin.

"When we went there on our honeymoon, Destin was a pretty, quiet place … still a sleepy fishing village even after Memorial Day weekend," Rice told The Log. "Through the years we took our three children and other various family members and friends there.  We are now empty nesters and enjoy being there, usually two to three times per year."

The Rices met Capt. Ben Marler, "the man on the bridge," in November 2005 when Marler vacationed in Branson.

Rice was excited to learn people were coming from Destin after she received a call from Marler's daughter, Beth Fife, at the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau where she was receptionist.

"When she mentioned she was calling from Destin, I immediately took an interest in helping her even more … we had just been there weeks before," Rice said. "I found out that her dad is Ben Marler, and recognized his name from publications we had read from that area and knew of his ministering to everyone who was blessed to be on one of his boats. I was just amazed that we connected in this way, because others could have been here at the desk when Beth called, yet it was me!"

After meeting, the Marlers attended church at Skyline Baptist with the Rices, and the couples remained friends through the years, visiting in both towns and keeping in touch on Facebook.

"We knew that he had started the bridge ministry in March of this year and when we went down in May. It was absolutely a thrill for us to stand with him at the bridge on the morning of May 24," Rice said. "We met him there and were able to minister to those who drove by … such a busy morning and the time went very fast."

Marler had made a sign especially for Rice to hold on the bridge that morning — “Jesus loves U,” with a red heart in place of loves.

"We brought the sign home to Branson and have been holding it up at the end of the Lake Taneycomo Bridge on Branson Landing Boulevard in downtown Branson for the past few weeks," Rice said. "We get great responses from those who drive by and have many people honk and wave in agreement for what we are doing … lifting the name of Jesus for all to see as they drive by."

As people from all states drive by while visiting Branson, the Rices hope that the "bridge ministry" might make its way across the country. 

"We believe the scriptures tell us to 'Go,' and this ministry is an action ministry," Rice said. "People really seem happy to see those words … Jesus Loves U! They are happy to have us wave and smile at them as they travel to and from their homes and businesses, and hopefully these actions will stay with them through their day and night."

Two major tourist destinations — Destin and Branson — and two families connected by bridges and a shared faith.

"I believe that answering a (phone) call led to answering 'the call' from God to be a part of Capt. Ben’s bridge ministry. It has been such a blessing to be a part of an exciting way to minister."