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Faces of Faith – Diosnel

Diosnel Castro Perez is from Curuguaty, a small town in rural Paraguay. He works as a security guard in a ceramic factory just outside of the capital, Asunción. Like many Paraguayans, he can speak Spanish, but his first language is Guaraní. In 2019, Diosnel was searching online to learn more about God. He tried four different Bible training programs, but he didn’t like that their teaching wasn’t based on the Bible. Then he found an Academia Cristo video on YouTube. He signed up for live classes in October 2019. Over the next year, Diosnel finished all 13 courses of the first level of the training program. At times, he was enrolled in three courses at once, “They taught in a way I could understand. It was like a light went on”.

Diosnel was also sharing what he was learning with others: family, friends, coworkers. It even got him in trouble: “My boss told me not to talk religion at work,” he said, “but that didn’t stop me.”

Now, Diosnel is receiving training to plant a church. “What I like about Academia Cristo is they don’t just teach you the Word. They teach you how to teach others.” He already has a group of about ten people that regularly study with him, but he wants it to grow. And he has more plans: “I want to be a missionary one day, to teach God’s Word in other countries.”

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Faces of Faith – Irina, Olga, and Alisa

Irina Yevpak was shocked. She was a young girl growing up in the Soviet Union when she first learned that people die. “Why? Surely science can cure old age and death!” Deep philosophical questions drove Irina through her high school and university years. She studied chemistry and even visited a local church. But she never found peace.

Irina married and had a daughter, Olga. Later, Irina got sick with cancer. The enemy she so dreaded stared her in the face. While standing in line at the clinic, Irina noticed our church’s invitation: “Come study the Bible!” She brought her questions, and God told her everything she wanted to know, and more! Meanwhile, Olga was getting ready for college. She remembers hearing, “You might have three university degrees, but if you’ve never studied the Bible, you’re not educated!” She boldly opened a Bible and began reading, but nothing made sense. Irina noticed Olga’s frustration. “Why not come with me? We can study together.” In December 2002, mother and daughter were both confirmed. Years passed. Olga married and had a daughter, Alisa. Today twelve-year-old Alisa declares, “I don’t even remember becoming a believer!” She has known Jesus her entire life.

The Yevpaks are the first three-generation family in our Russian Lutheran Church. What a blessing when young and old worship together! Irina no longer fears death. Olga treasures God’s mercy. Alisa loves her Savior. The Yevpaks have good news to share with others – including the next generation!

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Faces of Faith – Ali

Ali was the imam at a mosque for a village in a Muslim nation. He chanted the Koran (the Muslim holy book) for the five daily calls to prayer over the mosque’s loudspeakers and conducted worship services. Two Muslim-background Christians came to him and shared the first verse of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Later they shared Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Ali said, “When I listened, I became excited. There is a person who forgives sins? Who is this? In the Koran I do not see a Savior.” In Jesus, Ali found rest for his soul.

Soon the people learned their imam had converted to Christianity. People became angry, and a mob of 300 came to the mosque to burn him alive. Before they arrived, he went behind the mosque and prayed with his face to the ground, “Jesus, if it is your will, save me. If it is not, I know you will take me to heaven.” Inexplicably, the mob changed their mind and allowed him to live. However, they cast him out of the village and took his property. Today Ali is a pastor studying with us in our Bible Institute. He loves the clear Biblical teaching WELS provides.

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Faces of Faith – Belachew

I am Belachew Ensermu from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I believed in our Lord, Jesus Christ, as my Savior when I was in high school. After I graduated from the university with a degree in educational psychology, I joined the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekan Yesus (EECMY) to work in child and youth care ministry. I have worked in various levels in the church’s youth ministry for more than 20 years. Beside my work, I am serving my Lord in my congregation as an elder and preaching the gospel. I am married and have four children.

These days many go against the Holy Scripture, and that is why I was searching for confessional Biblical teaching. I found that the TELL method is the best way to understand the learn the work of our Lord, Jesus Christ. I was first introduced to TELL through Missionary John Hartmann on the One Africa Team, and I then participated with TELL live courses, which were taught by TELL Missionary Dan Laitinen and Pastor Nate Seiltz. The TELL courses are very helpful for Christian maturity and mission, and I highly recommend them to all Christians.

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Faces of Faith – Brother Liu

Jonathan Liu was once a blackbelt in Taekwondo and a master with the num-chuks. He was so good at it that he ran his own dojang (Taekwondo school) and taught nun chuck lessons to other dojang owners. Now his num-chuks collect dust in a corner, and he sold his dojang. Why? He has found a new passion (or rather it found him): the gospel. Just as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Matthew 6:21) so young Jonathan left behind his future in Taekwondo to share with others the treasure he has in Christ. He is now a leader in a growing church and a full-time Asia Lutheran Seminary student. The East Asia Missions team has the privilege of serving over a dozen men like Jonathan. We praise our Lord for such an honor!

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Faces of Faith – Kue

In 2002, Kue heard from a villager that there was a God who was more powerful than the shaman and any other gods. She had so many questions and wanted to know more, but no one could really explain this God to her. She knew nothing about being saved by grace through faith in Jesus. A few years later, she married the son of a church leader in a village nearby. She was able to read the Bible in her own language for the first time, as owning a Bible was illegal in her village. She began to understand more, but she still had many questions about her faith and eternal salvation in Christ. All she understood was that doing good would please God. She knew she wasn’t perfect. She was frustrated, but she never gave up. She kept reading her Bible and praying to God daily.

In 2013, church leaders selected her to attend WELS training in Hanoi, Vietnam. They wanted her to bring back the message they had heard from other students: sinners are saved by grace through faith in Christ, not through good deeds. This was very strange compared to what other pastors had said.

Today Kue is very strong in her faith and knows she is saved by God’s grace alone. The women from nearby villages seek her guidance in the Scriptures. Because of this she has been appointed to be a leader of the motherhood in her district. She and her husband have traveled to many villages to conduct training for the Hmong ladies in Northern Vietnam. Through her dedication, many people have been moved by the Holy Spirit to believe that Christ is their Lord and Savior. Kue said, “I thought I chose God, but instead he chose me. I am happier now that I know that. I ask God to give me the strength to serve him, my family, and my congregation faithfully.” She also asks the brothers and sisters in the WELS to keep her family in their prayers. “Thank you for bringing the true Christ to the people in Vietnam,” she added.

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Faces of Faith – Marietta

Marietta Chapman is the lead Kindergarten teacher at Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School located on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. She grew up in Bylas, Ariz., and attended the East Fork Lutheran School her freshman and sophomore years of high school. She was planning to pursue a business degree in college, but God led her in a different direction. Throughout college she remembers returning home to help with her local Sunday school classes and vacation Bible school. At that time, although she didn’t know it, God had put a spark of joy in her heart to work with children. This led her to change her major to education and she was able to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Out of love for her community, she decided to move home and put her degree to use. After working 10 years in a public-school system, God opened a door for her to teach at Peridot-Our Savior’s. She says that she loves teaching children about God’s Word and is happy to be a part of making a positive impact in a place she’ll always consider home. Marietta considers herself blessed to be able to pursue her passion in her everyday life. Sometimes we don’t know what our passion is in life; but if we put it in God’s hands, he will guide us on the right path. Her story is a clear example of how being faithful to the Lord will give you a prosperous life.

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Faces of Faith – Julius

Civil unrest between the English-speaking regions and the French-speaking government in Cameroon has caused chaos the past four years. Many churches have closed as members have run from their homes and begun life in the forests, and COVID has added to the difficulties.

But opportunities always exist. A little over a year ago, Dr. Julius Nkwetta reached out to the WELS One Africa Team for training and mentoring. He has been studying Catechism lessons online with Missionary Dan Kroll. Dr. Nkwetta lives and works inside the French-speaking region to where many English speakers have fled. He has started an English-speaking congregation, but he has also opened a French-speaking church where he is helped by a dictionary and translators to share the gospel. In addition to starting small groups in nearby villages, he is also working on plans to teach students from the local high school and university on the topic of morality, with the aim of sharing Christ as the Savior from sin.

Other local churches are surprised with his success. They hand out rice and soap to bring people into their churches. They asked Dr. Nkwetta what he is using to convince the people. He tells them, “The answer is simply that the people are converted by the true Word of God.”

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Faces of Faith – Tsamzo

Tsamzo Lubwe has served as a maintenance worker at Mwalaulomwe clinic in Malawi since 2011. He was born into a Christian family in 1980 in a village near Lilongwe, Malawi. He attended an African church until 1994 when he started attending the Lutheran Church of Central Africa (LCCA) when it opened a church in Mwalaulomwe.

As an elder of his church, he often provides a Bible lesson, prayer, and blessing before clinic opens. What a joy it is to hear God’s praises before the clinic opens each day! His daily duties include organizing patients into clinic space and weighing patients. He ensures visitors are socially distanced and wearing masks, and he cleans our clinic building and church areas used for malaria testing each clinic day to ensure these spaces are organized, clean, and ready for next week’s clinic. He is the adventurous one who climbs on and off the ambulance to load and unload all the supplies each clinic day. When asked what gives him joy in his work, he stated that people can come for medical services at a low cost compared to other private clinics. He enjoys that he can let his Christian faith to show in his work, and that people see Christ’s love in action through the care received at clinic. His favorite Bible passage is Hebrews 13:6, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

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Faces of Faith – Brother Peter

Before our church found Lutheranism, there were constant religious disputes within the church. The truth was unclear, and it brought great losses to believers and their lives. We were learning to pray to God, and we asked him to enable us to understand his truth and provide a place to learn. God provided a Lutheran brother from a different area to teach us English. One of the members of our church met him by chance, and he came to our church to help us. At the same time, I met Dave, another Lutheran who came here to preach for more than a year at our church. He lived in a different region and served as an English teacher. He saw the problems at our church and was willing to help us. He taught us Law and Gospel and helped us understand why our church was so confused. Many church members felt guilty and dared not speak out, but Dave made us more aware of the preciousness of God’s salvation. He continued to preach the gospel and brought many believers to the church. Because of him, a lot of people believe Jesus. Dave also introduced Asia Lutheran Seminary (ALS) to us, and he recommended that I study at ALS. Dave helped us for seven years before going back to the United States. However, I know that he is not resting. He is still preaching the gospel, leading groups, and bringing more souls to know our God.

I learned a lot of truth from Bible and knowledge that I didn’t know before when I enrolled in the Diploma of Christian Studies program through ALS. I got to know the ALS faculty and the dedication and love of the teachers. I truly felt a spirit of humility and dedication in them. In order not to delay our study, ALS also asked other bilingual ALS students to teach us. I am very grateful!

Although COVID affected our learning process, we are seeing that Asia Lutheran Seminary is also working hard to help us in various ways. They provided a Chinese-speaking teacher (an East Asia missionary) who is helping and encouraging me to continue preaching the gospel. May God bless the missionaries, teachers, and my classmates at ALS so that they can be filled with God’s love and increase their ability to serve!

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Faces of Faith – Ibrahim

My name is Ibrahim. My wife is Sara, a Sunday School teacher. I was born in a Christian family, but I left my hometown to find a government job in a big city. I started living in a Christian community with 20 families, but there was no church. Sometimes evangelists came, but they only spent 5-7 minutes reading one verse from the Bible and left quickly. The people had no Christian education. Some believed in Hindu gods and some believed in the Muslim faith. Very quickly I forgot the Christian teaching from my childhood. When my future-wife, Sara, began the Lutheran Sunday School in our village, it was a tremendous blessing. We all started learning regularly about our Savior, Jesus Christ. The Sunday School brought great joy to the children—and to me. What the children learn in Sunday School, they take home and tell their families. I, too, share what I learn with my friends and neighbors.

Before we started the Sunday School our Christian community had no interaction with the Muslim community at all. Eight Muslim families and their children are now a part of our Sunday School. Sometimes it seems the Muslims love to learn about Jesus more than we do. This is a big miracle. We are thankful to the WELS for reaching out to us. God bless our synod.

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Faces of Faith – Brother Sun

A computer screen. That’s what one brother saw for weeks as he had to remain at home during the outbreak of COVID-19. No seeing each other face-to-face, no meeting together, no study time, no going out to eat, no services, no work. What will happen to the Bible study group? What will happen to the members if they can’t worship? Brother Sun responded to the situation with home: “I am thankful for this time at home. I can focus on my family, and I can study his Word. I wake up and study for as long as I want, then in the afternoon I study again. And in the evening, I meet my brothers and sisters online and we study and worship together. I have so much time to focus on these important things. I am thankful.” And he wasn’t the only one: dozens upon dozens of our contacts in East Asia have been worshiping, praying, and studying together online. Amidst such trials, God has given them and our East Asia missions team a special time to focus on his Word and see how he cares for us through every challenge.

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Faces of Faith – Alexei

You met Russian seminary student, Andre Gydkov, in a different Faces of Faith story (wels.net/faces-of-faith-andre). That story continues. . .

In the late 1990s, 18-year-old Andre moved from Kazakhstan to a farming village in southwest Siberia. Here he met Alexei Yryanski. Together they participated in the only pastimes available to young men: sports and troublemaking. After escaping his schoolbooks, Alexei took a job as a blacksmith and discovered a passion for forging metal. With enormous effort, Alexei managed to open his own shop where he still crafts custom furniture, railings, and weathervanes for wealthy clients. In spite of his talent, Alexei lived in darkness. His marriage failed. Dishonest people stole from him. Andre had moved away to Novosibirsk. Life was dark and joyless. Then in December 2012, Andre returned home, and the two friends talked. Alexei shared his troubles while Andre listened sympathetically. Then Andre said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened to me.” That evening Andre shared the Savior with his friend. “Go home and read, yes, READ the gospel of Mark.” Alexei’s story is a miracle. He did read Mark—and was overwhelmed by Jesus’ love! But this story is not a perfect fairy tale. Since becoming a Christian, Alexei has struggled with many ups and downs. But the faithful Lord Jesus holds Andre and Alexei in his mighty arms. And lately Alexei has noticed his mother’s reading glasses lying next to the family Bible. . . and the story continues!

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Faces of Faith – Jackson

CAMM has been operating a clinic in Mwembezhi, Zambia, for almost 60 years. God has allowed the Zambia clinic to be operated and staffed completely by Zambian nationals since 2008. This staff is led by Jackson Kalekwa who has been on the clinic staff for over 35 years! Jackson grew up in Luchele Village, very close to the Mwembezhi clinic. He was a recipient of the Althea Sauer Scholarship program through CAMM and received his diploma in Clinical Medicine. He started his employment as a Laboratory Technician and advanced to his current position of Clinical Officer in Charge. While he enjoys seeing and counseling the patients, a challenge has been ensuring that the clinic is up to date with government standards. In Jackson’s free time, he farms over 20 acres of land which produce maize and soybeans. He is still an active member of Martin Luther Church, where he was baptized, and enjoys socializing with the many people he is blessed to be around. He sees a strong correlation between the patients visiting us and being able to help bring God’s Word to them. The Lutheran church sits next to the clinic, and each day daily devotions are held prior to clinic opening. He is amazed by all the blessings God has given to him through working at the clinic.

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Faces of Faith – Zoilo

Zoilo Vidal lives in Quevedo, a city about 5 hours away from Quito, Ecuador. He has a small farm with about 9 acres of different fruit trees. In May 2019, Zoilo signed up for online Bible courses on the Academia Cristo website. He connected to the classes twice a week and absolutely loved them. “I knew I was in the right spot from the very first session, when the teacher kept repeating, ‘Let’s go to the Bible for the answer.’” He was so overjoyed about the classes that he sent our missionaries in Quito a gift: two boxes filled with 66 pounds of oranges, watermelon, and papaya. The gospel produces. . . fruits!

By God’s grace, Zoilo continues in the classes. He has downloaded our new Academia Cristo app and excitedly calls the local missionary every time he finishes a new self-study level. He finished the first two levels in 10 days—An Introduction to the Bible and Forgiveness. We pray that all the resources be a great benefit for him, his family, and his neighbors.

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Faces of Faith – Michael

In the mid-1990s, the Lord blessed Gereja Lutheran Indonesia (GLI) with its first generation of ordained pastors. One of the first men ordained was Pastor Michael. After serving his Savior Jesus steadfastly for many years, he was called to his eternal rest a few years ago. Around the same time of Pastor Michael’s retirement, God sent “the second Michael” to GLI. In a short time, it became clear to the faculty at Sekolah Tinggi Teologi Lutheran (the seminary of GLI) that this Michael was blessed with many academic qualities. He has a knack for Greek, Hebrew, and English, and he went above and beyond during his 3-year vicar program by serving a congregation and assisting in GLI’s publications program. Vicar Michael was accepted into the Pastoral Studies Institute program, which allowed him to take classes at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. In addition to honing his linguistic skills, he also sat in on courses in Christian doctrine, sermon preparation, education, etc. One seminary student responded: “I am in some classes with him. He is always raising his hand and asking questions!” GLI plans to put Michael’s time and talents to use at the seminary in Indonesia. As an instructor, he will help prepare future generations of called workers. Please keep our soon to be Pastor Michael, “the second Michael” in your prayers!

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Faces of Faith – Carmelita

Carmelita says, “My story is hard and ugly, but it’s certainly changed now!” Carmelita married a Lutheran man who took her to church where she learned of Jesus, her Savior. It was wonderful to know Jesus loved her! As life went on, Carmelita got lost in the world. Her life often revolved around drinking too much and hanging out with non-Christian friends, all while raising her children in a sometimes-difficult marriage. Deep down in her heart there was still a little ember of faith. She left God, but he didn’t leave her! One day she woke up and realized it was time to get out of the insanity and find out more about Jesus. She knew she needed help. She ran to her Lutheran pastor to get this power to change from God’s Word. She was finally listening to the Word. She did not want to lose this faith but to live it! More troubles came, but she ran to fellow Christians and activities to hear God’s words and stay in the faith. She exclaims, “I’m so embarrassed because I am not strong, not at all. . . but my God is strong and through Him, my faith is strong. I am happy to be in Lutheran Bible classes and church activities that are full of love here on the San Carlos Apache Reservation!”

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Faces of Faith – Ann

My name is Ann Simi Dung, and I am from Nigeria. I was brought up in a Christian background, but I encountered Christ in 2000. I became a missionary with Youth with a Mission and I’m also a gospel artist and a song writer. TELL and their Facebook page has been a great blessing to me and everyone around me. Since the day I found TELL, my life has not been the same. It has expanded my spiritual understanding in Christ Jesus and has brought me closer to God. TELL has made the Bible so easy to comprehend. It gives a very simple explanation of who God is and what he desires of us. Pastor Dan Laitinen, TELL Missionary, has given me so much love and encouragement. I prayed and fasted for a week, asking God to send someone who is deeply rooted in the word of God to train and encourage me. God has answered my prayers. I have the zeal to work for Jesus, and I am committing myself to winning souls for Jesus my Savior. With TELL, it will be much easier to reach out to the whole world.

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Faces of Faith – Januario

Januario is both a long time Lutheran member and our hardworking contact in Mozambique. He’s got an active love for the Lord’s work in both his local congregation and in his special role in helping the Lutheran Church in Central Africa—Malawi (LCCA) become registered as a Foreign Religious Organization in Mozambique. The registration process has been long and tedious and is still underway. He is a wonderful blessing as we’ve been walking the registration journey together. We are, after all, in his territory! His first language is Portuguese, and he’s just as fluent in Chichewa. These are two big assets when it comes to important relationships, loads of paperwork, and complicated discussions in the Mozambique Ministry of Religious Affairs offices. When he’s not traipsing around the country facilitating the registration process, Januario is doing social work in a national organization in Mozambique. He loves to help the elderly, the orphans and the disabled. Januario and his wife Justina have 10 children. Please continue to pray for Januario, his family, and the work of registering the LCCA with the Mozambique government!

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Faces of Faith – Andre

Our world missionaries work hard for a day when they can pass the pastoral baton to a national leader. This ultimate dream and daily prayer will soon be accomplished in Iskitim, Russia. Missionary Luke Wolfgramm has served this congregation for ten years and is now working with Andre Gydkov in the seminary training program. Andre is not just taking classes to learn how to be a pastor. He is already serving the congregation in Iskitim in many ways that are giving him experience in the tasks and functions of a pastor. The PSI is working closely with the Russian Lutheran synod to provide curriculum, consultation, and instructors to assist them in Andre’s training. The relationship between Andre and Luke goes beyond that of student and teacher or even co-workers in a congregation. They are close friends. Andre was introduced to his Savior through the WELS mission in Russia, where Luke has been his pastor and counselor for three years. Since Andre has committed to preparing for the pastoral ministry, his relationship with Luke has grown even stronger. Andre’s life before he became a Christian was difficult in many respects. Through daily support and encouragement from Luke and the other Russian pastors (Pastor Alexei and Pastor Arkady), the congregation in Iskitim will soon receive a strong Lutheran shepherd who is eager to proclaim Christ to his community.

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Faces of Faith – Matthew Cephus

“We have not received the true gospel. Will you oversee us?” begged the caller from Liberia, Africa to Matthew Cephus in Champlin, Minn.

Matthew Cephus sharing the gospel in Liberia

“I couldn’t say ‘No.’” reports Pastor Cephus, who at the time was newly enrolled in the WELS Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) program. He saw this as an opportunity from God to share the teachings he was receiving in the United States with the leaders of 27 congregations in Liberia. “They are faithful to what they know,” says Pastor Cephus, “but, they have received little to no training.” Since that time, Pastor Cephus, Pastor Dennis Klatt (Matthew’s Anglo partner), the Pastoral Studies Institute, and One Africa Team missionaries have made three teaching visits to build up and encourage this group of pastors who are eager to grow in the knowledge of God’s word and become better equipped to shepherd the souls under their care. Pastor Cephus, himself a Liberian immigrant, shepherds a flock consisting primarily of African immigrant families that gathers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, in New Hope, Minn.

Training visits to Liberia to have been taking place since 2016 involving our missionaries, stateside pastors, and the Pastoral Studies Institute to two groups in Liberia. In 2019, one trip has already been made and one more will be made in November 2019. Three more trips are being planned for 2020. To learn more about African outreach in Liberia and 5 other African countries, visit wels.net/africa.

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Faces of Faith – Pastor Marinagaba, Rwanda

God used Google to bring WELS missionaries to Rwanda, a tiny country in the heart of Africa with a dark past and a bright future. Rev. Jean Claude Marinagaba, the leader of the Reformed Lutheran Church of Rwanda (RLCR) had learned about Martin Luther while he was a student at Westminster Presbyterian Seminary in Uganda, and he wanted to connect with Luther’s true spiritual heirs. Most church bodies that still use the name “Lutheran” have unfastened their teachings from the Reformation’s moorings of sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura and the Lutheran Confessions, the historical documents that established the Biblical teachings of the Lutheran Church. A Google search of “confessional Lutherans” led Rev. Marinagaba to the website of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, a mission of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) located 8,000 miles away in Brisbane, Australia.

So what did ELS Missionary Daniel Finn think when he received an email from a stranger living halfway around the world?

“Jean Claude seemed sincere in his desire to learn how to be more Lutheran,” writes Missionary Finn. In justifying his own expenditure of time and effort working in a mission field so far away, Missionary Finn says, “I began to think of ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ in terms of having Jesus’ permission to go to Rwanda. That is, Rwanda is a nation. So, it’s included in ‘all nations.’  Our Lord told us that we canand shouldgo to all nations. I knew was that there was this guy (Jean Claude) asking that somebody from our fellowship would visit him and help him. Nobody else was going. So…  I figured ‘Why not me?’ I knew that I wasn’t the most qualified man to make this trip, but I figured that I had to be better qualified than nobody.”

From left to right: Rev. Bernard, Rev. Birner (WELS missionary to Zambia), Rev. Maniragaba, Rev. Shamachona (LCCA-Zambia pastor), Rev. Finn (ELS Missionary in Australia), and Rev. Felicien.

And so the Fond du Lac, Wis., native turned missionary to “Down Under” struck up a long-distance correspondence with Rev. Marinagaba in 2016. Their relationship blossomed, and one year later on a trip back to the United States, Missionary Finn made a side trip to Rwanda. He also reached out to his like-minded confessional Lutherans, WELS missionaries stationed in Africa, and offered to introduce them to Rev. Marinagaba and the RLCR. Missionary Phil Birner and Lutheran Church of Central Africa-Zambia (LCCA-Z) Rev. Forward Shamachona met up with Missionary Finn in Kigali, Rwanda, in September of 2017. The three of them traveled to the city of Nygatare, Rwanda, and spent a week visiting various congregations of the RLCR and teaching Rev. Marinagaba and his fellow church leaders about the history of the Lutheran church and Confessions. Since Rwanda is a French-speaking country, and only Rev. Marinagaba speaks English, an interpreter had to translate all of the lessons for the rest of those present.

Missionary Birner made a second trip to Rwanda in August of 2018. Joining him were LCCA-Z Rev. Chibi Simweeleba and WELS Pastor James Krause, who speaks French. The three of them gave presentations on the Sacraments and the worker training program of the LCCA. Observing that more intensive training would be useful, the One Africa Team formally invited Rev. Marinagaba to attend the Lutheran Seminary in Lusaka, Zambia, for one year, but he declined to leave his family and his congregations for such a long time. Rev. Marinagaba agreed to attend a Multi-Language Publications conference in Lusaka last August, but was involved in a traffic accident just before the conference began and was unable to travel. Please pray for his swift recovery, and the ability for WELS to strengthen its connection with RLCR, where an altar to the Lord is being built in the heart of Africa.

To learn more about African outreach in Rwanda and 5 other African countries, visit wels.net/africa.

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Faces of Faith – Fang

I met Pastor Fang for the first time in 2012. He and a few other leaders from the Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC)  gathered with me in a small hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam. We spent a few days together studying the Word of God, quietly, so as not to attract attention. Then the men left to their villages.

Fang was a very polite and humble student in my class, but he challenged me with all kinds of questions about Scripture and leadership. At that time I seemed like a baby pastor to them, compared to many other Hmong pastors who preached their philosophies, ideologies and traditions. For almost two years, Fang and I confronted each other in the classroom on a regular basis. He thought that my teaching—that sinners are saved by grace alone—was not based on the Bible. His reasoning was that if sinners are saved by grace alone, it is too simple and can’t be trusted. It’s like giving a math test of 1+1 = ? to university students. He said, “Sinners need to cooperate in their salvation by doing good and living a holy life.” He added, “None of the other Hmong pastors teach like you. They all teach that if we are good, God will love us, and we earn our salvation through our own merits.” Even so, he kept coming to my training – thanks to God.

In June 2014, Fang came to me and said, “Pastor Lor, I apologize for being angry with you and even labeling you as a cult preacher. Now, I totally admit that sinners are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. Throughout my ministry, I’ve tried so hard to please God with good works. I thought that I could be saved through them. But the harder I tried, the more distant from God I felt. The more guilty I felt. I also gave many rules to my members. After two years of studying with you, I have been moved by the Holy Spirit to believe that I am saved through faith in Christ alone.”

Salvation by grace alone means a lot to Fang. He told me that since his members understood grace, they are more active in the church’s activities and more confident in their outreach to their community. Now they can say that they are saved and that they are children of God. Before that, they were hesitant to witness that they were saved because they weren’t sure that they were good enough to be saved.

Pastor Fang’s funeral

Last October, I was invited to preach for the Hmong National Conference in Lai Cau. More than 1,000 people attended the conference. Fang and his wife, Yong, came to me. She said, “Pastor, I appreciate your hard work and how you trained my husband in the word of God. He is now a better husband and is a more caring pastor to his members.” I asked his wife, “How so?” She said, “The love of God motivates my husband to love us more. He was a man of traditions, but now he has a gentle and humble heart.” I told her, “Praise God for his love and mercy! And continue to support your husband’s ministry.”

Sadly, on July 18, 2019, Fang was taken home to his Lord. He was on a trip to assist another family who had lost a loved one just two days earlier. He preached for several hours under a hot sun, and then he was invited to stay with a family for the night. Early in the morning when the lady was done cooking, she called out for everyone to come to breakfast. Fang didn’t answer the call. The man of the family went to wake him up. We still don’t know the cause of his death.

He will be missed by many, especially his fellow workers in Vietnam. His associate called me hours after his death, “Pastor Lor, Pastor Fang passed away this morning. It was a tremendous lost to the congregations in this area because he served his Lord and members from his heart. We all miss him a lot. We know that you will miss him too.” Through his ministry, the Holy Spirit brought many to believe in Jesus. He was a model of faith not only to his members, but also to the community near and far in Northern Vietnam. Both he and his wife worked so hard in their rice field to make sure that they could serve their family and members. He told me, “Pastor, I am not rich but I thank God that he gives me the strength to work in my rice field so that I can support my family and do the work that my Lord has entrusted to me.” I remember one day, after a break from long hours of training, he brought me a well-cooked whole chicken and said, “Pastor, my wife and I thank you for sharing the word of God with us. We have nothing to pay you, so we brought you this chicken.” I didn’t know what to say, so I split the chicken and ate it with him and the other students. That was one of the most enjoyable moments in my life. I ate the chicken with tears in my heart.

More than 600 people, both the Christian and non-Christian community, attended Fang’s funeral. I thank God that he knew the truth that he was saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. No doubt he could have accomplished much more if he had lived longer, but God knows what is best for him and his family. Now, he is united with the saints in heaven, safely in the arms of our Heavenly Father. He is protected by our Lord Jesus Christ. He has no more tears, and he suffers no more persecution due to his faith in Christ. No more worries about his rice field so that he can take good care of his family and members. Peace is his in Christ forever!

Brothers and sisters, let’s remind ourselves daily that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. Grace may not mean much to some of us, but for Fang, it was his only hope: his only hope in Jesus. He was willing to endure hardships for the sake of the gospel so that he could bring it to lost souls—sinners saved by grace through faith alone in Christ. God gives us the best treasure, so let’s share our best treasure to all nations, tribes, and languages through our prayers and stewardship.

Thank you for supporting the training in Hanoi, and please continue to pray for your brothers and sisters in Vietnam.

Written by Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia Ministry Coordinator

 

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Pastor Zang

Pastor Zang Lou is 54 years old, and serves as one of the leaders of the Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC). He and his wife Pai Chang have 5 children – their extended family has 22 members, including 12 grandchildren. In 2011, Pastor Zang found Rev. Bounkeo Lor’s online sermons and invited him to train 60 leaders of the Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC) in Hanoi, Vietnam. This is his story: 

I thank God for everything that he has given me and because he has called me to faith. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

In 1987, when I was 22 years old, I was invited by the government to serve my country as a policeman. I served as a policeman for six years. During that time the gospel came to my country, and many people were led to believe in Jesus. One week after many became Christian, the government sent me to investigate: to find out why so many people left their Hmong traditions to believe in Jesus. During my investigation, the believers told me that they left their tradition to believe in the Savior, Jesus Christ. Then I told them that if they believe in the Savior and the One that has power to rescue the Hmong from the hands of the devil, I will go back and explain this to the government.

That night when I slept, a man dressed in white and bright clothes came to me in vision and said, “Lou, I call you to believe in me. I am the Lord who chose you to lead my people and to train them in my Word.” When I woke up early in the morning, I told my father that this vision was very important. My father allowed me to believe in Jesus, and the whole family became Christian.

After this event, the government found out that I had become a Christian. They started to find ways to trick me and persecute me and the believers. But we stood firm in our faith, and we asked God to help us overcome the persecution. The power of God and the Holy Spirit gave me the courage and strength to endure persecution. I encouraged the Hmong brothers and sisters to believe in Jesus. In a short time, many more people in many other villages also were led to believe in Jesus. In 1994, we were eager to find someone to baptize us.

I went to Hanoi and to Laos to learn more about the Word of God from Pastor Jouangwa Lor, one of my distant relatives. He baptized me and prayed for me. He also showed me how to baptize others so that I could return to my home town and baptize the people in my area. When I returned, I shared the Word of God with the people in my area and baptized 350 -400 people per day. Many people in northern Vietnam sought me to learn more about the Word of God, and so that I could encourage them and protect them from the government authority. Many times, the government wanted to put me into prison, but I overcame their evil authority with prayer. I strongly believed that God was with me, to protect me and the believers. In 1995 as the believers grew stronger, we start to form congregations in the area, and we appointed leaders to oversee the congregations. In 1993 to 1995, I trained the leaders and baptized more than 6,000 people. Most of our training sessions were done on farms or in the jungle.

I served the government until 2002. The government pressured me to renounce my faith. They gave me the choice of two documents to sign—the first one was to renounce my faith, continue my tradition, and serve the government. The second was to believe in Jesus but lose my position in the government. At that time, the power of God and the Holy Spirit led me to sign the document to believe in Jesus and to lose my position in the government. I refused to renounce my faith. But I told them that there was nothing wrong with believing in Jesus. I praise God that He protected me. The government did not dare to do any harm to me even though I signed the document to continue to believe in Jesus. Since then, they asked me to leave my position in the government.

I work hard to serve the believers. In 2004, the believers in my area were so hungry to learn the Word of God and to receive some training to be recognized by the Vietnamese government as workers for the church. We turned to Vietnamese pastors, but they did not truly guide us in the Word of God. We received training from them many times, but we kept learning the same thing over and over. We were very confused about the Word of God.

I praise God that in 2011 I met Pastor Bounkeo Lor. In 2014, Pastor Smith and Lor came to Vietnam together to teach us the Word of God. We asked them to do more training for the brothers in Vietnam. They told us that God can do everything, let’s continue to pray. Even though we only met them a few times, we started to love the teaching from the Lutheran church. The teaching of the Lutherans is the wisdom of God. According to Romans 10:12, when people hear the Word of God, people are brought to believe in Jesus.

I and the Hmong leaders in Vietnam are willing to serve our God without pay. We know that God is the heart for our lives, and the root of life for every soul that believes in him. And he gives us peace for both body and soul. I praise God for my brothers and sisters in the blood of Jesus and in his name that you have helped and supported the work in Vietnam. I will continue to love and serve my God more for the people in Vietnam. Our Hmong brothers really need more training. We ask you to pray for us. I also thank God that he opens the door more for church activities in Vietnam.

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Faces of Faith – Sebastian

It was a moment parents dread: an early morning phone call from the hospital.

“Your son has been in an accident. It’s critical. The doctors don’t think he’ll make it. Come right away.”

Sebastian had always struck me as a responsible teen. Respectful, polite, hard-working, active in the church – the kind of child that makes parents proud. One night he and a friend were riding Sebastian’s motorcycle home from a party. A different motorcycle blew through an intersection and struck the vehicle Sebastian was driving. He and the friend riding behind him went flying. Sebastian’s body cushioned his friend’s fall, but the pavement cracked Sebastian’s helmet and caused severe head trauma.

Sebastian’s parents, Henry and Eliana, are good friends of mine. Pastor Henry is a missionary in our sister synod in Medellín, Colombia. He is called to help others start churches in Colombian and Venezuelan cities. I heard of the accident from Henry and immediately left for the hospital. What do you say when a brother in the faith and his family are going through a severe test? We lived in different cities. I was unsure whether Sebastian would be alive when I arrived.

Sebastian presenting at his new church in Ibagué

After hours of travel, I got to see the family and shared my favorite Psalm with them: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord…” – Psalm 121. I assured them, “The Lord is with you. He is watching over you.”

“The first three days were critical,” recalls Pastor Henry. When he arrived at the hospital, Sebastian’s skull was cracked and his brain was visible. “After a few days they disconnected him from the machine to see what would happen.” He began to breathe on his own.

After a week, with a bandaged head, the medical team sent Sebastian home. He spent another month in bed, with his mom serving as his primary care provider. The next months his parents retaught him how to dress, eat, speak, and carry out basic skills.

Prior to the accident, Sebastian was studying to be a motorcycle mechanic. However, the trauma his brain suffered made school impossible. His mind found it hard to focus. Nearly three years passed. No longer a teenager, Sebastian grew more and more frustrated. He felt like a burden to his family. He began to struggle with depression.

Then one week, Pastor Henry was making his regular rounds and dropped in on a mission congregation in Ibagué, Colombia, which is about seven hours away from where he lives. Worship there is held in a hotel. Victor and Paulina work at the hotel and are leaders in the new church. Chatting after church, they mentioned to Pastor Henry that they were looking for someone to help them manage the hotel. “As a joke,” Henry recalls, “I told them, ‘You should hire my son.’” What a surprise when Victor and Paulina made the trip the next week to interview Sebastian for the position!

Arrangements were made, and in March of this year Sebastian moved away from home to live and work at the hotel with Victor and Paulina. “It’s been a huge blessing for everyone,” Pastor Henry says. “Sebastian is able to help start a church and stay close to God.”

Sebastian at his new church in Ibagué

I asked my friend, Henry, if a particular Bible passage brought them comfort during these past three years. “Yes brother, it was the one you read to us during the most difficult moments, Psalm 121.”

When David wrote those words some three thousand years ago, he had no idea how they would comfort a Colombian called worker family during their most difficult challenge. But God knew. Sebastian may never fully recover from the injuries he suffered during that early morning accident, but he can know God is watching over him, just as he watches over all his children.

Written by Missionary Mike Hartman, field coordinator for the Latin America missions team

 

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Pastor Chaplai

Pastor Chaplai is one of 60 Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC) leaders who are receiving theological training in Hanoi, Vietnam, from Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia ministry coordinator, and members of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI). In March 2019, the leaders gathered again for two weeks of training. The first week was a study of the first 400 years of church history in the New Testament era. The second week was a study of the Bible’s teachings about Church & Ministry. The intensive courses included 6 hours of class activities during the day and assigned readings in the evenings.

Pastor Chaplai shared his story with PSI Professor Rev. Brad Wordell, with Bounkeo Lor serving as translator:

On coming to faith: In 1997 one of my children was sick. No remedies were helping. I decided that I wanted to visit a Christian church in our area, to see if they could pray for my child. Before I went, other people warned me about the dangers: “The church will make you give them all your money”, “If you decide to stop going to their church, they will persecute you.” We decided to go anyway. I brought my whole family. They kindly welcomed us and told us about the Bible. They prayed for us. We told others what happened. Later that year, my family and five other families were baptized. But as the church grew, the persecution against us also grew. We were fined by local authorities. We were arrested and threatened. One night the locals captured several families, put them all in a truck, drove 160 kilometers to a very remote place and dropped them off in the middle of the jungle to die. But they survived. One time many of the Christian men in our village were captured and taken to a house, where we were interrogated separately. They told me to denounce my faith like all the other men had done. I told them, “I don’t know about the other men, but I still believe in Jesus.” They locked my legs in stocks. They would threaten me, pretend like they were going to hit me, and demand that I sign a piece of paper renouncing my faith. When I refused, they would lock me up again until the next day, when the process would begin again. Finally, after many days, they gave up. They told me I was stubborn and let me go. I went back to my church and told everyone, “Don’t be afraid of them.” The community trusted me. Many families came to me to learn about the Bible. One time, in four days, 60 families became Christian!

I didn’t know much about the Bible. We did not have Bibles to give to people. As the church grew, the local government put more pressure on us. They would arrest us and slap us repeatedly in the face and then release us. But there were too many of us. Some officials came to our church pretending that they wanted to become Christian. They wanted to check us out and see what we were really doing. For two years we were being watched closely by soldiers. Finally they gave up and left our village. A few years later, I moved to Sa Pa to start a new church there. The persecution there was severe. In spite of brutal beatings, the Christians did not renounce their faith. One night, everyone in the village was baptized secretly in the freezing cold water of a nearby river (We didn’t know that immersion is not a requirement). For three years, I had to travel by night and teach the Bible to people between midnight and 5 am. We would sleep during the day. In 2003, I was chosen to be the leader of the whole area. In that same year, the persecution began to decline.

On ministry: My ministry has been very blessed. I might be the only pastor here who is able to say that every one of my relatives is a Christian – every one! I now oversee eleven congregations. I serve 1,934 members in 324 families. I still travel to new areas to tell people about Jesus. I have to be careful in some of those areas because of resistance and possible persecution. Because I was one of the first ones to believe in my region and because all the Christians think of me as their leader, so many people are coming to me all the time for all kinds of help. I must admit to you that ministry is very difficult. Many times I have wanted to give up. But I keep serving because I love God.

On learning: If it were not for these classes, I most certainly would have quit before now. I want to say thank you to WELS because you have given me peace. I did not have peace until I learned the gospel in these classes. All of us here are learning so many things. We take the things we learn here and teach them to our people. The printed materials, translated into our language, are very useful to us. All of us are baptized now, including our babies. We have peace and joy from the true teaching of God’s Word.

What WELS members can pray for: I ask the members of WELS to pray for me and the members of my churches. They are immature in their faith and do not understand “the priesthood of all believers.” They have not learned how to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God and to serve together in the body of Christ. I want to motivate them with the gospel, not the law.

Brad Wordell, part of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) Team, is a member at Christ Alone, Thiensville, Wisconsin.

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Faces of Faith – Pastor Chaleunsouk

The following is an interview I conducted with Pastor Tom Chaleunsouk. After you read this, say a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord for his grace and his gift to the church.

Tom Chaleunsouk was born in 1952 just outside Vientiane, the capital city of the country of Laos. In the early 1970s he worked as a night watchman on the American Air Base in Vientiane. Tom was married in 1973 to his wife Kaysone, who was from the same village. By 1980, they had been blessed with three children.

After the Vietnam war ended, the air base was abandoned by the United States government and regime changes were taking place in Laos. The Lao communist government actively sought to find all those who assisted or worked with the Americans during the conflict, which placed the lives of thousands in grave danger. Many were killed and many were sent to concentration (“re-education”) camps in the northern part of the country.

Pastor Tom (right) and his wife Kaysone (third from right) during a youth volleyball tournament at the church

In 1980, having been warned that his life was in danger, Tom took the bold step of fleeing across the Mekong River which runs along the border of Thailand and Laos. To avoid being seen by communist soldiers, he crossed the river in the middle of the night on an evening in October when the monsoons were nearing the end and the river was at flood stage. The crossing was about a quarter mile wide. He crossed alone to protect his family from possible capture or death in the event he was caught by the authorities. He could not swim, so he fashioned a triangle of three bamboo poles and plastic bags into a kind of life preserver. He tied them under his arms and jumped into the river. On the other side of the river, he was picked up by Thai soldiers and put into the United Nations refugee camp in Nong Khai.

Meanwhile, arrangements had been made for Tom’s wife, Kaysone, to secretly follow Tom across the Mekong River with their three small children. Kaysone’s father took them to the river where a boat was waiting for them. Their oldest child, Thephone (who was four years old at the time), began to cry. For fear of being caught by the communist soldiers, Kaysone’s father took the boy back to the village, leaving Kaysone and the two youngest children alone. They successfully crossed the river and were taken to the U.N. refugee camp. It would take another four years before Tom and Kaysone were reunited with their son.

Tom and his wife were raised in the Buddhist religion. In the refugee camp, Tom met a Thai Christian evangelist who held gatherings in the camp. He approached Tom one day and invited him to join them, where he shared God’s word and prayed for him and his family.

In 1981, Tom and his family were brought to the United States and sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church in Pease, Minnesota. They were welcomed by the community, which helped them acclimate to a new country and culture. Tom and his family were eventually baptized, and Tom’s desire to not only learn more about Christianity, but also to be able to teach his native people about Jesus, became a driving force for him.

The Nong Khai church (left) and sala (right) in Ban Houymakhat. A sala is a covered open structure. All of the house church mission groups gather with the congregation here on the first Sunday of the month for a joint communion service and fellowship.

The family moved to Lakeville, Minnesota, where they started attending Bethlehem Lutheran Church. After Tom made his interest in becoming a pastor known, two pastors who were part of a multi-cultural WELS outreach team in St. Paul came to visit. Tom began part time studies with the WELS Pastoral Studies Institute in 1998, and was enrolled full time in 2000. In 2005, he graduated and was commissioned as a missionary to the Issan (Thai-Lao) people in Thailand.

Over the course of his service to the Lord and his church, Tom has continued to offer pastoral instruction to interested students in Nong Khai, Thailand. Together with one national pastor and one national evangelist as well as some dedicated laymen, Tom oversees four “house churches” in different villages and a central church in Ban Houymakhat, Thailand.

Pastor Tom and his wife Kaysone have been and continue to play a vital role in our mission work among the Issan people in northeastern Thailand. Through their untiring dedication and service to the Lord, many have come to know their Savior. Pray that the Lord blesses them with health and a safe working environment!

Written by Rev. Ken Pasch, Thailand Field Coordinator

 

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Faces of Faith – Thomas

Chinese students are often assigned a traditional English name when they begin to study English in grade school—if their parents haven’t already given them one. Later on, many of them choose a new English name for themselves, something that feels more suitable—the name of a famous athlete, a name that sounds successful, or a name that has special significance for them. When Thomas became a Christian, he chose the name Thomas, after Jesus’ apostle, because he also had many doubts about his faith. Since that time, Thomas has dedicated himself to learning the Scriptures, sharing the gospel, and helping other doubters stand more firmly on God’s promises so that they can also say confidently that Jesus is, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). He even walked away from a lucrative future in sciences to begin his seminary education – while he finished acquiring his PhD in physics! Currently, Thomas works hard to balance his studies, his new marriage, and his duties as an evangelist at the local church. His church already has three different sites, even though it is only about 5 years old. Thomas reaches out, disciples the believers, counsels the hurting, mentors new leaders in his congregation, and helps the different sites grow in grace. The doubter who once needed to be mentored into gospel confidence is now confidently mentoring others into God’s promises. He is even visiting developing groups and leaders in other cities to encourage them! Please keep Thomas in your prayers.

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Faces of Faith – South Asia

A young Hindu from Nepal had his whole life before him, when inexplicably he lost his vision. The doctors told him he would never see again. In despair, he contemplated suicide and made plans to throw himself from the famous Karnali bridge in western Nepal. A Christian friend went to visit him in his home and reassured him, “If God made your eyes, he knows how to fix your eyes. If God made you, he knows how to heal you. He will heal you in this life; and if not in this life, then he will heal you in the life to come. Whatever happens to you, God loves you and gave his Son for you.” After their initial meeting, the two men began attending church together. Miraculously, a small portion of his vision started to return. He prayed to God and said, “Whether you improve my eyes or not, I trust in you.” Thanks to the Lord’s infinite mercy, his vision was completely restored. Today he is a national pastor in Nepal, serving as Outreach Coordinator to help others to see their beautiful Savior.

From the friendly counselor to South Asia

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Faces of Faith – Niko

Meet the newest European pastor! Nikolla (Niko), pictured center, is the oldest son of Pastor Mikel and Pavlena Bishka. He lives with his parents and younger brother, Viktor, in Durres, Albania, an ancient city on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, right across from Italy’s heel.

Niko completed his seminary studies in January 2019 and serves the Durres congregation together with his father, where 90 people regularly attend weekly worship services. Pastor Agron Mece (pictured left) and Mikel (pictured right) are both nearing retirement. They thank God for providing a pastor for the next generation and are recruiting other young men in their congregations to study for ministry.

The three pastors are working together to host the European Regional CELC Convention in May 2019. The convention gives the pastors across Europe a chance to see the work going on in Albania and to encourage our Albanian brothers and sisters as they carry the gospel to the three million people of their country.

From Luke Wolfgramm, WELS pastor in Russia

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