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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 – Mrs. Tri

We take prayer requests verbally from our congregation and then pray about those very things in the moment. About four months ago, Mrs. Tri (pictured above 4th from right), raised her hand and went off on how her whole family is in chaos and disharmony, and how there is lack of respect and discord throughout the family. Her adult children’s families are all members of our congregation. Following that, our congregational president, Mr. Hưu-Trung Lê, and I visited members of the family, and Mrs. Tri, and prayed with them, shared key passages with specific members of the family over the following days and weeks. Later on a different Sunday, the same Sunday at Mrs. Phước’s baptism, Mrs. Tri raised her hand once again at the time of prayer requests. Internally I’m thinking, “Oh boy, here we go again…” Mrs. Tri then went on to say how thankful she was to God for bringing restored peace and harmony to her family. She is happy deep in her heart for what God has done to bring all the family members together again in harmony. Trung said Mrs. Tri came up to him after the service during fellowship time and said, “God has real power. To do what he did in my family—God’s power is real.”

From Dan Kramer, missionary at Peace in Jesus Vietnamese Lutheran Church in Boise, Ida.

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Faces of Faith – Phước Thị Trần

The picture above is Phước Thị Trần, who lived her first 85 years without God. She actively campaigned for her family members not to be Christian or attend services at our church. When she found out family members were in a Bible basics course, she told them to stop.

Over these last few years, Mrs. Phước has been more open, even open to attending worship services over the past months. On the last Sunday of September, after much witnessing, prayer and her daughter’s faithful devotion in bringing her to attend services, this lady was happy to be baptized. Everyone applauded at the conclusion of the baptism. One of the family members rushed over to her as she was sitting down and said congratulations. The daughter wanted to do the baptism in the first service so the great-grandsons who attend the first service could see the baptism. They both recorded it on their phones. After the second service, since we had the baptism banner up, I explained what had happened during the first service and everyone applauded again. Mrs. Phước’s name means “blessing.” She is a blessing to us just as she has been richly blessed by God.

From Dan Kramer, missionary at Peace in Jesus Vietnamese Lutheran Church in Boise, Ida.

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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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Be strong and courageous

My name is Qiang Wang, a Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) vicar of Saviour of the Nations Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Canada. I immigrated to Canada with my wife Susan and my son Ricky in 2013. At that time, Susan and I were Buddhists. Thanks be to the Lord that he sent Chinese Christians preaching the gospel to us almost immediately. At first I rejected their efforts. Later I decided to read the Bible on my own in order to argue with them. The Spirit created faith in my heart through the Word. On the Thanksgiving day in 2014, Susan and I were baptized into Jesus. Shortly after my baptism, I started to read the People’s Bible Commentaries which I borrowed from Pastor Geoff Cortright, who is the pastor of Saviour of the Nations. Since November 2015, after a 3-day trip to Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, I have been studying in the PSI program full-time almost 4 years. God willing, I will finish PSI training at the end of this year and graduate from the Seminary in May 2020.

With funding from WELS Joint Missions, WELS-Canada, and Saviour of the Nations, I moved to Coquitlam as a missionary on July 1, 2019, in order to start a new Chinese mission.

Why Coquitlam?

Right now, the population of the city of Coquitlam is about 170,000. Coquitlam is one of the fastest growing Chinese areas in North America. In 2016, the local Skytrain expanded to include Coquitlam. As a result, the city is projecting explosive growth as commuters can now live in a more affordable community and easily connect to the amenities of Vancouver. City planners estimate that by 2026 the population will reach 200,000, an increase of 60,000 people in a 10 year span. Of that 60,000, half are Chinese people. The city of Coquitlam has plans to build up a larger core centre, with high rise towers and dense urban living. In the neighborhoods surrounding Coquitlam Town Centre, 23% to 49% of the homes speak Chinese. An increasing number of Chinese businesses and restaurants have moved in, catering to first generation immigrants. Additionally, what makes Coquitlam potentially the best regional choice to plant a Chinese church—it is currently under-served by Chinese churches.

Vicar Qiang Wang, his wife Susan, and their friend Richard (standing) after a long day of moving

When I received the final decision from our congregation that I would start a new Chinese mission in Coquitlam, I was excited and a little bit intimidated. To start a mission from scratch is not a small task for anyone. Our Lord is good! The first date of our moving, July 1, is Canada Day. God blessed us almost immediately through different ways. After a whole day moving and cleaning, I was exhausted and hungry. All our stuff was unpacked. We didn’t know where to have our dinner. Richard Yu, my friend and schoolmate from back in China and who now lives in Coquitlam, brought food and drinks to our new apartment. We enjoyed the food and shared the gospel with Richard. Suddenly and unexpectedly, an excellent fireworks show started, which we enjoyed from our new balcony.

We kept giving thanks to the Lord. Through Richard, God told us that we are not alone! He uses everything around us to bless us. Through the fireworks, God gave us a warm welcome! He is with us!

“Be strong and courageous!” Three times the Lord encouraged Joshua to be confident to succeed Moses in leading God’s people into the Promised Land. I believe that God will lead us to a wonderful future in North American. We pray that God establish a vibrant Chinese Lutheran worshiping community of believers in Coquitlam through our ministry. It will be a blessing not only for Coquitlam, but also for North America, and perhaps even for as far away as China.

Written by Vicar Qiang Wang, Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) student and Chinese missionary to Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada

The Chinese ministry in Coquitlam was approved to receive partial funding from WELS Joint Missions in May 2019 (with financial assistance also coming from WELS-Canada and Saviour of the Nations). To learn more about WELS Joint Missions, visit wels.net/jointmissions.

 

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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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Faces of Faith – Dana, Kimia, and Harir

At Hope, having first-time visitors is a regular blessing. We are blessed to be in a city made up of 50 percent first generation immigrants and are in an area of the city where many immigrants land. It wasn’t unusual to look out one Sunday and see new faces—Dana and Kimia with their daughter Harir (Dana is pictured holding Harir). What was unusual was the story of how they got there.

Shortly after their visit, I asked them, “How did you come to Hope?” They told me Jacqueline sent them . . . yet no one knows who this Jacqueline is. There is no Jacqueline in our congregation, and the address Jacqueline gave them didn’t exist. However, the fake address was relatively close to our church, so the couple saw a cross and walked in. And then they cried.

Harir (left)

This was the very first time they had ever been able to attend a worship service with fellow Christians. In their home country, they had each began asking questions about Christianity, which led them to secret Bible study gatherings. They were introduced to Jesus and to each other, learned of Jesus’ love, and grew in love with each other and were married. But becoming Christians meant fear of retaliation, even death, for leaving the Muslim faith. They sold all and sought out a new country.

They came to Toronto and, by God’s grace, they found Hope . . . They attended worship services and cried tears of joy as they brought Harir up for the children’s message without fear and sang Christian hymns for the very first time. Then came more tears, for them and the whole congregation, on the Sunday they were all baptized. Kimia (pictured being baptized) spoke to the whole congregation and said, “We came here knowing no one, but trusting God. Now we have a new family and we can worship Jesus together.”

From Mark Henrich, missionary at Hope Lutheran Church in Toronto, Canada

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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. From 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 the 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, missionary in Russia

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Faces of Faith – Fred

A Pima and Papago Native, Fred Thomas Sr. married Linda, a woman from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Making their home on the Ft. Apache Reservation, Fred and Linda were hungry for God’s Word and a church home and began attending our Lutheran church. As the Holy Spirit worked, Fred was confirmed, became a church elder, and even started taking classes in our Apache Christian Training School (ACTS) during the evenings after he got done working.

When he and his family moved to a new community on the reservation, he volunteered for service again, helping reopen a Lutheran church in the community and offering his carport for worship services. Now a member and elder of Shepherd in the Pines Lutheran Church in McNary, Fred is serving in another way. As part of his advanced involvement in the ACTS program, he and other ACTS students are preparing Lenten devotions and leading worship for a mid-week Lenten series in the Lutheran churches of the Ft. Apache Reservation. Fred shares, “The Lord has blessed me greatly with the wisdom and knowledge to take care of his church and share his Word with other people who don’t know him. I give him all the praise, honor, and glory, as it is by grace that I have been saved.”

From Dan Rautenberg, field coordinator on the Apache reservations

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Faces of Faith – Hakim

“Even the cows listen to his sermons!”

So it seems! A picture (above) shows Hakim preaching a sermon to people sitting on the ground outside a house church. In the background is a cow staring intently at Hakim. His friends tease this humble, faithful servant who is deeply loved and say, “You are the world’s best preacher. Even the cows listen to you.” He is like a father-figure to many in the church. Despite his age he has a lot of energy and connects well with the young people in the church. He is also a film-maker and has made many video vignettes of Bible stories such as the Lost Son in Luke 15. He is also a student in our first Pakistan Bible Institute. He visits three to five house churches every week to teach what he learns in the Bible Institute. What makes Hakim and the other students wonderful preachers is how they bring God’s truth to our 58 house churches in Pakistan.

From the friendly counselor to South Asia

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Faces of Faith – Kittikun

Kittikun Thouttha (pictured center) was born into a Christian family in northeastern Thailand. His contact with WELS Missionary Tom (pictured left) brought about a thirst to learn more about the beautiful truths of the gospel as they are proclaimed in the Lutheran faith. After studying with Pastor Tom for over five years, Kittikun graduated from his studies and was ordained in 2013. When asked why he became a Lutheran pastor, Kittikun responded: “Because I know that God called me.”

Pastor Kittikun works closely with Pastor Tom and other leaders of our five missions in northeastern Thailand. He is active in the instruction of others who are studying for service in the church. He and his wife live in the village of Pongsumran where he poured a concrete floor in his carport and set up a small chapel for his congregation to gather. Pastors Kittikun and Tom also assist in the care and leadership of families from three house churches in neighboring villages. Once a month they all travel to Houymakhat village where our largest congregation is located. Together, they join in Bible study, worship, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and a fellowship meal.

Though the Christian church is small in Thailand, it is not dead. Despite the overwhelming influence of Buddhism in the lives of the Thai, the Lord’s Word does not return empty. Through the dedicated work of men like Pastor Kittikun, the Lord’s kingdom continues to grow.

From Ken Pasch (pictured right), missionary in Thailand

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Faces of Faith – Brother Wang

After working with Lionel Logue as his speech therapist for several months, King George VI of England opened Parliament “resonantly and without stuttering.” Through Logue’s training, King George began to overcome a very heavy stammer that had plagued him for his entire life, a critical need for a leader who would be required to inspire his people during the dark days of World War II. I think of King George when I think of “Brother Wang,” one of our seminary students here. Brother Wang stutters a bit when he speaks, whether in his native tongue or in English. Some people worried that this would make it difficult for him to teach and preach. But his determination to share the beauty of the gospel overcame his apparent weakness. For some reason, when he reads Scripture and preaches sermons, there isn’t a single slip or stutter. It’s a joy to listen to him recite Scripture or read an ancient poem with emotion and excellent rhythm. But his reading isn’t the most powerful aspect of his life; it’s his own passion and conviction for the gospel he reads, whether teaching the people who gather on Sundays, or when ministering to a dying brother, or when taking care of his mother. For a man who struggles a bit with stuttering, Brother Wang is a steady character who stands firmly upon the gospel without wavering. Please pray for this brother who clearly proclaims the name of Christ Jesus.

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Faces of Faith – Alisad

The Central Africa Medical Mission (CAMM) has been operating a clinic in Mwembezhi, Zambia, for almost 60 years. Part of the mission is to turn much of the operations over to Zambians. CAMM recently hired Alisad Banda as clinic administrator, an important step in nationalizing the clinic. He first came to the Mwembehzi Clinic in 2005 in conjunction with some work he did in Health & Development. He was impressed how the clinic worked so closely with the Lutheran Church and enjoys knowing that Christians are showing compassion, care, charity, and integrity in a hospital and clinic setting. Both his mom and dad were Lutherans and instructed Alisad and his siblings in the doctrine and teachings of the Lutheran Church. He has worked diligently to advance his experience and professional life, receiving a diploma for Social Work from the University of Zambia (2007) and a diploma in Public Health from the Chainama College of Health Sciences (2017). He will graduate in October 2019 from the University of Lusaka with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health. In addition to his studies, Alisad can speak five languages. He is excited for the new challenge and seeing the clinic progress. Alisad lives in Lusaka with his wife, Cecilla, and their two children. CAMM is blessed to have Alisad and his strong Christian values at our Mwembezhi Clinic.

From Angela Sievert, CAMM Public Relations Coordinator

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Faces of Faith – Pastor Isreal

Rev. Mesue Israel Muankume is the only second-generation pastor in the entire Lutheran Church of Cameroon (LCC). In spite of his love and abilities with football (soccer), his father convinced him to study for the ministry. He graduated from our Lutheran Theological Seminary in Kumba  in 1999 under the leadership of the late missionary Norbert Meier.

He married Marie the same year and the Lord has since bless them with Suzanne, Haag (named after former missionary Keith Haag), and Joseph. After blessed service to several congregations of the Lutheran Church of Cameroon, Pastor Israel was struck with TB of the bone in 2008. The necessary surgery resulted in infection and left him walking with a cane and considerable pain to this day. Pastor Israel continued serving in LCC congregations as he has a real ability to communicate God’s love with others. In 2016, the Holy Spirit felt the need for a shift in ministry for Pastor Israel. He now serves as professor and Dean of our Bible Institute and upcoming Seminary in Cameroon. Please keep Pastor Israel and all of our brothers and sisters of the LCC in your prayers!

From Dan Kroll, missionary in Africa

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Faces of Faith – Carlos

Carlos Fernandez could have been called a highly successful church planter within his denomination in Argentina—once planting six churches in a year. But when his church body sent out a notice, which included no Biblical support, that forbid its members from watching TV or playing sports, Carlos decided that he could no longer take the legalism of his church body. He went looking for something else.

Carlos found Bible-based, Christ-centered teaching through Academia Cristo, the WELS online effort for outreach and training. Through it he was able to take online classes taught by WELS missionaries.

After several classes, Carlos received visits from WELS missionaries. He took off work from his finance company, used his motorcycle to shuttle the visiting missionaries around his town of Machagai, Argentina, and spent as much as 14 hours a day studying God’s Word. God willing, Carlos will be visited again soon when he will be welcomed into fellowship and the church-planting will begin.

From Mike Hartman, missionary and field coordinator in Latin America

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Faces of Faith – Lizbeth

“We want to learn more,” said Lizbeth Guaman, as she and her mother began classes with the Academia Cristo teachers in Quito, Ecuador. Lizbeth and several family members were disappointed with the Bible instruction they had received in other places. One day they saw an advertisement on Facebook for a Bible workshop and their interest was piqued. Lizbeth attended to see what it was all about. She liked it!

By God’s grace, they began taking classes and even invited Academia Cristo teachers to their home to teach weekly. Using Multi-Language Publications (MLP) materials and videos, this family has been advancing in Bible truth one lesson at a time. God has even planted the desire to share this news and invite others to the classes. May the Lord continue to water the seeds spread by the swirling winds of the internet!

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Faces of Faith – Ron

Ron Kelly’s passion is to serve the families and young people at his congregation, St. Marcus in Milwaukee, Wis. “The youth and children of my community have so few role models showing them what a Christian man looks like,” Ron told me the first time we met. Ron wants to be such a role model.

And he is. Supervising Pastor Dan Leyrer reports that Ron is friendly, helpful, outgoing, faithful, and always looking to give. Ron is involved with youth discipleship, chapel devotions at St. Marcus school, ministry to school families, Bible information classes, and assistance at the Lord’s Supper. Ron also serves the church at large. He is a member of the Urban Advisory Board in Milwaukee and will represent St. Marcus as a delegate to the 2019 WELS Convention in New Ulm, Minn.

In addition to his work as a realtor and his many hours of service at St. Marcus, Ron is working his way through the PSI curriculum, one class at a time. He and Pastor Leyrer set aside time every week for these studies. Already these classes are equipping Ron for ministry. Ron is a rare gift from our Risen and Ascended Savior!

From Rev. Brad Wordell, member of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) team

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Faces of Faith – Chenna

I was standing outside some apartments near our church, talking with some Hindu friends of mine who lived there. We noticed a young man and his father unloading some luggage from a U-Haul. My wife and I wanted to see if they needed help; we introduced ourselves and met Chenna and his father.

Often, we invite our friends to our home for dinner and to get to know them better. As we got to know Chenna, we learned that his father was a former Hindu and his mother used to be a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Chenna had been attending church services through a variety of Christian denominations and was looking for a church home in Pewaukee, Wis. My wife and I invited him to join us at Christ Lutheran.

Eventually, Chenna became more like a son to us than just a friend. We walked with him as he grew in his knowledge of the Bible through the course of a Bible information class hosted in our home with one of the pastors. Once he completed the course, Chenna was confirmed and can now join us as we receive assurance of sins forgiven during the Lord’s Supper.

Chenna’s story is a great example of how simply saying hello to someone can lead to a family-like friendship and impact a person’s faith. We pray that as Chenna continues to grow in his faith that he can let the light of Christ shine to his family so that they too can share in the joy of Jesus.

From Pastor Paul, South Asia Ministry Coordinator for WELS Joint Missions

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Faces of Faith – Paul and Abigail

Every year the men from our congregation rent a large tent and host an awesome prime rib breakfast after Easter worship. In 2017, more than 200 people showed up for Easter worship and fellowship! That year, a long time WELS member named Helen invited her friends Paul and Abigail. They enjoyed everything – but Paul had not worshiped in a church for quite some time due to some mistrust in the church establishment. After that Easter breakfast, we didn’t see Paul and Abigail for a long time. Fast forward to 2018, and there they were, sitting in the church for worship. After some conversation and pre-marriage counseling, Spirit of Life hosted a small, beautiful wedding for this couple. I had learned that Paul wasn’t baptized in some of our discussions, and so on December 23, 2018, I had the opportunity to baptize Paul. Both Paul and Abigail have finished membership classes and are excited to be a part of Spirit of Life.

It was a long journey, with multiple touchpoints over multiple years. But from a personal invite, to a meal, to a wedding, and then to a baptism we’re shown how God’s Word is living and active and—on his time—works and grows. Stories like this make our members and I excited to sow the gospel seed every day, never knowing when the next Paul and Abigail might show up.

From Allen Kirschbaum, missionary at Spirit of Life Lutheran Church in Caledonia, Mich.

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