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Faces of Faith – Matthew Cephus

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

Matthew Cephus sharing the gospel in Liberia

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

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

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Faces of Faith – Pastor Marinagaba, Rwanda

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teachings from the Reformation’s moorings of sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura and the Lutheran Confessions, the historical documents that established the Biblical teachings of the Lutheran Church.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Faces of Faith – Pastor Chaleunsouk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Rev. Ken Pasch, Thailand Field Coordinator

 

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A Lutheran seminary for a Confessional Lutheran church body

On a recent trip to the Asia-Pacific Rim, I spent almost two weeks with the faculty and staff at a small Lutheran seminary.

The request of their team was this: “Be our consultant. Speak to us about ways that we can fulfill our calling as a Lutheran seminary.”

Our studies were grounded in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. We studied the Smalcald Articles which reminded us that the first and chief article of our faith is redemption and justification by faith. We were also reminded that no teaching of our seminary may come from any place other than the Bible. Those same Smalcald Articles reminded us that the goal of seminary training is pastors who know how to do pastoral care, preaching and teaching God’s law and gospel, equipping God’s people to live lives of repentance, and to use the keys with each other.

Building on that foundation, we talked about the WHAT, the HOW, and the WHY of theological education at a confessional Lutheran seminary.

WHAT is their mission? To train evangelical Lutheran pastors who want to and know how to serve Christ’s flock and to reach out to others. WHAT kind of institution do they want to be? They decided on the following:

  • An institution which is centered on Jesus Christ and the Bible principles of Scripture Alone, by Grace Alone, by Faith Alone.
  • A culture where faculty, staff, and students work hard and are always growing.
  • A place of learning where the growth of the students (knowledge, faith/character/attitude, and skill) is strongly pursued.
  • A place where God’s people can learn from their mistakes.
  • A place where God’s people love each other.

HOW are they going to accomplish this mission? The faculty and staff agreed that they need to be in the Word together and that they needed to be praying for God’s help. They agreed that solid teaching in every course is vital. They also agreed that that they need to have a functional system for communication and accountability regarding curriculum, goals, and students. Finally, they decided that they need be examples for each other, admonishing and encouraging each other in love and humility.

As for the WHY of their service, they agreed that their motivation is the Savior who died and rose again for them. In Jesus Christ, they want to give glory to God in all they do. In Jesus Christ, they want to serve as the best faculty and staff that they can be.

Please pray that the Lord continues to guide and bless the faculty and staff who serve at this worker training facility. Please pray that they can be a blessing to the students entrusted to their care, and that those students, in turn, will be a blessing to many people in their region.

Written by Rev. Brad Wordell, professor for the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI)

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Online outreach in a restricted-access country

Imagine a country where it is illegal for churches to gather without special permission, to proclaim any gospel other than what the unbelieving government approves. A country where churches, obviously, cannot do any promotion, canvassing, or big outreach events, where all social media is controlled by the powers that be, and where most everything that is perceived as coming from the West is considered suspect by the authorities. How would you do large-scale outreach and evangelism in a setting like that, especially when you know that there are millions of people in that country who are looking for meaning and are open to spiritual direction?

Believe or not, one group has still launched an outreach website on the approved social media platform through the help of Multi-Language Publications (MLP). It is not overtly Christian, at least not at first glance. It talks about sports, common marriage problems, and movies that are popular. Each blog post offers simple life advice and insights on these topics to get people’s attention and then quotes a relevant Bible passage. Finally, at the bottom of the article there is a link to more information. From there, readers can access a page that tells them more about the Christian message through articles such as “Who is Jesus?” and “What is the Bible?”

Now, keep in mind that there is no way to promote this web page. There is no Facebook targeted advertising campaign; there are no flyers; there is no canvassing. There is only word of mouth. Praise God that several “Promoters” (outreach-minded brothers and sisters) have agreed to post the weekly articles on their local version of a “Facebook Wall.” Praise God that, in the first 12 hours of the first article being released, there were already 753 views! Within a few days, there were over 1,200 views! But, more importantly, 120 people (10%) had gone on to view the article “Who is Jesus?”

By Facebook, Twitter, and Google standards, these numbers are insignificant. But the impact in a restricted-access country filled with spiritually curious people is powerful, and it is growing. In fact, this site is the sister of two other sites launched earlier, also with the help of MLP. The one launched in March, a simple discipleship website, had 7,300 visits last month. The second, a leadership training site, had 15,600 visits last month. Remember, there is no promotion; just one person telling another, “Hey, check this out!”

Please pray that these sites continue to grow and reach tens of thousands of people every month. Our goal for the first year is 150,000 visitors, and our 3-year goal is 1,000,000. Please pray that these sites are not shut down by the government. Pray that the authors, website manager, and “Promoters” have the courage to continue boldly and clearly proclaiming the gospel. But most of all, pray that the Holy Spirit works through the gospel on these sites to create and strengthen the faith of many people.

Written by a missionary in East Asia

To learn more about WELS Multi-Language Publications, visit wels.net/mlp.

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