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Moments with Missionaries: Tomsk, Russia

Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr

Hello! We are Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr, and we volunteer in the Daylight Mission in Russia. Coming from Miami, Florida, our warm home didn’t deter us from volunteering to serve as English teachers in the frigid city of Tomsk in central Siberia! As a couple we desired to volunteer in a foreign mission field, but we were uncertain if there was a place right for us. Naturally in Florida we didn’t know much about Russia, yet after talking to the Russian missionaries we found ourselves eager to learn more about this unique culture and people God was reaching. After much thoughtful prayer, and perhaps some family hesitations, we finally agreed to the experience of a lifetime in Tomsk!

Our position in Tomsk is mostly conducting English Clubs, a twofold purpose of teaching English while studying the Bible. Through this unique outreach, we can provide Russian learners exposure to the Lutheran church and the truths of the Bible. Culturally Russians can be leery of foreigners, so our outreach is primarily focused on connecting to people through different activities in the community. This is essential to advertise and promote the presence of the Lutheran church, and we have been blessed to see our attendance almost triple in our time here.

Volunteering has been a blessing to us because there is no greater joy than to share Christ with people. We see that God is intricately working when his Holy Spirit is able to reach places we cannot, such as when students ask to take catechisms or Bibles home or inquire about our church. One woman named Marina, who grew up atheist, has consistently attended our Bible lessons and even visited the church a couple times. Although she has not yet fully committed to joining the church, her understanding of the Bible and who Jesus is has grown tremendously. The life application of Jesus’ words always profoundly challenges her spiritual preconceived notions. Like Marina reading the Bible for the very first time, Russians are struck by the impactful truth of God’s Word in their often difficult lives. We hope and pray through our efforts to continue to be a witness to Marina for the gospel. Nothing has deepened our faith like seeing God work in these amazing ways!

Of course, we are also blessed to have fellowship with Russian believers in the Tomsk church. It is uplifting for our faithful Russian brothers and sisters to welcome volunteers from America willing to serve in their congregation and provide like-minded fellowship. In addition, we feel our presence is a blessing to the Tomsk believers because it publicizes the Lutheran church in a place where there are few Lutherans. We hope and pray they are encouraged by us as we are mutually encouraged by them and their faith!

Whether engaged in fellowship or outreach, we are so thankful we chose to volunteer in Tomsk. Though a climate far from Florida, the generous hospitality and enduring kindness of Russians continually warms our hearts, and we consider ourselves privileged to serve people here as we point the way to Jesus. Please continue to keep this vital mission in your prayers as we seek to be Christ’s ambassadors to the expanding kingdom of God in Russia!


Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr arrived in Russia in March of 2015 and will continue serving there until the fall of 2017.


One missionary, four national pastors, three deaconesses, and five Daylight teachers serve five congregations and one preaching station in Russia. Learn more about the Russia mission and other WELS mission opportunities at wels.net/missions.


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Author: Tabitha and Karl Mueller-St. Cyr
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission stories: Brazil

A story of God’s grace in Brazil

Beth Flunker

If this story had ended 15 years ago, it would be tragic. It might even bring tears to our eyes. But the Lord saw to it that the story did not end then. It is the story of Clodomira Franco da Silva, born in Brazil in 1953, the sixth of seven children of a family who worked on coffee plantations. We call her, affectionately, Mira.

A tumultuous life story

Her early years were neither good nor bad, just normal for a poor family with many children. “We didn’t know any better,” she says. “We had each other.”

The first tragic event occurred when Mira was five years old. Her father killed her mother and then took his own life. The oldest brother tried to raise the children himself, but he had to go to work all day and the littlest children got into trouble alone at home. One day Mira drank some kerosene that was normally used for the lamps. She was rushed to a neighbor who had a knowledge of herbal healing, and she recovered. But it was clear that the children had to be cared for somewhere else.

The four younger children went to live with their grandparents, who promised not to separate them or give them away. The grandmother took her Catholicism very seriously. Mira says, “I learned all the prayers but didn’t know what they meant. My only notion of Jesus was that statue on the cross.”

The grandparents did not keep their promise, and soon the children were given away. At age seven, Mira was given to an older couple in a larger city nearby. At first this was a wonderful move for her; she was treated well and could go to school, which she loved. But apparently the good treatment came from the old man. After he died, Mira was treated badly, and it got worse when the daughter and her two sons came to live with her mother. Mira began to receive regular beatings, and everything was considered her fault.

Mira put up with this treatment partly because she thought she had no other option, but moreso because she loved school and wanted to learn as much as she could. But when Mira was 12, the old woman took her out of school so she could earn her living as a maid.

That’s when Mira resolved to run away. She scouted the local, open-air bus and devised a way out. “I remember to this day the feeling of planning to escape and being afraid it wouldn’t work,” she says. It took Mira several days to get up the courage to put the plan into action. She was short and skinny, looking more like she was 8 years old than 12. She managed to get aboard the bus mixed in with other families. At the end of the line was the small town where she used to live and where she knew she had an uncle.

But at the end of the trip, when she was the only person on the bus, she had to tell her story to the bus driver. The bruises and marks on her body were obvious proof that she was telling the truth. A kind judge took her to her uncle and settled things with the old woman from whom she had escaped.

For two years Mira lived peacefully with her uncle and his family. “Those were good years,” she says. At the age of 14 she began to earn money by being a live-in babysitter for different families. At 17 she was seduced by a local boy, got pregnant, and was sent to another state to live with his relatives until the baby was born. There, once again, she was treated harshly. She and her baby survived and returned to the small Brazilian town. There she ended up marrying a young man who supported her and her son, and gave her two more children. They lived and worked on ranches, and Mira loved the country life and gardening. But her husband frowned on church going, so Mira had no more connection with religion.

Fast forward 15 years. Mira and her husband had moved to Dourados. He had become an alcoholic and sometimes was gone for days and weeks at a time. He left his family to survive as best they could. In those days Mira worked in homes, washing and ironing clothes. On one of his returns, her husband managed to get his wife pregnant again, 15 years after the last baby had been born and with her 50 years old! She gave birth to a healthy baby boy

The best part of the story

Mira was invited by a neighbor to send her one-year-old son to the children’s outreach class that was held in her neighbor’s house one night a week. The congregation in Dourados has used this method of outreach since it started. The older children took the baby to class every week. And the lady in whose house it was held did what she was supposed to do: followed up with the parents.

Mira says, “If she had not insisted and insisted that I go with her to church . . . I am so grateful to her!” Once she began hearing the Word of God regularly, Mira’s whole attitude was different. She and her daughter were confirmed. Her eyes and her heart had been opened by the Spirit. She knew her Savior and was able to put the past and the present into perspective.

Mira’s life is still not easy. Her family is very poor, sustained by the small salary of the older daughter. Their house has the original cement floor and no doors on the rooms, just curtains. The little boy born so late in life is a tall college student, the main keyboard player in the church, and the joy of Mira’s life. She and her daughter sacrifice for him so that he can get an education and get ahead in life. Mira shows her faith by greeting people in church, by being cheerful and kind to everyone she meets, by passing out scriptural material, and by inviting her neighbors to church.

When I asked Mira what her problems are now (and having known her for more than ten years, I know what they are), she said, “I have no problems. If I did not have faith, there would be problems. But now I am content. I need nothing else in this life and am ready for my trip home whenever the Lord wants to call me.”

And when Mira gets to heaven, that will be the happiest ending to what began as a tragic story.

Beth Flunker and her husband, Missionary Charles Flunker, serve in Dourados, Brazil.


Brazilian Lutheran Church

Baptized members: 205
National evangelists: 1
National pastors: 2
Number of congregations: 2
Preaching stations: 3

Unique fact: Several missionaries have served in Brazil over the years. Missionary Charles Flunker worked there from when the mission began in 1987 until his retirement in 2006. He continues to minister in Dourados on a volunteer basis during his retirement.


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Author: Beth Flunker
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: ULC

Worship according to the gospel

Roger L. Neumann

Ukraine has a deep history in Lutheranism, dating back to the Lutheran Reformation in the mid 1500s. After the Counter-Reformation and a union with Moscow in the 17th century, Lutheranism was preserved among the German colonists. Native Ukrainians, however, were forbidden under the fear of death to belong to any church body except the Russian Orthodox church.

From 1925 to 1939, when western Ukraine was a part of Poland, there were 25 Lutheran congregations with a total membership of more than ten thousand. But when Russia invaded western Ukraine in 1939, many Lutheran pastors, deacons, and laypeople were arrested and either murdered or placed into concentration camps. Lutheranism became an illegal religion, buildings were seized, and people were forced to practice their faith in secret.

In the Ukrainian Lutheran Church (ULC) today, almost everyone still has a story or a memory of the time between 1939 and 1991 that burns in their hearts and minds—of family members who were sent to concentration camps, had property taken away, or were killed by the KGB simply because they were Lutheran.

Some of the scars remain. Many today will not give out their addresses or phone numbers for contact information. These people have a fear—“Why do you want to know this?”—that still lives on after the years of oppression. That makes it difficult for the church to follow up on visitors or visit the homes of the children who attend vacation Bible school or Christmas services.

Stepan Ksiondzyk lived through some of those years. He still lives where he lived then—in Kremenets. He wasn’t Lutheran at the time. He was a deacon in the Russian Orthodox church when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The church was ruled by the Communist overlords, and if church leaders didn’t do the bidding of their overlords they lost their parishes or their parishes were closed.

Stepan asked his bishop if he could conduct private services at his home and also be authorized to perform baptisms, marriages, and funeral services. His bishop approved, and Stepan then led services, often in the middle of the night. Some of those attending were family members of city officials of Kremenets. Some of these people were openly loyal to the Communist party. In time he thought it was possible to reopen their church building. Materials were donated, such as bricks, boards, nails, cement, and plaster, which were usually brought under the cover of darkness. But the local KGB major was determined to stop the project. This major arrested Stepan and demanded he give up the names of those who donated materials. He was severely tortured and let go with the warning that if he kept up his religious activities he would not live more than a month.

During that month, a woman came to Stepan’s door in the middle of the night telling him her husband had died and requesting the deacon to bury him. Stepan learned that this man was the KGB major. His wife said that he had repented and confessed the Christian faith, so Stepan buried the one who had threatened and tortured him. The Lord protects his faithful ones!

Stepan tells of his conversion to the Lutheran faith, “When I worked for the bus garage in Kremenets, the congregation of the ULC rented a hall in that building for their services. I stopped by to see how Lutherans worship the Lord, and I immediately noticed the difference between the Russian Orthodox and Lutheran worship. Lutherans worship God according to the gospel.” He added, “You can see this especially at the Lord’s Supper with the Words of Institution. I understood that they do according to the Word of God.”

Stepan knew that this was where he wanted to worship. He continued, “I left the Russian Orthodox church and began to attend worship services at the ULC congregation in Kremenets.”

He felt very welcome in this congregation. “I was invited to sing in the choir,” he says. “With time, they commissioned me to serve as deacon. For 22 years now I serve as a deacon, with the help of the Lord.”

I asked Stepan to describe life in present-day Ukraine. He said, “Life in Ukraine is very difficult for all people because of the war in the east. We thank the Lord that in his mercy he does not let war reach all the way here. But I suffer in my soul since they kill there, blood is shed, and people die. We pray to the Lord that he stops this war. Only he can do it and do it in such a way that all the people will marvel what miraculous things the heavenly and holy Lord can do.”

When asked about religious life and if he still felt that there was oppression to the church, Stepan commented, “Lately religious life in Ukraine has changed. As Ukraine became free, the life of Christians became better. People began to visit churches more often. Christians are not persecuted anymore.”

Finally I asked, “What do you want people to know about you now?” He said, “For me, my faith is life with God. Not once did I doubt that the Lord has been and continues to help me in difficult minutes of my life and the life of my family. The Lord has heard my prayers and has been solving all our problems. My family and I are sincerely grateful to the Lord for his wonderful care for us. I will try to serve my Lord with all my strength and love.”

Stepan and his wife are retired now and have a small garden where they grow fruit and vegetables.

Stepan is respected by all who know him, as a humble and faithful servant of our Lord. He, along with the many people of the ULC whom I’ve met, are a warm and welcoming people. I will pass on to you what I hear from them quite often, “Please tell your people in America, come and visit us in Ukraine some time.”

Roger Neumann, the World Missions’ liaison to the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, is pastor at Grace, Oskaloosa, Iowa.

Ukrainian Lutheran Church
Baptized national members: 761
Organized congregations: 18
Pastors: 17
Deacons: 5
Preaching stations: 3

Unique fact: The ULC only has five buildings for the entire church body. Most congregations worship in rented facilities or in homes. This is a major hindrance to church work.


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Author: Roger L. Neumann
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission stories: Multi-Language Publications

Small gifts, large impacts

David A. Kehl

It is hard to imagine the impact a small book could have or how a seemingly chance connection will change a life forever—unless it is part of your story.

Vivian and I were sitting at a café after watching dragon boat races. I had remembered some of Vivian’s story from previous conversations but was curious about the rest. She was here in Hong Kong that week as a student in Dr. Ernst Wendland’s translation course. She was working on an Associate of Arts in Theology and Translation degree at Asia Lutheran Seminary here in Hong Kong.

It was quite a journey to get here, and I’m not referring to the train ride from inside East Asia and the MTR subways in Hong Kong. Vivian grew up like the rest of the children in East Asia with no time to play. Weeks were filled with schoolwork and weekends with music and other lessons. Like all the rest, she was also taught that there is no god, the country’s official teaching. “I still had the impression that God existed and was afraid of hell after I die,” Vivian remembers.

A little unexpected gift started changing that for her.

Vivian’s father loved music. He would leave home for several months at a time to play trumpet on the ferry cruises in an area popular with tourists because of its spectacular scenery. “On one trip down the river,” Vivian recalls, “a Singapore couple gave my father a Bible devotional book. My father then wrapped it up and gave it to me as a birthday present when I was about 12 years old.”

For years she eagerly read the stories and came to realize there is a beautiful place called heaven. The Bible verses gave her comfort and answers to many questions she had. Sometime later, her aunt, who had recently become a Christian, shared the gospel more clearly with her.

But it was when her mother, a non-Christian, told her about a Christmas party where she could meet other young people, that things really started to come together for her. Her mother found out about the party from an old school friend whose son was going. There Vivian met some WELS teachers who put on a play about Jesus. “It wasn’t like parties I was used to seeing,” Vivian told me. “This one was full of Bible verses and Bible stories.”

She also met Jonathan, the son of her mother’s school friend. He invited her to come to worship at an apartment where they met as a group. It was just what she had been praying for, since she longed to know more about Jesus.

After the first Sunday, they took her through the basic parts of a Bible information course. The next Sunday she asked to be baptized. Soon she found herself playing piano for their gatherings. Each of these connections drew her deeper and deeper into what it meant to know the love of Jesus and be among the fellowship of his followers. She is now a part of a growing network of people in house churches in East Asia who gather to express and grow in faith.

Vivian also now is part of an network of WELS Multi-Language Publications (MLP) translators that spans Asia in counties such as Nepal, Japan, Indonesia, and Korea. It had been her dream since primary school to study languages. At the urging of her new Christian friends, she started translating English Bible story material into her native language for their Bible study groups.

In 2015, Vivian quit her job to devote herself to translating. She attended the first translation course in June 2015 and the subsequent modules, all co-sponsored by WELS Multi-Language Publications and Asia Lutheran Seminary. In order to grow in theological depth, she also regularly spends a week each month traveling to satellite courses of Asia Lutheran Seminary to learn theology together with the seminary students. Today she helps MLP translate resources that can end up in the hands of others and hopefully start or continue them on their journey of faith too.

The gospel is a power that often works in its own quiet way, just like it did for Vivian. What God gave us appears to some to be a small gift—but it has an unlimited impact. He gave us his Son who came into this world to cover our faults with his perfect obedience and serve as our substitute in suffering the judgment of divine justice for the sins of the whole world. His resurrection gives us new life and is a story that we all can tell. It is our story.

It is the intention as Multi-Language Publications to make sure there are print and online resources that can connect millions more with the story that will change their story forever.

Don’t forget the resources in your hands and the connections you have that can that lead others to knowing Christ. In his own quiet way, God too can use you so that he may become a part of someone else’s story.

Dave Kehl is the Asia regional coordinator for Multi-Language Publications.

For more stories about MLP translators and their work, see blogs.wels.net/missions. Learn more about Multi-Language Publications at wels.net/mlp.


Multi-Language Publications

Year began: 1996
Purpose: Promotes, supports, and coordinates the development of confessional Lutheran materials for outreach in many languages.
Number of publications: 700
Number of languages: 47
Number of items printed: more than 2.9 million
Unique fact: MLP’s goal is to reach 100 million people with the gospel in the next ten years.


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Author: David A. Kehl
Volume 103, Number 9
Issue: September 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Watching a mission church mature

Sharon Hartmann

There’s no doubt about it. Raw mission work—sharing the gospel message with people in a foreign country for the very first time—is exciting. Seeing the dramatic change in peoples’ lives after they hear and believe the gospel message for the first time is amazing and visible to all.

A maturing church body

Seeing the growth and maturing of a relatively young church may not be quite so obvious, but it is just as amazing. The maturing of a church takes a long time, a strong commitment, and experience. The WELS mission in Zambia, through the Holy Spirit, has been working for more than 60 years to establish, build, and assist the Lutheran Church of Central Africa–Zambia (LCCA–Z) in growing and maturing a strong evangelical Lutheran church that can withstand the tests of an everchanging, sinful world. It is a mission field with four WELS missionaries who have well over one hundred years of combined African experience (and another hundred if you include the wives!).

View and download a PowerPoint slideshow about WELS mission work in Zambia.

The LCCA–Z has been blessed with a membership of more than 12,000 souls and continues to grow and mature in the service of its Savior. It is exciting to see the following blessings:

A 40-year-old established congregation calling and supporting its own national pastor for the very first time.

A congregation—without any help from the outside—adding on to its worship building because it needs the room.

Relatively poor, rural congregations giving heartfelt offerings to help support their synod.

Second- and third-generation church members being active in their home congregations and on synod-level boards and committees.

National pastors participating in the translation and review of vernacular Bibles and study Bibles.

A national pastor and his wife comforting a grieving family.

Sons and grandsons of national pastors studying to be pastors themselves.

Members standing firm in their faith and belief in the Bible against deep-seated traditional beliefs and cultural pressures.

Congregations standing firm on their foundation of Christ alone when the pressures of a materialistic world are trying to tear them down at every turn.

God’s Word continuing to work through enthusiastic participation in worship, Bible studies, Sunday school, lay-leadership training workshops, camp meetings, choir gatherings, youth gatherings, ladies’ group conventions, and regular pastors’ meetings.

These things could sound like everyday life in congregations in the United States, but all this is taking place thousands of miles away in a place much different from our own world. It takes place where most people do not have access to a car or public transportation, a place that probably does not have electricity or running water, a place where most people live on $1 a day. God has done amazing things!

A thriving worker training program

God also has moved the hearts of WELS members to support a strong combined worker training program in Zambia and Malawi. The program starts at the congregation level by identifying candidates for pastoral training through a pre-Lutheran Bible Institute program consisting of several weeks of training over two years’ time. These candidates then study for three years at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Malawi and then another three years at the Lutheran Seminary in Zambia. They spend a final year of supervised vicar training back at the congregational level.

This is just the basic training. Each year a week of pastoral continuing education is offered, taught by visiting professors from Martin Luther College or Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. A high percentage of pastors in both Zambia and Malawi participate in this program. An advanced, four-year theological training program called GRATSI (Greater Africa Theological Studies Institute) offers pastors further training. Professors from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary together with resident seminary professors teach these courses. All these programs, along with ongoing mentoring and support by missionaries, provide the national church with well-trained men to shepherd the souls of their congregations and teach the truths of the Bible.

A unique partnership

In our fast-paced world of instant gratification, we might be tempted to give up on an old mission field or think there is nothing more to do because we’ve been there for so long. But a maturing mission field is still fragile, and it takes time, energy, and resources for work that is not always immediately obvious.

Relationships are everything in Zambia, and good relationships take a long time to build. Because of the long-term commitment, the presence of resident missionaries, and the support given by WELS, good relationships have been built, maintained, and are flourishing. These relationships have allowed for a unique partnership arrangement with the Lutheran Church of Central Africa–Zambia. The WELS mission in Zambia works with the national church to tackle the challenges that come with being a maturing church. Each missionary serves on LCCA–Z synod boards and committees to help with the transparent and orderly administration of the synod. On behalf of WELS, they offer experience and resources for complicated issues involving land titles and deeds so that congregations do not lose their land and buildings to illegal squatters. They also work alongside national pastors to tackle unique tribal or traditional challenges in the light of the gospel. They give ministerial and logistical support for regional outreach, campus ministry, and prison ministry. The work of the church is tackled within the partnership framework of mutual love, honesty, and trust created throughout the past 60 years of mission work in Zambia.

As the writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1). Zambia is moving on to maturity. At first glance, it may not seem too exciting, but it is extremely important and long lasting. As God wills and with the prayers and support of WELS members, this exciting work in Zambia will carry on for many years to come.

Sharon Hartmann, wife of Missionary John Hartmann, lives in Lusaka, Zambia.

 


THE LUTHERAN CHURCH OF CENTRAL AFRICA-ZAMBIA

Baptized national members: 12,473
Organized congregations: 121
Preaching stations: 14
Missionaries: 4
National pastors: 35
Unique fact: God continues to prepare his people for doing works of service in Zambia as well as for reaching out to the nearby countries of Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


 

 

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Author: Sharon Hartmann
Volume 103, Number 8
Issue: August 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Preaching saving grace in Latin America

Rachel Hartman

If you’re looking for Pastor Henry Herrera, you might find him in the city where he spends most of his time: Medellín, Colombia. On Sundays, you could spot him online, delivering a sermon over the Internet. And some days, you’ll see him winding through Colombian highways on his motorcycle, occasionally traveling up to 10 hours to reach congregations throughout the country.

His widespread presence is motivated by a specific reason, and it begins on a personal note. “I am saved by the grace of God,” says Herrera, who first heard the saving message of Jesus’ redemption as an adult. It is this mindset that compels him to strive, every day, toward his goals: to bring the gospel message to every city in Colombia and to continue improving online worship to reach the global Spanish-speaking audience.

View and download a PowerPoint featuring the mission work in Colombia.

LEARNING ABOUT MARY

“Every city in Colombia has a specific virgin Mary,” explains Herrera, who, like the majority of Colombians, was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. He attended worship regularly and even grew to hold leadership positions. “I was a catechism teacher,” he recalls. He faithfully revered the Mary figure in Medellín, where he was born. He even spent time at a Roman Catholic seminary, studying to be a priest. After two years of learning Catholic theology, however, he left the seminary.

At that time, Herrera got married and took a job working at a textile factory in the city, which has a population of more than 3 million people. At the company, Herrera learned the details of the trade and eventually became a mechanic for machinery. He also took on a leadership role, becoming a plant supervisor.

Then in 1999, Herrera took classes at the SENA (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje), a government organization that offers training programs for Colombian workers. While there, he met a Lutheran pastor named Tony Quintero. The two were in the same group at the SENA.

“He began to talk to me and talk about church,” recalls Herrera. Quintero invited Herrera to the Lutheran church, and Herrera decided to give it a try. “Holy Week of 1999 was the first time I went to church.”

Soon Herrera and his wife, Eliana, began attending regularly. They brought along their new son, Sebastian, to church.

Herrera became a member of the Lutheran church and, as he dug deeper into the Scriptures, recognized a growing list of blessings in his life. In addition to learning of God’s salvation through Jesus, he gained a further understanding of Mary and her role in Jesus’ life. “Mary is my sister in the faith, and I will see her in heaven,” notes Herrera.

BECOMING A PASTOR

In 2004, a need arose for a pastor to serve a group of Lutherans in Medellín. The group called Herrera to serve in that position. That same year, while continuing to work at his factory job and help the congregation, he began to study with WELS missionaries who formed part of the Latin American Traveling Theological Team. The missionaries visited Colombia periodically and studied with Herrera. This continued until 2012, when Herrera completed his studies.

Yet his ministry was just beginning. Today Herrera serves as a full-time pastor and no longer works at the factory. In addition to serving in Medellín, he travels to the city of Manizales to help serve a congregation there.

His current role also involves building up and training leaders and pastors in Colombia and beyond. “I help brothers in the faith in other countries, such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Chile,” explains Herrera.

Herrera has met many of these leaders through AcademiaCristo.com, an online outreach and training tool for Latin America. He also uses Skype to stay in touch with them and to teach a law and gospel course, a class on the book of Exodus to 30 students, a Luther’s Catechism class, and a dogmatics class.

TO THE CORNERS OF THE WORLD

In 2006, Herrera heard from Pastor Gonzalo Delgadillo, who was working at Multi-Language Publications at the time. Delgadillo was in the process of starting a virtual church, which would operate through Skype. He asked Herrera to help with it, and thus weekly services began. In 2008, it was decided that the Skype church should be tied with a local congregation, and the church in Medellín was chosen as the base.

Over the years, this setup has developed into what is known as Iglesia Luterana Cristo, and a live video service appears online each week. The service is taped in Medellín, and eight of the young people in the church Herrera serves help with the production. “Two volunteer each week,” notes Herrera. “One handles the camera, and the other oversees the music.”

Herrera is also involved with WhatsApp groups, a form of texting that is widely popular in Latin America. He helps oversee the sharing of devotions and Bible studies using the People’s Bible. Students from Martin Luther College help as well, overseeing different groups and working with Herrera and other pastors to offer more information.

As he works with a wide range of people in many locations, Herrera finds one of the greatest blessings to be the chance to watch individuals grow spiritually. When first encountering others with different religious backgrounds, he notes, there is often a good deal of discussion. “Sometimes I just spend two or three sessions listening to them,” he explains. Then, using God’s Word as a guide, he goes through their questions to see what the Bible says to each of them.

In addition to serving souls throughout Latin America, Herrera relishes the chance to share God’s Word with his family. He enjoys watching his son Sebastian, now 17, as well as his 11-year-old son Julian, grow in their faith. “We are going to see a new generation in Colombia with young people like my sons,” he says. “This will be different from our group because these individuals have been raised their whole lives knowing the gospel.”

Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in León, Mexico.


 

Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Church (Colombia)

Members: 320
Congregations: 5
Preaching stations: 6
National pastors: 6
National student pastors: 1
Seminary students: 1
National evangelists: 6
Visiting instructors: 2
Total enrolled in Bible information classes: 310

Unique fact: Most Holy Trinity in Medellín has members in ten countries around the world through its online ministry. Those countries include England, Spain, France, China, USA, Chile, Perú, Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela.


 

 

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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 103, Number 5
Issue: May 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission stories: Bulgarian Lutheran Church

Grace among Europe’s most mistreated

John F. Vogt

“The knowledge of God—for me this is the best thing that has come since the fall of communism. Living a life without God is worse than living a life like a beggar.” This is how Iliyan Itsov, a pastor in the Bulgarian Lutheran Church, answered the question: What good has come since the fall of Communism?

Itsov, who is a Roma (a.k.a. gypsy), says his first contact with the saving gospel came through the efforts of a WELS missionary. “In 1998 my father met a man from the USA named John Roebke. The purpose of the meeting was to ask [Roebke’s] help in getting textbooks for our village school. When they met, my father found out that he was a Lutheran missionary. This man came to our house and asked us if we wanted some Bible lessons. We agreed. I learned about Jesus, and my family and I became Christians. My life became calmer and easier. The Lord blessed me.”

View and download a PowerPoint featuring the mission work in Bulgaria.

The Lord’s blessings continued. “My father asked Missionary Roebke to help him start a church in our village,” says Itsov. “After a year of Bible lessons, the missionary baptized 50 Roma people in one service.” During the time Roebke served the congregation, the weekly attendance grew to about 150 people.

Itsov describes what it’s like to be a gypsy: “The Roma people in Europe today are treated generally as in the past—like people who don’t deserve to exist. No matter what kind of school degree a person has or how much knowledge he or she has, that person will be treated as something less than others if the color of the skin is darker or somebody recognizes him or her as a gypsy. Sometimes we need to deny our ethnicity in order to find any job.”

The impression is that Roma people are always moving from place to place. However, “nowadays the Roma people are part of the societies of the countries, living there and having houses. Their reason for migrating today is economical. . . . Most of the families in my town have one, if not more, of their family working outside of Bulgaria. My mother, for example, has worked for eight years in Italy.”

Itsov prepared for the ministry through training provided by WELS in coordination with St. Sophia Lutheran Seminary in Ukraine. He was ordained in September 2015. He tells of difficulties he encountered along the way: “I was in seventh grade and wanted to continue my high school education in the Gymnasium for Foreign Languages. One of my teachers said that she would do everything to prevent my study in that school (in those times, no Roma children were students there). She gave me low marks, but I managed to pass the entrance exams. I became the first Roma in that school. My schoolmates didn’t know that I was Roma until one of the mothers told her son. When he told the others, they stopped having any contact with me, which made me angry, so I doubled my efforts to show them that I can study better than they. My father and my mother became unemployed in 1995 when I started high school, and it was a great challenge to finish because of the fees. But thanks to my grandfather, I managed to graduate third in my class.”

Itsov credits Missionary Roebke with helping him get into the university. Through his education and work experiences, Itsov has learned to speak ten languages—a unique qualification for the call he has now been given by the Board for World Missions.

Itsov was called to coordinate a new mission project called Outreach to Roma (OTR). It’s an effort to share the gospel with the western world’s most mistreated ethnic group, a group numbering about 10 million people who are scattered all across Europe. “The fact that I am a Roma makes me uniquely suited because I know the psychology of the gypsies,” says Itsov. “I think it will be easier for them to listen to me than to a nongypsy.”

However, even for a Roma like himself, the work is challenging: “There are still prejudices,” says Itsov. “If I need somebody [who is not Roma] to help me in my outreach work, it is hard to get him to agree. Working with Roma people is also a great challenge because they find it hard to trust you.”

OTR is now working in three villages near Itsov’s home. “An average of 30 people from those villages are transported each week to services,” he says. “I have also located interested individuals in two other Bulgarian cities where I hope to begin serving. The translation of The Promise in Romani is done and about to be published.”

Itsov is married and has two children. “My family supports me now,” he says. “In the beginning it was hard for them. We had problems with my traveling [to Ukraine for pastoral training], but through the years they have come to understand that this work is important.”

Itsov’s travel continues. He has been asked by WELS sister churches in Sweden and Germany to help them reach Roma workers and immigrants in their countries. That could be just the beginning. “My plans are simple—to spread the gospel wherever possible. I don’t want to segregate the project only in Bulgaria. I have great opportunities also in Romania, Hungary, Macedonia, Spain, Italy, France, and even England. A lot of effort will be needed to do all this, but I will not give up.”

Itsov has found another man willing to help. “I am working with Sorin-Horia Trifa. He served as a preacher in the liberal Lutheran Church, but his understandings are confessional. So the idea of a Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania is his. Right now we are registering with the government, and Sorin is looking for a house to rent near the biggest gypsy neighborhood, where we could meet and where I can stay while in Romania. I expect and pray that, by the time you read this, we will have started work in Bucharest. Please pray for the project and the Roma people.”

John Vogt is WELS regional coordinator for Eastern Europe.


 

Editor’s note: April 8 is International Roma Day, a day to remember the killing of thousands of gypsies in World War II’s holocaust and to raise awareness of the continuing difficulties Roma people face.


BULGARIAN LUTHERAN CHURCH

Year mission work began: 1994
Baptized members: 155
Average weekly attendance at worship: 94
Congregations: 4
National pastors: 6
Pastoral students: 3
Resident missionaries: 0

Unique fact: Pastor Radoslav Radkov, the leader of the BLC, is perhaps the only pastor of our fellowship to have had a face-to-face meeting in Rome with the Pope. Rado was one of eight Catholic youth invited for a 20-minute audience with Pope John Paul II in 1997, soon after Communism fell.

 

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Author: John F. Vogt
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: Cameroon

A bumpy road made smooth

Karen S. Kroll

While traveling on the road, my son observed that driving in Cameroon “isn’t so much driving as it is fighting with cars.” It’s true—driving in Cameroon is a unique experience. One hears a symphony of sounds: a constant hooting of car horns; taxis revving their engines; and the occasional “spirited” conversation between drivers, each of whom believes he has been cut off. It seems that the person who pushes the hardest, hoots the most, or speaks the loudest wins.

This is especially obvious in what is referred to as the “third lane.” When driving on a two-lane highway, the aggressive driver pulls out to pass with the expectation that the other cars will go onto the shoulder to accommodate him.

The temper of drivers in Cameroon sometimes seems to run as hot as the weather or the “pepe” (Scotch Bonnet Peppers, found in most of the food here). A friendly conversation can sound like a heated argument; pushing, posturing, and promoting oneself is championed; and showing weakness or humility only opens the door for others to take advantage.

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

Maybe it’s this stark contrast that makes Sabina stick out of the crowd. Sabina is the wife of Pastor Ewang Njumbe Joseph, the current president of the Lutheran Church of Cameroon. Sabina is a humble woman with a servant’s heart. She follows well the Lord’s example from the night he was betrayed—a real foot washer. She is that go-to person who will always come through when no other volunteers can be found to cook a meal for a meeting or who will welcome someone to her wide open home, whether from a different town, tribe, or nation.

She doesn’t complain or get frustrated about what others aren’t doing . . . she just works to serve the Lord. She may be sick or have heard bad news, but after she utters the traditional “Ashia” (“Sorry to hear . . .”) with her ready smile, she pauses and giggles and, with a wave of her hand, moves on with her tasks.

Like most Christian attributes, they spring up from the gentle rain of the gospel and grow in response to affliction. As God reminded the children of Israel “I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10). So it was with Sabina. When she and Pastor Joseph wanted to marry, there was a problem: Pastor Joseph’s father had recently died, and there were no other relatives to ask for assistance to pay the “knock door” (bride price). And so Sabina waited until Joseph could raise funds to pay the amount owed to her family in accordance with Bakossi custom.

Marriage and children are “wealth” in African culture so when Sabina and Joseph could not conceive, it was another problem. In Africa, the question isn’t what caused this but rather who caused this, and almost always, witchcraft is involved. These are the times when relatives whisper and begin placing blame, a time when there is talk of annulling the marriage and finding a more suitable partner. These are the times when African Christians have to put their trust in the Lord, knowing that he knows what’s best. This often involves standing up to tradition and family—serving God rather than man. And so they patiently waited and trusted in the Lord. God heard Joseph and Sabina’s prayers, and after four long years he gave them a son and then another and then another.

In the meantime Joseph had graduated from the seminary and had been assigned to serve at Nyandong congregation. Things finally seemed to be going well, until one day their firstborn son collapsed when walking to school and began shaking. It was determined that their son had epilepsy. The “village diagnosis” was that witchcraft was involved and that Joseph and Sabina should leave Nyandong. But they didn’t. They waited and patiently served the Lord, knowing he was in control.

Are you getting the picture? With challenge after challenge the Lord himself produced a quiet, humble, servant for himself. Sabina’s quiet demeanor exemplifies what Peter’s first letter calls “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (3:4). I’ve never heard her suggest that she didn’t deserve these difficulties or brag about how much time she spends serving the Lord. She sees beyond those in front of her to know whom she truly serves and the reason why.

I sometimes wish I could be more like Sabina. Instead I often live my Christian life in the same way people drive in Cameroon. Sometimes I push when I should be thinking of others first. When wronged, I become angry and indignant and loudly proclaim the injustices against me. I too often and too easily look at others with proud thoughts of how much better I am than them and how they should be serving the Lord like I am.

Do you also struggle with quietness and humility? Do you become impatient with those with whom you work and worship? Do you sometimes feel that others should be working as hard as you do in the church? Do you need to be thanked for everything you do at church and feel “put out” when you are not? Do you feel pride when your service in mentioned in a newsletter or bulletin? Do you feel you’ve served “enough years” on a certain committee and others should jump in and serve as faithfully as you have?

Whether we’re pushing ahead while driving in Cameroon or putting ourselves ahead of others in America, the problem is sin. Sin causes us to puff up, promote, and posture. Especially now, during the Lenten season, we appreciate Jesus’ willingness to do the opposite. Since he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), we can celebrate that such sins are forgiven in Jesus. Because of his death and resurrection, we have a different view on life. We still struggle with our sins, but knowing that they have no power to condemn us helps us to relax and leave matters in the hands of our almighty Savior.

If somebody were to write Sabina’s life story, it would not be as exciting as a heroine in a novel nor as spirited as a driver making a third lane. Outside of those reading this article, Sabina will never be famous. But I do thank God for not only coming into the world to save us from our sins but also for this wonderful example of a faithful fellow believer named Sabina.

Karen Kroll, wife of Missionary Daniel Kroll, lives in Kumba, Cameroon.


 

Lutheran Church of Cameroon

Baptized national members: 640
Number of congregations: 32
Preaching stations: 1
National pastors: 10
Preseminary students: 13
Certified assistants: 14
Missionaries: 1

Unique fact: Due to the remote locations of some of the congregations, it is not uncommon for the pastors to trek one to four hours to get to church. “I recently did a study . . . where a woman trekked four hours to get to the Bible study and then turned around and trekked four hours back,” says Karen.

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Author: Karen S. Kroll
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: Korean Connection

A Korean connection

Paul Prange

The story began about a decade ago in South Korea. Mr. and Mrs. Song were doing well. The Korean economic boom had allowed Mr. Song to obtain a good job in computer technology. His wife was doing well as a middle school history teacher. They had a daughter in middle school and a son in primary grades.

The Songs wanted the best for their children. As they spoke to other Korean parents, they determined what the best was. In a 2008 survey by South Korea’s National Statistical Office, 48.3 percent of South Korean parents said they wanted to send their children abroad for high school to develop global perspectives, avoid the rigid domestic school system, and learn English. More than 12 percent wanted it for their children as early as elementary school.

The Songs were normal parents. They were apprehensive about sending their children halfway around the world to live in a culture they did not completely understand, but everyone else in their social group was doing it. As they researched the possibilities, they were delighted to hear of a Korean pastor, Pastor Young Ha Kim, who had personal acquaintance with a safe high school in the United States.

When the Song family approached him, Pastor Kim explained that the American high school was Lutheran, and that it wanted the whole family instructed in Lutheran doctrine before the child went to the United States. That high school was a WELS preparatory school, Michigan Lutheran Seminary (MLS) in Saginaw.

MLS has hosted international students from 25 different countries since 1985, but the arrangement with Pastor Kim and his congregation was special. Whenever a Korean student contacted MLS, the administration referred that family to the pastor in Korea, who would begin Lutheran catechism instruction with them. It was an arrangement that God would bless.

The whole family began to attend worship and catechism instruction. They were baptized, and the adults were confirmed. The daughter applied to MLS. She was willing to consider being a Lutheran teacher. She spent extra hours after school and during vacations studying English. Her Korean name is Na Bin, but like most Korean students, she chose an English name as well. It was Lisa.

Meanwhile, in the United States, MLS found a host family for Lisa. Even though it has a dormitory, MLS is careful to place each international student with a host family for weekends and vacations. It is important for international students to have family care while they are in the States and to see what life in a Lutheran family is like in America.

The host family, the MLS faculty, and Lisa’s classmates all encouraged Lisa to consider being a Lutheran teacher, and when it came time to graduate from MLS, Lisa applied and was accepted to attend Martin Luther College (MLC) in New Ulm, Minnesota, the WELS college of ministry.

When it was time for Lisa’s brother to go to the United States, the Song family decided to send him for eighth grade already so that he could go through his adjustment period to English before his grades counted for college. The brother’s Korean name is Sang Ho, and he chose the English name David. He went through a regular Lutheran catechism course and was confirmed before he came to the United States for eighth grade.

The Songs wanted David to attend MLS and looked for an elementary school near Saginaw that could accept international students, but none of the Lutheran elementary schools in that area of Michigan had applied to receive that status from the federal government. Instead, the Song family heard about St. John’s School in Burlington, Wisconsin, which had been certified by the federal government to enroll international students.

There was an MLS connection to St. John’s. Mrs. Leanne Prange was a kindergarten teacher there, and her husband, Paul Prange, knew the Song family from the time Paul had been the president of MLS. The Pranges volunteered to host David in their home, since St. John’s does not have a dormitory.

The Pranges felt good about the decision. They knew that the Song family would want a safe place for their son to stay, and they did not worry about having an eighth grade boy in the home, since their own son, Joel, had just graduated from the eighth grade and was enrolling at MLS.

David arrived in the U.S. in August. His voice was just beginning to change, and his command of English was limited. He was a normal eighth grade boy, and he thrived at St. John’s. He applied and was accepted to MLS. At present he is a junior there. He wants to visit the Korean WELS congregation in Las Vegas, Nevada, to see what it would be like to serve as a called worker in the United States. Lisa is a senior at MLC, in the fourth year of a five-year program. She is willing to present herself to the WELS Assignment Committee for service anywhere in the world.

The Pranges feel blessed by the opportunity to host David and other international students. “We learn a little bit about each culture,” says Leanne, “but finally they are just normal children, and we enjoy getting to know them personally. It is interesting to see how the Lord will use them in the future.”

As WELS ministries become aware of international students graduating from MLC and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, they can take another look at reaching out to immigrant groups in their communities, or working with the families of our fellowship in the students’ countries of origin. At present there is only one congregation of our fellowship in all of Korea, and only a handful of places in the United States where congregations are reaching out to the Korean immigrants in their community. The Lord is providing us with thoroughly trained Korean Lutheran students who love Jesus, know the Scriptures, and are able to work in both cultures. It is exciting to think about how God may bless these fruits of the gospel.

Paul Prange, administrator for WELS Ministerial Education, is a member of St. John, Burlington, Wisconsin.

Watch the February WELS Connection to meet an MLC graduate from South Korea who now teaches at Huron Valley Lutheran High School in Westland, Mich.


 

More about international students at WELS schools

Number of Korean students sent to WELS schools by Pastor Kim over the last 10 years: 250
Number of WELS high schools with international students: 19 out of 25
Number of international students currently attending WELS high schools: 283
Number of countries represented at WELS high schools: at least 28
Number of international students who have graduated from MLC: 34 since 2002


 

 

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Author: Paul T. Prange
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: Bolivia

Julie K. Wietzke

Pedro Abel Beltrán Callejas didn’t know much about Jesus while growing up in Bolivia; he was, he admits, a nominal Catholic at best. But he’s discovered in the past three years that it’s really all about Jesus—and for that he is grateful.

FINDING THE GOSPEL

Abel, an English teacher at a local school, was first introduced to the Lutheran church about 11 years ago. He and his now wife, Maria, were looking for a church in which to get married in La Paz, Bolivia, the country’s third most populous city with a population of 2 million. They discovered Redeemer, where they met Julio Ascarrunz, the congregation’s pastor. After some classes, the couple got married in the church and became members.

But after two years, they decided to leave because they observed congregational issues they didn’t like. “We went to different churches, but we were not glad with those churches,” says Abel. “We felt sad because we didn’t know where to go. We were like orphans.”

One day, Maria went home to discover that their home had been broken into. Their doors were destroyed, and they didn’t know what to do. Abel went to see their former pastor, Julio. “We decided to try [the church] again,” says Abel. “This was the only place where we heard what the Bible says.”

After they rejoined Redeemer, Abel met Missionary Lawrence Retberg, who was offering classes to Redeemer’s church leaders. “The congregation had heard about WELS and asked that a WELS missionary come and help them with doctrine and other matters,” says Missionary Philip Strackbein, now serving in La Paz. Retberg traveled to Bolivia two to three times a year to offer classes.

After Retberg had taken church leaders through a doctrine course, conditional fellowship was set up with this group of five or six churches, of which Redeemer was the largest. But some members were still struggling with the doctrine and correctly putting it into practice. Strackbein and his wife arrived in 2011 to work more closely with the congregation and its leaders.

“One of those leaders was me,” says Abel. “I invited him to meet at our apartment. The story starts there. Thanks to God, I learned many things. I really understood what God wants to say in the Bible.”

That was a big step for Abel, who says he never really knew anything about doctrine. “Everything I knew was superficial, and I occasionally repeated what others had said,” he says. “However, I strongly felt the curiosity of learning all about God but couldn’t because I didn’t know where, when, or how to start.”

Unfortunately, while Abel was learning more about Jesus and salvation, others in the church were struggling with the correct Lutheran doctrine—even disagreeing and rebelling against their pastor for preaching the truth.

In April of 2012, Strackbein and Ascarrunz, along with several other congregation members, stepped away from Redeemer to start a new congregation and synod, the Iglesia Cristiana Evangélica Luterana Confesional (the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Christian Church or ICELC). Beltran and his wife soon followed.

“It was totally different—different in the sense of no more problems, no more gossiping. When I was in this church Redeemer, I hated the word Lutheran,” says Abel. “When we opened the [new] church and I attended, we learned many things—beautiful things—so this idea disappeared.”

He continues, “I know now the kind of person I am—a miserable sinner who really needs a Savior. I am conscious that the words of God may touch and hurt deep inside our souls, but I also know that there is a super-great consolation as well—the gospel!”

SHARING THE GOSPEL

While the church is small—there are only 17 baptized members—the members’ hearts and their dedication are huge. “Every one of them has been trained in evangelism, and they all practice it,” says Strackbein.

That’s not easy in a land where free salvation through Jesus is scorned. “The society has been so steeped in the idea that man has to obey that when they hear something different—even though the end result is so wonderful, that we truly have a free salvation—it’s just something all the churches leaders reject and go against the people who proclaim it,” says Strackbein.

“When I am with people who go to different churches in La Paz, I always feel like I’m talking with people who have been slapping God,” says Abel. “I want to teach but I can’t because I know I am going to be rejected.”

That rejection doesn’t stop the members of ICELC, however. Members practice witnessing to each other through role playing so they are prepared to defend scriptural doctrine. Then they take the message to the people of Bolivia. Sometimes it’s through public presentations at the hotel where the congregation worships. Sometimes it’s through conversations members have with people they meet in their daily lives.

Take Alfredo Jara, for example. He travels throughout Bolivia for his job and shares the gospel message wherever he goes. At one small town, Unión Tunari, he discovered a church with no denomination or doctrine to speak of. Strackbein, Ascarrunz, and Alfredo have since traveled back to present the basic law/gospel teaching and other doctrinal courses, though it is often difficult to get there because of impassible roads.

Or Rolando Mena, who plays violin during the congregation’s worship services. He studies at the university and is always talking about the message of God with his colleagues.

And Abel? He is sharing the message of free salvation with his parents. “Last time, [my father] said, ‘When are we going to meet again? I want to know more,’ ” says Abel. “I would like to open a church [where he lives].”

Abel continues, “I am really glad to be part of this ministry since I have learned many things about what God did for me and what he wants me to do, to be, and to say. Thus, with profound gratitude, I try to do my best in every single activity.”

Those church activities include conducting the liturgy during worship, leading Bible studies, and training members in evangelism. Strackbein also continues to train Abel so he grows in his knowledge and understanding. “It is kind of difficult to say which class I appreciate the most,” says Abel. “I think all subjects I have learned up to now with Missionary Strackbein are attached branches belonging to a main idea—Jesus. And that’s what I really appreciate the most.”

Julie Wietzke is managing editor of Forward in Christ.


 

Iglesia Cristiana Evangélica Luterana Confesional

Baptized national members: 17
Number of congregations: 1
National pastors: 1
National evangelists: 5
Preaching stations: 1
National Bible Institute students: 4
National seminary students: 1
Visiting instructors: 1

Unique fact: Missionary Philip Strackbein’s main focus in Bolivia is training members for service. The congregation’s pastor and five other congregational leaders conduct the ministry, including preaching, teaching, visiting the sick, and outreach. Strackbein also serves as the theological education contact for the 1LA team.

 

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Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 103, Number 1
Issue: January 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: CELC Albania

What God can do through one Christian’s witness

John F. Vogt

“I would really like to meet some of my Albanian relatives, but I’m too old to travel to Albania. My only hope is to meet you in heaven.”

These words and several gospel tracts sent to Albania from an elderly American started a new life for Agron and Vitori Mece. The Holy Spirit used the letters and tracts of Robert Maurem of Kenosha, Wisconsin—who is now waiting for us in heaven—to lead the Meces to saving faith in Jesus. “We read all the materials with our children who wanted to become Christians too,” says Agron. Since there were no pastors, Vitori baptized Agron, who in turn baptized Vitori and their two children.

Download a PowerPoint slideshow showing the WELS mission work in Albania.

“When we came to know about Jesus, our life began to be more meaningful,” says Agron, now a pastor in our sister church in Albania. “We felt that we have something precious in our life and were sorry for those who didn’t have that treasure. Something from inside forced or urged us to share what we had learned with others and talk about Jesus and the message of the gospel.”

Agron tells about the life they had known under the communist government of Albania—the only country in the history of the world to outlaw all religion. “Albania was one of the poorest countries in Europe and totally isolated from the rest of the world. Even worse, religion was prohibited by law. The penal code of 1977 imposed prison sentences of three to ten years for ‘religious propaganda and the production, distribution, or storage of religious literature.’ Dictator Hoxha’s brutal antireligious campaign succeeded in eradicating formal worship, but some Albanians continued to practice their faith clandestinely, risking severe punishment. Individuals caught with Bibles, icons, or other religious objects faced long prison sentences. Parents were afraid to pass on their faith for fear that their children would report them.

“Vitori and I were teachers and fed a steady diet of the government’s atheistic propaganda. Even our grandparents were afraid to talk about their religion or to celebrate their rituals before us. We had never seen any religious books. We didn’t know what Christmas was—the Christmas tree was called the New Year tree. The only thing we knew was the fact that before communism people practiced their faith.”

In the spring of 1995, after communism fell, a WELS mission team led by Pastors Kirby Spevacek and Harold Essmann found the Meces. “The first Bible studies were held in our house,” says Agron. “In 1996 we were legally registered as Kisha Ungjilloreb Konfesionale Luteriane ne Shqiperi (Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Church in Albania). I was one of the founders who signed the document. The first Sunday there were 15 children in Sunday school and 22 attended the worship service.”

During its 19-year history, the Albanian church has weathered some stormy periods. Three times the WELS missionaries were withdrawn, once because of civil unrest, a second time because of terrorism. On March 13, 1997, after Missionaries Richard Russow and Kirby Spevacek and their families were not permitted to board the last ferry to depart the violent uprising, Agron huddled on the beach with them overnight. The adults used their bodies to cover the children who were terrified by the guns shooting over their heads. The next day they were rescued by a warship of the Italian Navy. When all had boarded, Agron stood alone on the dock; he had no intention of leaving his family or his country. “You can’t imagine how we felt when Pastor Spevacek called us from Italy to say they were safe and sound. Tears of happiness rolled down our cheeks as we thanked God they were still alive.” Later Russow returned with his family, only to be forced—on one day’s notice—to evacuate after eight months when a threat against Americans from al Qaeda terrorists closed the U.S. embassy. This time the Russows’ departure was permanent.

When no missionaries were present, Agron served as head of the Albanian church. Finally, after 15 years of interrupted study, he was ordained as a pastor in 2013. He and his fellow pastor, Mikel Bishka, faithfully serve our sister church’s two congregations in Tirana and Durres. One of Agron’s great joys is now helping to train a young man, Nikola Bishka, to begin the next generation of pastors for the church.

When asked: “How have your 20 years of leadership in the church changed you and your family?” Agron replied, “Working in the church and now being a pastor is a very great responsibility for me and for my family as well. I have to give my example in all aspects of life. When I preach how God teaches us, I can’t act differently in my everyday life. I have to show more respect for my wife who is untiring in helping me in my mission work. I thank God for a wife who is so devoted to her work for the Lord and for her family.

“We feel very happy that we have been blessed by God and our efforts didn’t go in vain. We are glad to see the old faces that have come regularly since the opening of our church, and we feel happier to see each new face. We‘ll never forget the day when five old people after getting confirmation classes became the first members of our Lutheran Church. And thanks to God this group of five has kept increasing so that now an average of 111 people worship in our two congregations each week.

“We would like to express our gratitude for everything which the people of WELS have done for the ALC. . . . You have opened our eyes and our minds to something we didn’t know existed, God’s love! You supplied us with gospel-sharing literature which we’ve translated and distributed widely. And God has used your support—financial and spiritual—to lead many Albanians to faith in the one Savior, Jesus Christ.”

John Vogt is WELS regional coordinator for Eastern Europe.


 

Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Church in Albania

Year mission work began: 1995
Baptized members: 66
Average weekly attendance at worship: 111
Congregations: 2
National pastors: 2
National vicars: 2
Resident missionaries: 0

Unique fact: The church’s two pastors studied for the ministry through the St. Sophia Ukrainian Lutheran Theological Seminary in Ternopil, Ukraine. John Vogt, who then served as rector of the seminary, spent three or four weeks each summer teaching the men in Albania and then held weekly online classes.


 

 

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Author: John F. Vogt
Volume 102, Number 12
Issue: December 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: Japan

Blessed!

Bradley D. Wordell

I have enjoyed studying the Bible and worshiping with Reika for almost ten years. But when she started coming to our congregation in Tokyo, my “American thinking” almost caused big trouble.

At that point she had been worshiping with us for weeks, but this was her first potluck meal in our church basement. Reika was born and raised in Taiwan but had moved to Japan as a young adult. That day she had brought some Chinese food to share with everyone. While I was waiting in line, she loaded a plate with various foods from the table and brought it to me. “Pastor, this is for you.” Noticing that my choices would have been a little different, I responded, “Thank you, Reika-san, but please eat what you have chosen. I will go through the line myself.” She offered it to me one more time, but my mind was set.

 

Download a PowerPoint slideshow showing the WELS mission work in Japan.

I had sent the signal to Reika that I did not appreciate her kind gesture. When I realized my blunder later that week, we talked about it. We both came to understand better what the other was thinking during that incident. I apologized. She forgave me. The problem was resolved.

This story is a good illustration of Reika’s life: Reika is a foreigner in Japan, holding out a plate to others. That plate is heaping with the Bread of Life. At first people are not interested. But through her witnessing, many people have come to know, as she does, how blessed the Lord’s people are.

Verses from Psalm 1 help share more of Reika’s story.

NOT IN THE SEAT OF MOCKERS

In this world, we encounter sin every day. Sadly, we sometimes “walk in step with the wicked.” Our sinful flesh wants us to keep company with certain sins; we “stand in the way that sinners take.” How horrible it is when the hardened hearts of people have them living in the camp that is opposed to the Lord. All people are born into that camp, “[sitting] in the company of mockers.” Some people remain there all their lives.

The Lord rescued Reika out of the idolatry of two Asian nations. She remembers as a child the burning of “ghost money” and pretend items, with the purpose of sending help to dead ancestors. Her family also offered real food and drinks to keep those ancestors happy. Angry ancestors might cause problems for their descendants living on earth. Religion in Taiwan taught Reika about good works, religious ceremonies, respect for elders and ancestors, good and bad spirits, the enlightenment of Buddha, and detachment from the world.

As a young adult, Reika moved to Japan and later married a Japanese man. They were blessed with one daughter, Commy, who is now a college student. The religions of Japan, with their millions of gods and countless festivals, did not offer Reika any more hope. In Japan “one-god-religions” are considered narrow-minded and dangerous—the main reason for hatred and war in the world.

In the seat of mockers, some people are defiant against the Lord; others just don’t know what they are doing. Reika is blessed not to be in that seat any longer.

WHOSE DELIGHT IS IN THE LAW OF THE LORD

The Lord led Reika to a Christian church in Japan. As she heard the good news about Jesus, the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of her heart to see the glory of the Savior. She and her daughter were baptized. Later they moved to our neighborhood and visited our church. Through English worship on Saturday nights, Japanese worship on Sunday mornings, and a weekday study of Luther’s Small Catechism in her home, Reika grew in the grace and knowledge of her Savior. She became a member through adult confirmation.

The family decided that Commy would benefit from Christian education in the States. She attended St. Croix Lutheran High School in Minnesota and was supported by her host family, her local congregation, and the faculty and students. With the use of modern technology Reika and Commy were able to read and discuss the weekly sermons—mostly in English and Japanese, but sometimes in Chinese. Commy was confirmed in the States.

Reika’s Bible, catechism, and sermon copies are full of handwritten notes—a testimony to her love of God’s Word. She is like a tree planted by a stream, drinking in the water of God’s Word. She is blessed!

WHATEVER THEY DO PROSPERS

Reika has her own business; she runs an aesthetic salon. Reika’s clients are women who come to her salon for beauty treatments. Through her study of God’s Word, Reika has come to appreciate that everything she has is a gift from her Father in heaven. She wants her business to give glory to God. Every week she gives a portion of her income to support her congregation. In her contact with clients, she is always looking for opportunities to share the hope that she has. Clients can see Bible pamphlets in her salon. When people tell her their problems, she is quick to talk about the solution to all life’s problems. She will ask, “May I say a prayer for you?”

The weekday Bible study in her home (one floor above her salon) is often attended by clients she has invited. She invites and brings them to weekend worship too. She speaks the Word of God to them, telling them what she knows. Of the people baptized at Aganai Lutheran Church in Tokyo in the last ten years, Reika can say, “Eleven of them, though they were served in many other ways as well, attended Bible classes with the pastors in my home.” Reika considers it a privilege to be one of God’s instruments, working with the other members of her church family to reach the lost.

Included in the people she has reached are her sister-in-law, her sister-in-law’s daughters, and her own father, who came from Taiwan to visit her. He was made a child of God through baptism in April of 2015 at the age of 81.

The Lord has blessed Reika and prospered her work in his kingdom.

THE LORD WATCHES OVER THE WAY OF THE RIGHTEOUS

Reika has many favorite Bible passages, but she would put Psalm 1 at the top of her list. She knows that she is one of the “righteous” because she has a Savior—a redeemer who has paid for her sins. She says, “I have learned that God loves me even though I am not perfect. I know my sins and how important it is to repent and believe the good news. The most important thing in my life now is my Savior, Jesus. I want to proclaim God’s Word all my life.”

Brad Wordell is the world mission professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin. He served as pastor/missionary at Aganai Lutheran Church in Tokyo from 1999 until 2015


 

LUTHERAN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN CHURCH IN JAPAN
Year mission work began:
1957
Baptized members: 378
Congregations: 6
Preaching stations: 2
National pastors: 4

Unique fact: The LECC is a founding member church of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, a group of 29 member churches worldwide that provides a forum for confessional Lutherans who are in fellowship.

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Author: Bradley D. Wordell
Volume 102, Number 11
Issue: November 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: CELM

From snake worshiper to Christian pastor

David Beckman

He was born the son of a snake worshiper. His mother led villagers in the worship of the cobra. Nahgah is the word for cobra in his native language. He still knows the song of praise to the cobra, a god in Hinduism. Deekoo, deekoo, deekoo, deekoo, nahgah, nahgahna! His mother taught this song to all the children of the village, her son included. They sang it as they walked out to the cobra nests on the edge of the village.

This trip to the cobra nests was a part of their indigenous ritual. Their brand of Hinduism chose to venerate the cobra as a god. They believed a cobra could give them blessings. Therefore the worshiper had to keep the snake god happy by offering it gifts. The worshipers would place little bowls of milk and honey near the cobra hole. They would offer songs and prayers to the snake. This was especially important for young girls. If they offered their gifts and prayers faithfully, then the snake god would make it possible for them to have children later on in life. No gifts, no children, so they said; so they believed.

Download a PowerPoint slideshow showing the WELS mission work in India.

Sometimes the snake god would visit one of their homes. He would slither into a corner of the house and curl up. “What a blessing this is,” they said. “A god is visiting our home!” But in one of the homes a ten-year-old boy got too close to the guest god. The cobra bit him. He was dead in less than 20 minutes. So it goes with false religion. Satan giggles as people worship “gods” that kill.

BECOMING A CHILD OF GOD

Into this satanic trap, Badavathu Balaji was born. But he did not remain there. Our gracious God led him out of the trap of Hinduism and cobra worship and placed him into the gracious arms of Jesus. We now know him by his Christian name—Pastor Yacob Naik. The path to get there was not an easy one.

Yacob is a “tribal person,” India’s version of indigenous peoples. Their residence in South India predates peoples who migrated from the north. A skilled eye can still pick out a “tribal.” Their features are slightly different. They have their own dialect of the local language. They dress differently. Most noticeably to an Indian is that they are on the bottom rung of the caste “ladder.” Most live in the hill country. Most live in poverty.

As if life wasn’t difficult enough for Yacob, he faced a severe health issue at age nine. A blood vessel in his brain was bulging, and he needed brain surgery to survive. The surgery left behind not only a scar on his head, but it also impaired the use of his left arm and leg for life. Yacob walks with a limp, and his left hand is nearly useless. But God had a plan to make this young man strong!

When Yacob was 15 years old, a Christian preacher visited his village. He gave Yacob a Bible. Yacob started reading it, and he found a gracious Savior. The words drew Yacob into that Savior’s loving arms. No longer did Yacob have to live in fear. No longer did he have to offer gifts to a snake and hope for the best. Yacob believed that God’s Son crushed the serpent and all of the devil’s power. The Holy Spirit led Yacob to believe that he is God’s child through faith in Christ’s forgiveness.

God’s first task for Yacob was to lead his own family to Christ. The gospel did its miracle, and Yacob and his parents were baptized into the Christian faith.

SHARING THE MESSAGE OF CHRIST

But God wasn’t finished with Yacob yet.

Another pastor came to Yacob’s village—a Lutheran pastor who knew about the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Ministries (CELM) seminary in Guntur. CELM is the Lutheran group assisted by WELS in India. The missionary urged Yacob to attend, but it was a long way away from his village. It was a seven-hour bus ride to get there. It was also a long road to finish the training—seven years of part-time classes (one week per month for two years, and two weeks per month for five years). In spite of the long bus ride and the years of study, Yacob attended faithfully and completed his seminary training, graduating in July 2012.

It wasn’t easy for Yacob. Each month he had to leave behind his young, growing family of a wife and four children. Sometimes he would miss the bus and have to hitch a ride with a truck driver. Imagine climbing up into the truck’s cab with an impaired left side, a book bag, and duffel bag slung over your shoulder. Even in the classroom, the matter of keeping two Bibles (Telugu and English) open while writing in a notebook was a major task. Yet nothing could hold Yacob back. He was determined to finish his training. His family supported him. He has a passion to release people from Satan’s grasp. He knew the tragic bondage of worshiping other gods. He had been there. He knew how sweet that release is!

Gifts from WELS make it possible to reach and teach people like Yacob. These gifts also enable Yacob to reach others. Shortly before his graduation, Yacob’s new church building was dedicated to the glory of God. It’s a simple structure in the village of

Kuchipudithandi. The price tag was quite low. The dividends, however, are as high as the heavens. In that simple church building Christ is preached.

Pray that Yacob’s faithful proclamation of Christ leads many others to “change their tune”—from Deekoo, deekoo, nahgah to “Glory be to Jesus!”

Dave Beckman serves as a friendly counselor to Christ Evangelical Lutheran Ministries in India.


 

Christ Evangelical Lutheran Ministries

Baptized souls: 5,500
Congregations: 120
National pastors: 45
Gospel workers: 48
WELS friendly counselors: 2 couples
Seminary students: 16
Pre-seminary students: 24

Unique fact: WELS individuals and groups support seven children’s homes in India, which care for the physical and spiritual needs of more than two hundred children. They also fund Gentle Shepherd Lutheran School, which provides a Christian education for 220 children.

Learn more at wels.net/missions.

 

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Author: Dave Beckman
Volume 102, Number 10
Issue: October 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Mission Stories: God’s saving grace in Apacheland

God’s saving grace in Apacheland

Marietta Chapman

This story is about an Apache girl that found her Lord and Savior through tremendous hardship and struggle. At the same time, this message is truly about God’s victory and love. Life for any Apache was tough during the 1950s. As a people they were striving to find hope. This young Apache woman grew up in an alcoholic home with poverty, but she found solace in the Word of God. After becoming a student at the local Lutheran mission school, God’s love rescued her, and she continues to put God first in her life.

Download a PowerPoint slideshow showing the WELS mission work in Apacheland.

A ROUGH CHILDHOOD

My mother, Carlotta Stanley, was born and raised on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Bylas, Arizona. Carlotta is the firstborn of Etta Nelson, a single parent who raised three other children. She was born in an Apache wickiup (makeshift shelter) by a cotton field near the Gila River. My mother was born in tough conditions, but it was considered normal to our people at the time. Apache families would often move off the reservation to seek work and assist local farmers in harvesting cotton. Etta and her family were following the work when Etta had Carlotta in 1949.

Carlotta grew up in poverty in a one-room wooden house. Alcoholism was always a prevalent shadow throughout her life. Carlotta’s mother, aunties, uncles, and cousins were constantly drinking around the house. She remembers being neglected numerous times and feeling forgotten.

PEACE AND COMFORT AT CHURCH

One positive was that her home was located next to the Bylas Lutheran Church or “Mission School” as it was referred to in the community. One day, she saw all the children living near the school enrolling for the upcoming school year. Carlotta was five years old at the time, and she remembers being baptized at the church. She remembers being so excited because she also was going to begin school as a kindergartener.

She recalls how many other Apache children were being baptized along with her. She says, “The Holy Spirit brought faith and hope into my heart.” From that moment on she attended church every Sunday with her aunt and cousin. At the time, her mother was still living with alcoholism and did not attend church with her.

My mother found peace and comfort being at church and in school. She grew close with every pastor and teacher who came to serve in Bylas when she was growing up. She used to enjoy visiting the pastor’s house because they always offered her food and clothing. The clothing was from a room full of “mission clothes.” She felt like she was in a store picking out outfits for herself and is grateful for the care she was shown.

For Carlotta, being at church was an escape from her life of poverty. She played with the children of called workers and babysat them when she was older. She remembers Pastor Carl Polanski and his wife, who had their first daughter while in Bylas. They named their daughter Sandra Lynn. Carlotta admired that event so much that when she had her second daughter, she named her Sandra Lynn. She also remembers one principal whose children learned how to speak Apache fluently. Communicating in Apache created a bond like no other. My mother felt like each missionary family was her own. She remembers seeing a Mayflower truck parked at the church. She saw a pastor’s family moving their belongings and packing up their things. She saw them drive off and began crying because she felt like her family was moving away.

There were a lot of sad memories for Carlotta, but there were comical times as well. One time at school, she remembers her teacher, Mrs. Sauer, telling them to go outside for recess. It was the first day and the children did not understand English yet, so they presumed she said to go home. So every child went home and did not return after recess. There were a lot of communication breakdowns similar to that throughout the year.

A POSITIVE ROLE MODEL

As Carlotta got older and graduated from eighth grade, she wanted to attend East Fork Lutheran High School in Whiteriver, Arizona. Her wish became reality, and East Fork Lutheran became her new home for the next few years. Her mother had no job and no money to send her, but Carlotta was determined and resilient. She worked in the school cafeteria washing dishes. She also worked at the nursery on weekends. That is how she paid for her tuition. She remembers the cost to attend school at that time was $80 a year. She paid her own way, working during summer break and weekends caring for infants and toddlers. She graduated from East Fork Lutheran High School in 1968.

After high school, Carlotta married Wilfred Stanley, and they had six children—four daughters and two sons. Wilfred and Carlotta have been married for more than 45 years and now have 18 grandchildren. Carlotta always took her children to church. All her children graduated from Bylas Lutheran Mission School.

Etta saw how Carlotta was taking her own children to church and being a positive role model. It was only then that Etta stopped drinking and became a devoted member of the church. She began taking confirmation classes and was confirmed on Christmas in 1976. We, as her grandchildren, only remember Etta as a sober, loving grandmother. She cooked, cleaned, and cared for all of us as Carlotta and her husband were working.

GOD’S SAVING GRACE

Carlotta is so thankful for God and his love. She believes that God’s will brought every missionary family to Bylas, and they will remain in her heart forever. Carlotta says, “If WELS never brought God’s Word to Apacheland, I would be a lost soul.”

One individual stood out the most in my mother’s life. Mr. Willis Hadler taught in Bylas for more than 40 years, and he impacted many lives while on the reservation. He taught my mother and all of her children about God’s Word. He was a great teacher and father figure in the community.

Carlotta continues to be a devoted Christian, and she shares God’s Word with all of her loved ones. Two of her daughters—myself and my sister, Angela Stanley Dude—teach at Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School in Peridot, Arizona. My mother is proud of all six children for earning college degrees and contributing positively to their communities. She believes that this story would not be possible without God’s saving grace.

Marietta Chapman is a member at Our Savior’s, Peridot, Arizona.


 

STATISTICS

Apache Lutheran Mission Baptized members: 3,595
Organized congregations: 8
Preaching stations: 1
Lutheran schools: 2
Missionaries: 5
Teachers: 9, three of which are Apache
National pastors: 2
Evangelists: 2
Bible Institute students: 90

Unique fact: Apacheland is the first WELS world mission field, established in 1893. Mission work is conducted in eastern Arizona on the White Mountain Apache Reservation and the San Carlos Reservation.

 

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Author:
Volume 101, Number 11
Issue: November 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Mission stories: Thailand

A reflection of God’s love

Kenneth H. Pasch

Standing in the bamboo house, Missionary David told me, “The people believe if someone removes the shaman’s altar from the house, that person will die.” And then he added, “. . . within 24 hours. Do you want to remove it?”

“No problem,” I said.

We proceeded to remove the altar along with the talismans and charms that draped the doors and windows of the house. All of them were believed to ward off evil spirits. We then took them outside where they were burned.

I must admit that it caught me off guard. We were in a remote village at the home of a couple who had renounced their pagan beliefs and become Christians. What I witnessed was a simple, but pointed, ceremony that is conducted for the Hmong when they become Christians. After the ceremony and a short devotional service, these new believers confessed their faith and were baptized.

With us that day was Vichai SaeVang. For him it was a very special day. At the time he was a fourth-year student at our seminary. The people who proclaimed their Christian faith that day were his parents. “I was very, very happy,” he says, “because now I no longer have to worry about their future when they die.”

DISCOVERING A BRAND NEW LIFE

About ten years ago, Vichai was introduced to the Christian faith through a relative from America who was visiting family members in Thailand. He had asked Vichai to drive him to our church for worship. It was the first time Vichai had set foot in a Christian church. Over the next few months, an elder from the church met with Vichai and introduced him to Jesus. Over time, Vichai began to see the futility of his old beliefs, and the Holy Spirit led him to faith and a brand new life.

It was not an easy transition for him. He had become the only Christian in his family, and his parents were not pleased that he had left the religious beliefs of his people. One of those beliefs involved inviting their dead ancestors to join them in festival meals and celebrations to ask for protection from evil spirits. By no longer participating in these family rituals, Vichai would be viewed as disrespectful of his ancestors and his family.

I asked him how he handled the situation, and he told me he showed them the love of Christ through his actions. “I helped them all the more where I could and when I could, always telling them it was a reflection of God’s love that he wanted me to show my family.”

He did not give up. Through his words and actions, Vichai reached into the lives of his family members, who eventually came to see and understand the same love and forgiveness of Christ.

PROCLAIMING CHRIST

Vichai was determined to learn more and to dedicate his life to proclaiming the love of Christ to his fellow people. In his village there were two Christian families, but no one to serve them or proclaim the gospel. He was encouraged to enroll in our seminary Pastoral Studies Institute in 2009 where he spent the next four years in study and training to become a pastor.

“I am very thankful to WELS,” Vichai says. “Unlike our university system, where the poor could not hope to go or study, WELS made it possible for me and others to study even though we are poor.”

Like the other students with him, it was not an easy path to follow. Most of the villagers in the hill tribes of northern Thailand live on subsistence farming. Though WELS provides seminary lodging and educational assistance for our pastoral studies students, it still means leaving their families at home in the villages during their time away at the seminary. For many, as was the case for Vichai, it also meant there were times when little more than rice could be afforded for his wife and four children to live on. Others found it necessary to leave the program since it became increasingly difficult to provide for their families during their time away.

Vichai graduated from our seminary in 2013 and was assigned to begin a new exploratory mission in the village where he grew up as a child. Reaching into the village has been a challenge. Other Christian groups have attempted to work in the area but have been met with rejection by community leaders and those who are antagonistic toward Christianity. Still, with the Lord’s blessing and a relationship in the village that was established in his youth, Vichai has successfully gathered a group of people who are eager to be fed with the lifesaving words of the gospel. He now conducts worship services and Bible classes in the home where we witnessed his parents’ baptisms. New people are coming from a neighboring village to join the others in learning about their Savior. Vichai is now looking at a plot of land between the two villages where he can someday build a small church that will give them permanence in the eyes of the community as well as provide them with a house of worship.

Ken Pasch is a missionary in Thailand.

Learn more about the mission in Thailand in this month’s edition of WELS Connection.


LUTHERAN EVANGELICAL CHURCH OF THAILAND
Baptized members: 1,100
Congregations: 6
Missionary stations: 13
National pastors: 18
National evangelists: 4
Missionaries: 2

Unique fact: The mission in Thailand ministers to several different cultures, including Hmong, Lao, Issan (Lao-Thai), and Thai. Part of the missionaries’ work is to coordinate those efforts as well as to create the framework for the national association of churches.

Go to www.wels.net to learn more about WELS missions.

 

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Author: Kenneth H. Pasch
Volume 102, Number 7
Issue: July 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Mission stories: Nigeria

Mission stories

We are not afraid

Douglas P. Weiser

WELS works closely with two sister church bodies in Nigeria—All Saints Lutheran Church of Nigeria and Christ the King Lutheran Church of Nigeria. Here meet two of your African brothers and learn more about the challenges and blessings of outreach in Nigeria.

Michael Nleng Egar

Michael Nleng Egar has a poignant family story. His mother went away and had children with other men. His father had children with other women. As a boy he did not “enjoy any maternal love.” It made him sad when other students’ parents visited his school mates. “I have never seen my father one-on-one. I begged God to help me get a family,” he says. “God heard my prayers and gave me my wife, Anthonia. We have three children: sons Anthony, 14, and Wisdom, 10, and our daughter, Precious, 5. When I joined All Saints Lutheran, I met Pastor Mathias Odey. He acted as my father, spiritually and physically. I love him so much.”

Egar’s spiritual life also involves a sort of rebirth. He had been born and baptized Roman Catholic. He always thought that he could be saved only by his own works. He had never really understood God’s grace. The examples he saw of living one’s faith in life were negative. “I saw men who jumped from one woman to the next. I knew many who were spiritists (animists).”

But in 2005 he found a Lutheran friend. “He told me about the grace of God. He told me everything God has done for us. It was such wonderful news! I followed my friend into a Lutheran church.” In addition, Egar eagerly witnessed his new friend’s faith in action. “He was so faithful to his wife. Both he and his wife were faithful to God.”

By 2006 Egar was confirmed a Lutheran in All Saints Lutheran Church of Nigeria in the Ishibori (Ogoja) congregation. There his faith continued to mature. “By the grace of God I was accepted into the preseminary in 2008,” he says.

Before deciding to become a pastor, Egar did whatever it took to make a living—driving okada, a commercial motorbike; working as a paid driver; farming; and fish farming. His wife, Anthonia, once taught school. But when Egar had to move far from home to live on the seminary campus, Anthonia cared for the children and worked on the farm in Ogoja. “She can do anything on our farm, producing garri (cassava) and the rest,” says Egar. “She’s a very fine help to me. Of course, I worked the fields too, when I was home on breaks.”

After preseminary, Egar served as an evangelist at the Ishibori congregation, working at Pastor Odey’s side. He then spent three years at the Christ the King Lutheran Seminary. Along with six classmates from All Saints and two from Christ the King, Egar graduated from the seminary on March 14, 2015. This graduation was a celebration of student blessings and achievements and yet a sad memorial for the deaths of three classmates—Happiness Eko, Samuel Eyo, and Saviour Udo—within the last two years.

A beloved instructor, Pastor Eme Umoessien, also died in a motorbike accident in January. Egar offered a prayer as the seminary students and Pastor Umoessien’s widow crowded into the mortuary. He praised the Lord and thanked him for this opportunity to honor a man they loved and to declare to the world that they are not afraid. They are not afraid because God is in charge.

Why would Egar confess that the students, the instructors, and the people of both synods in Nigeria aren’t afraid? Because adversity and death, so easy to suffer in Nigeria, are feared. People fear death because it tempts them to believe that God is not in charge. They revert to the old ways, thinking that someone has cursed the seminary or the living spirit of a dead person has decided to plague the seminary. In defiance of the animistic views of cause and effect, our fellow Christians tell themselves and the whole world, “We are not afraid.” They know that Jesus lives and has conquered death.

Egar was ordained into the ministry on March 21. All Saints President Simon Orem handed out sealed envelopes at the service. These told all existing pastors and the seven new pastors where they were assigned to serve. It meant moves for the six existing pastors. All were expected to get to their new stations by April 1. Egar was assigned to Bitiah Irruan, the easternmost and the largest congregation of All Saints.

Before the ordination service, the new pastors for All Saints were videotaped as they gowned up in the shade of the north church wall. Egar said, “This is a wonderful day! Today is the day we are put into the house of God as shepherds.”

Friday John

Friday John is a lifelong member of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Nigeria. Recently he was the recipient of a personal disaster grant from WELS Christian Aid and Relief.

What happened?

One February day in 2014, Friday John was picking up his two sons on his motorbike—a common enough practice in that area. A car hit them. John’s two sons died, and John’s right leg was badly mangled. “The doctors told me to cut it or I would die,” says John. They amputated the leg below the knee.

Massive hospital bills and unpaid rent would have cost him his business—a car paint store. The Christ the King Welfare Committee asked WELS Christian Aid and Relief for a personal disaster grant. The grant paid John’s hospital debt, caught him up with rent, and restored the operation of his shop. John said, “I was very happy for the gift from WELS Christian Aid. I thank them well, well. They did fine for me. Christ the King Lutheran Church also helped. The throne of God helped me. Without that I would not have survived.”

Ofonmbuk Okon, Christ the King’s welfare chairman, wrote, “The recipient and his wife sang a song of joy, praising God and thanking WELS for their benevolence.” In fact, John “danced” his joy, pumping his arms to bounce in his wheelchair.

Now John’s nephew runs the store. John hopes to earn or find enough cash for an artificial leg.

John’s story emphasizes how risky motorbike travel is in Nigerian traffic. That’s why WELS dedicates the motorbikes provided for the graduating pastors. The prayers ask God to bless the pastors’ use of these machines, keeping them safe in their daily travels and blessing the gospel message they carry with them. All things are in God’s hands, and the prayers of these believers ask God to protect his messengers so that Friday John’s story remains unique.

Doug Weiser is a part-time non-resident missionary for our two sister synods in Nigeria.


 

Facts:

Christ the King Lutheran Church of Nigeria
All Saints Lutheran Church of Nigeria
Baptized members: 5,203
Congregations/preaching stations: 56
Missionaries: 0.5
National pastors: 26
Unique fact: Nigeria is a rich harvest field. More than 175 million people live in an area equivalent to the size of California, Oregon, Washington and part of Nevada. Half of that population is under 15 years old.

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Author: Douglas P. Weiser
Volume 102, Number 6
Issue: June 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Mission stories: Hong Kong

The most important job

Robert A. Siirila

“What’s the most important job in life?” This question changed the life of Angus Au. He serves a Lutheran church in Hong Kong and is helping train the next generation of Christian leaders there. This is his story.

Come follow me!

In 1989, a classmate introduced Angus to an English class at Sam Shing Lutheran Church. Angus recalls, “It was a warm atmosphere and a good example of Christian love. I paid just a little for the classes, but the teacher gave me so much help!”

Angus quickly got involved in the youth group. As he thought of Baptism, he was concerned about his non-Christian parents. “Because I was an only son, I had the responsibility of doing rituals like burning fake paper money for my parents after they pass. My mom wondered who would provide for her in the afterlife if I don’t burn that money.” Angus assured her he would always show love for her. “My Dad didn’t forbid Baptism. I found out later that friends had told him that many people get baptized and then forget all about it. So they told him not to be worried.”

After graduating from college, Angus got a job as a project engineer in a toy company. He remained active in his local church, leading worship and the youth group. The more he served, the more he realized he needed training. The church body in Hong Kong was called South Asian Lutheran Evangelical Mission (SALEM) at first, and it had a Bible institute where Angus took classes on Christian counseling and a few theological subjects.

After a few years Angus had a chance to get a better paying job. But it would be very demanding on his time. “I talked to my pastor. He asked me a question that changed my life. ‘What is the most important job in life? It’s sharing the gospel. Do your plans fit in with this?’ His question deeply challenged me. So I made a decision. I eventually quit my job and two days later applied to a seminary.”

The first seminary WELS started in Hong Kong had closed due to lack of manpower. So Angus attended a different seminary even though he knew that the seminary was not strong in teaching all the doctrines of the Bible. WELS professors, however, did occasionally come to Hong Kong for short teaching visits. “In 2001, Dr. Glen Thompson was here. We were in class when we heard about a disaster in the USA. It was Sept. 11,” says Angus. Several WELS mission committee members were in Hong Kong for meetings and were also stranded because all flights to the States were canceled. Angus and other SALEM members cared for the visitors and even arranged a prayer service to help both Hong Kong and American Christians deal with the tragedy.

Time of testing

Angus graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in theology. That fall he was called by the Sam Shing church to be a full-time evangelist. About this time Missionary Rob Siirila arrived from Taiwan to direct WELS work in Hong Kong. One goal emerged at this time. The work in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region needed a new generation of native pastors and teachers. The solution seemed obvious: reestablish the seminary. Working toward that goal, plans were drafted to start a new regional seminary. The next year Dr. John Lawrenz was called to start the seminary.

Asia Lutheran Seminary (ALS) officially opened on May 29, 2005. Its purpose was to provide solid Lutheran theological training for SALEM students as well as others in Hong Kong and beyond.

Angus jumped at the chance to be in the first class. He now looks back with appreciation to Dr. Lawrenz. “He always talked with me. He encouraged me to study more.”

In January of 2006, Angus married Ceci Lee. Less than three months later, he went to see a doctor and found out he had cancer. “This was a huge shock! But thanks to God, my cancer treatments went well. I was in recovery but still weak,” says Angus. God had more plans. “Ceci knew I needed to further my theological study. She wanted me to reduce my workload, so she offered to work and support me. But then she got sick. We talked to Dr. Lawrenz and wondered what we could do.”

That year ALS had a visiting professor, Dr. Allen Sorum, from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS). “Dr. Allen Sorum and Dr. Lawrenz came up with a plan. I could go to the USA to study for a year! Studying with ALS and WLS, I would work towards a Master of Divinity degree. All I needed was funding,” says Angus. And God provided! A generous WELS donor enabled Angus and Ceci to go in 2008.

“It took time to adjust to the new environment. I didn’t know many people,” says Angus. “My parents came to Wisconsin to visit and told me ‘You live in heaven! It’s not so crowded like Hong Kong. The people are so friendly and polite.’ ”

But that wasn’t his main discovery. “Leaving my familiar surroundings helped me experience new things. I didn’t know much about denominations. I saw a synod that had been going on for over 150 years because they held to Scripture. I hadn’t thought much of the value of good doctrine. From faculty and students I saw an integration of doctrine and life. They were following Jesus in the classroom, family, church, and community.”

Hong Kong and the future

Angus and Ceci returned to Hong Kong in 2009 with lots of experience and a new baby boy! A year later, Angus became the second graduate of ALS to receive a master’s of divinity. Now besides continuing as a full-time church worker, Angus has become an assistant instructor at ALS. He continues to grow as he works with seasoned professors. And his family has grown with the addition of a daughter and another son.

“In Hong Kong and East Asia there are many first-generation Christians. Chinese people need to be built up so they know the good news,” says Angus. “We need to learn to interpret and use the Bible well in our Asian context. We need to show how the doctrines work out in life. We want our Chinese students not just to get notes from a class. That knowledge is limited. But knowing Jesus Christ is unlimited.

“I have a good friend whose spiritual journey is much like mine. He’s now at ALS and sees how we are committed to God’s Word. Our teachings all line up with Scripture. I pray he and many others can receive this kind of training.”

Is there anything more important than that?

Rob Siirila is field coordinator for East Asia.


Mission Facts:

South Asian Lutheran Evangelical Mission
Established: 1976
Baptized members: 2,251
Congregations: 9
Missionaries: 1, plus 4 who are teaching at Asia Lutheran Seminary (ALS)
National pastors: 5
Evangelists: 10
Unique fact: 10 percent of the adult members of SALEM have attended classes at Asia Lutheran Seminary

 

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Author: Robert A. Siirila
Volume 102, Number 5
Issue: May 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Mission Stories: Russia

A master fisherman

In an instant, Gennadi Stepanovich’s life changed forever. Gennadi loved to tag along with his older brothers as they played and worked in a village just outside of Berdsk, Russia. But one day tragedy struck. Gennadi fell off a horse and lost all hearing in both ears. He was five years old.

Young Gennadi soon stopped talking, but the happy boy with the sunny personality remained popular with his friends. When the other boys started school, Gennadi went to work. In the summer and fall, he picked berries and mushrooms for his mother in the nearby birch and pine forest. Every day in the winter, he and other boys cut holes in the frozen river and dug channels to the riverbank so the village women could draw water. The boys earned just a few kopecks for their efforts. But hardworking Gennadi was the first to save enough to purchase his own long sheepskin coat with a big fur collar. Young Gennadi took pride in his hard work and success!

At age 8, Gennadi started learning carpentry. For 15 years he worked in the village constructing wooden work sleighs. In 1960 he moved to the city of Berdsk in search of better pay. Eventually he landed a factory job building wooden radio cases. Gennadi’s years at the Berdsk radio factory brought him new success. He made many new friends among the factory’s other deaf workers. The plant manager frequently posted Gennadi’s picture on the board of model workers. He joined the factory’s acting club and performed skits in Minsk, Kiev, and Riga. He went to dances with his sisters. He met a lovely woman and married her, and they had a baby girl.

Gennadi worked at the factory until it closed in 1999. Then he retired and went to work for himself, doing the things he loved best. He built a pleasant wooden house outside the city on a large garden plot called a dacha. In the summers, Gennadi tended his dacha. In the winters, he went ice fishing.

In his own modest way, Gennadi had a successful life: a loving family, a decent pension, lots of friends, summers tending his garden, winters spent ice fishing. What more could he want? Gennadi is typical of many who grew up during Soviet times. He was perfectly happy working, fishing, and gardening—and never gave a thought to God or spiritual things.

But God was thinking of Gennadi.

Jesus casts a net

Larisa Ivanovna can hear, but she grew up using Russian sign language with her deaf parents. When she was just 16, she was commissioned to start a school for the deaf. As teacher and translator, she soon became a trusted member of the deaf community in Berdsk and the surrounding area. When some of the deaf began attending our Bible classes in Iskitim, she agreed to translate for them. She herself was not interested in the Bible, but she did want to help her friends. The Holy Spirit, however, had his own plans. He worked in Ivanovna’s heart, and she soon put her faith in the Savior and joined our church.

When the Berdsk deaf club lost its meeting room in 2010, Ivanovna asked Missionary Luke Wolfgramm if they could meet at the church’s Christian Information Center. Wolfgramm agreed and started visiting the deaf club’s meetings too. Eventually the deaf asked him to lead Bible studies for them.

Because they are cut off from much of society, the deaf love to converse with one another. It was only natural for the group to invite their friend Gennadi to the Bible study. Gennadi was happy to come and talk fishing with the other men. Little did he know there was another Master Fisherman in the room!

Then one week’s Bible lesson focused on Baptism. Wolfgramm learned that Gennadi had never been baptized. He asked him, “Gennadi, would you like to be baptized? God wants to give all his wonderful blessings to you personally.”

“Oh, no, Pastor, I’m too old for that kind of thing!”

But Gennadi kept coming and kept listening. And God kept working in his heart. Finally, about a year later, Gennadi came to Bible class and announced that he would like to be baptized. What a happy day that was!

Gennadi kept coming, and he kept listening. About six months later, Gennadi came to Bible class and announced that he would like to be confirmed. Why? Gennadi wanted to take the Lord’s Supper with us.

Wolfgramm likes to think that the Lord Jesus instituted his Supper just for Gennadi. Do you remember the time when Jesus spoke sign language? Before healing that deaf man, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. He touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven, heaved a sigh, and spoke one powerful word: “Ephatha!” Be opened!

The Savior does the same thing now for Gennadi. “Look! Take and eat! This is my body, which I gave for you. Look! Take and drink! This is the blood that I shed for you on the cross. Gennadi, go in peace. All your sins are forgiven!”

On Gennadi’s confirmation day, Wolfgramm said, “Gennadi, we all know you like to fish. Jesus is a fisherman too. The only difference is that Jesus catches people. Gennadi, when you catch your fish, you take them home and eat them. When Jesus catches his fish, he takes them home and gives them eternal life. And now, Gennadi, Jesus has caught you too, hasn’t he!” And Gennadi nodded and smiled.

Blessings of the catch

Gennadi and the other members of our deaf congregation in Berdsk treasure their worship services and Bible study, both for the fellowship with one another and for the peace and joy that only God gives. Even Gennadi, who was living a happy life and not searching for anything, declares, “I like to hear God’s Word. My heart is happy. I know where I am going, and I am at peace.”

Valentina, another member of the group, recalls, “Before I learned about my Savior, I was always nervous. I would make myself sick with worry. Now that I know Jesus, my heart is at peace. I’m not worried about the future.”

Maria states, “We have found a home here at the Lutheran church. Here we can come and learn about the Bible in a way that we can understand, with pastors and translators who take the time to teach us.

“Before we learned about Jesus, we were always angry and fighting with each other. Now we have peace. Now we have joy. Thank you for teaching us about our Savior!”

Jennifer Wolfgramm and her husband, Missionary Luke Wolfgramm, live and serve in Berdsk, Russia.

View the WELS Russia Missions PowerPoint

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Author: Jennifer Wolfgramm
Volume 102, Number 3
Issue: March 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Mission stories: Mexico

IT’S GOOD TO BE HERE

Rachel Hartman

When asked what there is to see and do in the place where he lives, “There’s not much,” says Pastor Alejandro Sánchez. After a moment, he adds, “Just horses and chickens.”

Sánchez serves Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God), a congregation located in the town of Sásabe, Mexico. Sásabe is on the U.S. border, nearly touching the state of Arizona. It has about one thousand habitants and is in the midst of the Sonoran desert, far from any other Mexican villages.

Originally from Puebla, a large metropolitan city in central Mexico, Sánchez felt the change when he arrived in Sásabe in 2010. He quickly learned, however, that the shift in scenery was not the biggest difference between the two locations. “Nearly 90 percent of the people here depend on illegal activities to make a living,” he explains.

A barren place

For many, the dry, dusty town of Sásabe, Sonora, “is literally the end of the world,” notes Missionary Michael Hartman, who serves Latin America. There are two ways to get to the village. A dirt road runs through Mexico, connecting Sásabe to the nearest town, which is 30 miles away. Another dirt road leads to the U.S. border. For those without a visa or passport, however, it is legally impossible to enter America.

Within Sásabe, parks and movie theaters are nonexistent. “There is no gas station or bank,” adds Hartman. Those passing through will find a store selling food items and other trip-related gear, like backpacks and water bottles. There is also a bare-bones hotel, which allows trekkers to claim a space on the floor inside the building to rest for a night.

Due to Sásabe’s proximity to the U.S. border, it is a central hub and final stop for individuals who are trying to cross illegally into the United States. It is not uncommon to see Central Americans pass through the town. After leaving their homeland, these travelers have undergone a treacherous journey spanning thousands of miles on trains and buses and often on foot to arrive in Sásabe. After staying in the village a short time, and perhaps attending a final Sunday service at Cordero de Dios, they move on toward the border.

It falls into place, then, that Sásabe’s economy revolves around this trend. In addition to human trafficking, it is also a place where drug trafficking is alive and thriving. Those who are not involved—either directly or indirectly—in these activities find it hard to make a living.

Given the town’s economy, its residents do not naturally greet newcomers with open arms. “Generally speaking, the people are very distrustful of anybody from the south,” says Sánchez. “That’s the first obstacle I encountered.”

In addition to being met with wary eyes, Sánchez arrived during a time of unrest and violence, as two cartels fought for control of the area. As a result, one of the groups blockaded the road leading out of Sásabe and toward other Mexican villages. It also cut off the water in town.

“For the first three months, I didn’t have any water,” explains Sánchez. The blockade remained in place for a total of nine months.

The only way to access food and water involved exiting Sásabe by way of the road leading to the Arizona border, which was not blocked off. Those that had a visa to the United States traveled there, and returned with food and provisions for others in the town. Residents without a visa, including Sánchez, stayed in Sásabe. Members of the church helped Sánchez with food and also bottles and jugs of water during this time.

Unlike many areas of Mexico, where mild temperatures dominate the climate, Sásabe, Sonora, fluctuates greatly. Temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, and drop below freezing in winter. Most places don’t have central heating, air conditioning, or anything to heat or cool homes.

“This is hard ministry,” explains Hartman. “In many ways, it is reminiscent of WELS missionaries going out to Apacheland one hundred years ago.”

A childhood dream

When he was a child, Sánchez attended a Lutheran church in Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico. He went regularly to worship with his mother and siblings. He enjoyed going to church and admired the role of the pastor. “I saw pastors preaching and wearing a suit and tie, and it really caught my attention,” he explains.

During his younger years, he often pretended to be a pastor. Later on, he decided to study to become a pastor. “When I got to the seminary, however, I realized that being a pastor wasn’t so easy,” he recalls. WELS Latin America missionaries taught Sánchez for the following four years. In 2010, after completing his training, Sánchez graduated from the seminary.

At this time, the Mexican Lutheran Church called him to serve in Sonora, Mexico.

Mission to the Children, a nonprofit, volunteer organization based in southern Arizona, helps support mission work in Sásabe and other villages in the state of Sonora, Mexico. WELS members, who run the organization, began working with Sánchez. Together they attend to some of the physical needs of those living in Sásabe. Mission to the Children has also played an instrumental role in the founding of congregations and ongoing work in the area.

A reason to stay

“When people get to know you, they are very receptive,” explains Sánchez. “They are very friendly, and there is a lot of respect toward those that are dedicated to the ministry.”

The violence in the area, which made it impossible to leave Sásabe and get essentials, has tapered off in the last two years, adds Sánchez.

Furthermore, an interest in the Lutheran church, and the saving gospel message of Jesus, is evident. Everyone in town has visited Cordero de Dios at least once.

And the church is growing. Members of Cordero de Dios currently worship in a house but are looking for ways to expand, as they no longer fit in the current space.

Members may have economic needs, but they are eager to help out in ways that they can. Many attend regularly, help clean the church, and organize church gatherings. And several provide meals and food for Sánchez. “There are some families that consider me to be part of their family,” he says.

“It may be a rough place to live,” adds Hartman. “But the people there need the gospel and want the gospel.”

And for that reason, Sánchez is happy and eager to stay.

Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in León, Mexico.

 

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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Mission Stories: Malawi

Malawi

John E. Holtz

Snip.

A diseased leaf drops to the ground.

Snip.

A twig falls. Clinging to the twig is a mysterious looking sack of tiny eggs.

Snap.

A dead branch is removed with a firm grip and a twist of the wrist.

The one doing the snipping and snapping is Faidal Kubala Beza. Or more accurately said, he used to do it. After all, it was his job some years back. Faidal was in the northern region of Malawi working on a tea and macadamia nut plantation called Kawalazi Estates. As a grounds laborer, Faidal pruned the tea bushes. As a field scouter, he inspected and monitored the bushes and trees for invasive insects, damaging diseases, and unhealthy foliage. And as a field supervisor, he, well, supervised fields to make sure all was growing well.

Faidal had an eye for things that ravaged, destroyed, and hindered; he had a heart for life and growth and fruit. He knew his job well. He understood what had to be done so that better things could be done. He believed what he was taught: Removing the bad fosters the growth of the good.

Hmmm . . . something sounds biblical about that, doesn’t it?

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:1,2).

Read it again if you have to, but note something important. It’s not just the fruitless branches that get cut, even the fruitful branches are pruned! Can’t you just see the Gardener at work in the undergrowth of our lives? With a keen eye, a loving heart and a skilled hand, he’s there—lifting; inspecting; and, when need be, cutting.

Faidal knows very well the purpose of pruning; he is equally familiar with the pain of being pruned.

Aren’t we all? Who has not felt the sharp edge of the Gardener’s shears? A snip here. A snap there. And all of a sudden, something is . . . well . . . gone. Removed. No longer part of our life.

Faidal graduated from the seminary in Lusaka, Zambia, in 2008. He then was assigned as a vicar to a small preaching station in northernmost Malawi—Karonga. In 2009 he was called, installed, and ordained as pastor at St. John’s in Chitala Village on the eastern edge of Malawi. By 2012 he was in the central region of Malawi, serving three congregations in the Kasungu area. Now in 2014, Faidal has recently taken up residence at Mwalaulomwe, having been called to serve three congregations in that parish union.

Within six years Faidal and his family have been in five places. Farewell sermons. Painful good-byes. Another door to close. Yet another congregation to leave.

The Gardener was at work.

“It was never pleasant,” Faidal recalls. And I agree, the shears never is.

If the Gardener removed anything from the Beza family, I have a hunch what it was: comfortableness.

Why do I think so? Well, consider this . . .

Each of the congregations that Faidal was serving struggled to fully support him and his family financially. At one point, Faidal was at a crucial crossroads. He was desperately concerned for the well-being of his family—even basic survival. He had to scrounge around just to provide daily meals for his wife, three children, and two dependents. He actually ended up selling some of his meager possessions in order to buy food.

Snip. Snip. Snap.

The comfortableness of life that Faidal and his classmates and their families had enjoyed while studying at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Lilongwe, Malawi, and the seminary during their six years of schooling was gone. The perks that came with campus living were removed the very day he and his classmates left the seminary campus. In one fell swoop, what had been provided to the students and families was gone: housing, water, electricity, gardens, maize, and a cash stipend.

These things were no longer so readily available. Though the calling congregations were responsible to provide these things, they didn’t always do what they said they would. Life for the Beza family just became . . . well . . . uncomfortable.

The glint off the blade of the shears was blinding.

Blinding, yes, but not to his eyes of faith. With those God-given eyes, Faidal could see something else.

With the eyes of faith he could see the loving hand of the Gardener, who was holding and using the shears for pruning his life.

When word of his struggles came out in the open, the Lord moved into action the hearts and hands of individuals and also our synod as a whole. Tangible help was given: salary support, housing allowance subsidy, and even a bicycle.

With such assistance, Faidal no longer had to be as consumed agonizingly with financial concerns for his family. Faidal could freely do the work to which he had been called: bringing God’s gospel to God’s people.

And talk about an opportunity to share the Word of God! Now that Faidal is living and serving at Mwalaulomwe, he has an automatic mission field coming to him every Thursday literally out his back door.

Each week, hundreds of women bring their children to the Malo a Chipatala Cha Lutheran Mobile Clinic (literally translated: the place of the hospital of the Lutheran Mobile Clinic). Morning devotions with the people mean they are reminded of the grace and mercy that comes new every day through Jesus.

So how are things going for Faidal and his family now?

Well, the gate is broken, the borehole needs fixing, the inside walls need paint, electricity needs hooking up, the windows need screens, and the outside kitchen needs air ventilation. But Faidal sees these things in a new light. Earthly comforts are nice but aren’t necessary; God, in Christ Jesus, promises so much more and so much better than those things. We have the comfort of the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting in a home prepared by Jesus himself.

To be sure, the pruning in his life hasn’t stopped. But neither has his faith.

Through Word and sacrament, the Lord keeps growing that faith. Interestingly, the name of the church where he serves now is Chikhulupiliro, which means “faith.”

In faith, with his eyes fixed on Jesus, the true vine, Faidal continues working in the fields. He’s laboring on God’s estate.

Faidal is confident that the Lord has an eye on the things that ravage, destroy, and hinder his people and at the same time has a heart for life and growth and fruit.

Like Faidal, the next time you feel a snip here and a snap there, take time to offer up a prayer of thanks. Let the pruning remind you that the Gardener is at work.

John Holtz is a missionary in Malawi, Africa.

 

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Author: John E. Holtz
Volume 102, Number 1
Issue: January 2015

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