Monday, November 10, 2014

The Church & The Cathedral Belgium part 2

We woke up the next day, the Lords day, and attended church with the Alderman's at Brussels Christian Center. We all decided that it felt like heaven there, the congregation was made up of Africans, Latinos, Europeans, and Americans and even some Asians. It was the world gathered in Brussels together for worship.

We spent that Sunday afternoon exploring and the ruins of an ancient abbey. It was such a beautiful day and I was struck by the glory of the cathedral that “once was.” The structure was still there, but it was falling apart. The fact is that Europe is FILLED with glorious cathedrals, but it is EMPTY of churches. Still I am convinced that the Church of Jesus Christ is more beautiful and glorious than any of Europe’s cathedrals. The Church is not a structure that will fall apart as centuries pass. The church is a movement, it is a peculiar people that cannot be defined by four walls and that afternoon as I pondered that beautiful thought, little did I know that I would find the glorious church in the most peculiar places of be continued...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

International Day of the Girl Child - Sonali's* Story

Since 2012, the United Nations marks 11 October as the ‘International Day of the Girl Child’. It is a day to promote girls' human rights, and addresses the various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the world. It seems like today is an appropriate day to give voice to the silent stories of my girls in Dominican Republic; to proclaim that in the midst of the injustice of poverty, abandonment, and abuse; THERE IS A REDEEMER.

And this is just one story.

It is one story, with a hopeful ending. It doesn't end all beautiful and perfect but it there is hope.  And in the midst of the story, I still have questions, and I still worry about the future, but I still have hope. So I offer this one story of one girl. one Pastora. and One AMAZING Redeemer.

She was just 8 years old when I met her.

Grandma was her primary caregiver, and had been sentenced to 7 years in prison for drug trafficking. Every Wednesday, the ladies of our local AG church in Santo Domingo join Pastora Ketty (my ministry partner)  to minister at the local woman's penitentiary.   So when the Pastora met Grandma, she begged Pastora Ketty to go and find Sonali, who was all alone living in one of the most dangerous barrios of our metropolitan city. We found her and brought her to the girls home and Sonali grew up going to church, going to school, and her life was on a totally different trajectory. She would not be vulnerable to the drugs, prostitution, and abuse that infested her former neighborhood.

And then everything changed.

Grandma completed her sentence, was released from prison, and returned to the barrio. She asked that Sonali be permitted to come home with her. So we had to let beautiful Sonali leave the safety of our cocoon. It felt too soon, too harsh. We worried that she wouldn't go to school. We worried about how she would eat. We worried about how she would adapt after so many years in the home.

Our worries weren't unrealistic.

As an ex convict, it was impossible for Grandma to find a job to support them, to put food on the table, or to put a roof over their heads. There is only one possible solution in the barrio for a woman in this situation. If they were going to eat; prostitution was the only answer.  Grandma, however was old, her body was hardly marketable. This left Sonali at 15 years old, to sell her body on the street, so that they could eat. For eight months, she suffered horrible abuse by the johns who paid her less that $5 a trick for a couple hours of narcissistic pleasure.

She would go to the church in that barrio seeking Jesus, looking for an escape from the condemnation that swirled in her mind and heart. No one knew what she was suffering, how could she tell them? She was all alone. Her whole world was on the other side of the city and there was no way to go back to Bethesda, not now after selling her body.

One day the john took her to the other side of the city.

She knew she was so close to Bethesda. And she knew that she had to escape. She asked God to help her. She told me that she knew that if only I can just get back to the home, there will be hope. There will be food. There will be a real future.

And she returned.

Ketty took her in, gave her food to eat, clothes and shoes. She took her to the doctor. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief to know that she did not have AIDS after all that she had been through. Still there was a long road ahead.

She was pregnant.

I sat with Sonali on the bed and she told me her story. She left our home a little girl and came back to us as a woman that had her childhood stolen from her. An orphan herself, she cannot imagine what it means to be a mother, and yet that reality is confronting her everyday. My heart grieves that little girls can be stolen from cocoons before they are ready to fly. I don't understand why there are places in this world in which the only way a girl child can eat is by selling her body. I cannot fathom this injustice.


Still in the mess of this sad story, hope is blooming. Sonali can feel the hope that protects her, feeds her, and redeems her sadness. It is the presence of the Redeemer in the middle of our story, in the middle of the stuff we cannot understand, or even explain, and yet He has not abandoned Sonali. Maybe her mother left her, maybe her father left her, maybe Grandma exploited her, and society used her BUT Jesus came in the middle of her story and redeemed her.

I know that my Redeemer lives in the midst of injustice.

If anyone understood injustice it was Job of the Old Testament. Job wanted to scream too and yet in the midst of his messy, he said these words. "But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last." I think the key for Job is that our hope is certain because we know how the story ends. We may not be sure of the middle, we may even be disappointed in the middle, but our middle is being redeemed. We can be sure of it. Because our Redeemer lives. WE know it. Not that we feel it, not even that we understand it, we just know it.

And still I ache because I have walked in the barrios and brothels of Santo Domingo and looked in the eyes of too many girls that have yet to encounter the hope of redemption and experience the presence of the Redeemer.

Job goes on to say: "And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God! I will see him for myself. Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.  I am overwhelmed at the thought!"

This is the kind of  hope that helps us in the middle. 

*names have been changed. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

GREEN Beetles Become Jewels Fit for a Palace

Monday is for MISSIONARY stories!!!

GREEN Beetles Become Jewels Fit for a Palace

We arrived in that city expecting to hear “Bon Jour!” and see the blue eyes and blonde hair. I was sure that I would finally feel like I blended in after somany years living in a country where I was the one who always stood out. Instead I heard Arabic and Italian, Spanish and Chinese. It was a potpourri of culture and language. Here I was in Brussels, Belgium on the other side of a missions team, as the guest, not the host. The Aldermans greeted us at the airport with their Niceville smiles. Though our origins were the same, our destination has been in different hemispheres. Yet this week, by God’s grace our worlds of service would collide and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the JOY we would share in this “same-kind-of-loving” that we have been called to do.

The Speed the Light vehicle drove through the European city and I couldn’t help but just smile at how the light is speeding throughout this WHOLE WORLD in these vehicles bought with squished dollar bills found in teenage pockets. Our weary bodies arrived at the Continental Theological Seminary, thankful for a place to lay down our heads, as we tried to adjust our nighttime longing to the light of day. The Seminary was nice, rich in history, and I thought of my parents who painted those walls over twenty years ago. The seminary students are all on their summer break, so we enjoyed the peaceful campus that was only sometimes interrupted by the flock of geese that populated the front pond. Their honking made me think of the “Wild Good Chase” that the Lord has had us on this past year. I couldn’t help but smile as the honking became my 5:30 am alarm clock. Roosters and geese sound so different, still, I have actually missed waking up with open windows.

For the afternoon, we had the privilege to see the National palace. It was the special time of year in which they open the palace to the public. It would be impossible to describe the beauty in each room. However, one room stood out. This one was decorated with green beetles. The green of their wings looked like jewels that decorated the ceiling and the chandelier. Someone actually saw these beetles as more than a crawling insect and made them into jewels fit for a palace. And I thought about the prostituted women of the red light district of this city. Our mission in Belgium would be to serve the Breaking Chains Network ministry. How sad that the labels that we give people often block our view of the beauty of the image of God in each and every person in this world.

Monday, May 06, 2013

The Rest of the Good Friday Ice Cream Story

It seems incredible that God would give me the gift of this beautiful redemption story, that I would be a character among many, as he would display the wonder of the Gospel in the hearts Alondra*, Ricardo* and their children. And yet I know that I am just one of the many characters in this story that started in an ice cream shop on Good Friday

Alondra was in a desperate situation when she came to me on that Good Friday, and because of the Spirit’s prompting, we helped her.  Honestly, I never expected to see her again. Three months later, I find that God has completely transformed her life and her whole family. She was faithfully attending our church and was in the new members class to be baptized. 

Since she and Ricardo were not legally married, they were not able to be baptized right away in our church. First, they had to get married. This, however was no simple matter. You have to have paperwork in order. Having paperwork (legal birth certificates, divorce documents, etc)  can be an enormous obstacle for the people of our country. This is why so many couples never really get married legally, and families that are formed with two people who have not made a legal covenant suffer horrible consequences like violence, infidelity, and poverty. 

This is where THE CHURCH of Jesus Christ has a powerful influence on SOCIETY. In order to get baptized and become members of the church, Ricardo and Alondra needed to get legally married. So the CHURCH rises up!  A lawyer from our church donated services to work on paperwork, and finally after a long process, on April 26, Ricardo and Alondra got married! Ladies from the church put together a beautiful reception with a gorgeous wedding cake! 

Two days later I had the privilege to serve with my Pastor as he was able to baptize the entire family. (except the younger children) Ricardo testified that he was a drunk before he came to Jesus. He said that he would buy alcohol before he would buy food for his family. Since giving his life to Jesus, and coming to our church, God has completely taken away his desire for rum and alcohol. He is a new man and the GOSPEL has taken them out of the misery of poverty. The day before he was baptized in water, Ricardo shared that he received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at church in the evening service. Now the power of the Spirit is as work on a whole new level in their family. 
When I saw Alondra the day they were legally married, there in the white dress with flowers in her hair I was overcome with emotion. That beaming face, with a white gown, did not bear any resemblance to the desperation of the woman in the ice cream shop on Good Friday. 

The Lord did a miracle for Alondra to find a beautiful wedding dress. She told us that she found it in a pile under the bridge where they sell used clothing that comes from the garbage dumps of clothes that are leftover from goodwill in the US.  She said it was black with dirt, but miraculously there was one dry cleaner that was willing to clean it for her. As she told the story, the tears streamed on my face. For it was the metaphor of what God had done for Alondra and her family. Like her wedding gown, she was a treasure in midst of garbage of life and Jesus gave me the joy to help her get cleaned up. 
* names are changed

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Prayer Meetings are a Waste of Time???

They all live in tin shacks with dusty dirt floors. Some of them do not own shoes. Big sister helps little sister fold her hands to pray. And in this moment where the children of this small Haitian village take a moment to connect with the Heavenly Father, some will trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior, others are praying to be healed of sickness, still others pray for their next meal. It just warms your heart to see this picture of the simplicity of turning our thoughts and attention to Creator God in beautiful conversation. We call it prayer.

And just yesterday I was sent a blog post, written by an American Pastor, “Why Prayer Meetings are a Waste of Time.” The post makes the claim that people pray so that they can feel better when something tragic happens, such as last week’s Boston bombing,  and that this is not the purpose of prayer. Though the blogger makes some good points, and certainly the title was all about shock value, still, I was saddened by the Pastor’s disillusionment with prayer and church prayer meetings. 

We could spend some time here doing in-depth studies and theological evaluations about the purpose of prayer, but as I ponder the sweetness and simplicity of these two sisters, I am so glad that when we are at the end of our resources, when I cannot solve the problem of hunger and poverty on this island, we can pray. And, we can teach our children to pray. And when the adults fail, and the government fails, and life is hard, and sickness is scary, and earthquakes happen, and sin is real, there is a Savior. A Savior that you can know, and experience, and talk to, every day in prayer. 

Prayer is wonderful all by yourself but oh the sweetness when you are weak, and not even able to connect your brain cells together, much less fold your hands, and there is that sister and those brothers around you and you come together to pray. I don’t think that this could ever be a waste of time. 

Just ask the shoeless sisters. 

(This photo was shot by our Missionary Associate, Alex Rousonelos  at a King's Castle outreach in Haiti, with Engage Dominican Republic students, Dominican missionaries Miguel & Mairelys Ovalle and Hidekel King and Haitian King's Castle warriors) 

Monday, April 15, 2013

de Freitas Family Spiritual Legacy - Nelson's Testimony

He was just 9-years-old, the son of Brazilian immigrants. He played little league, loved to ride his bike, and never missed a kickball game with the kids in their Florida neighborhood. The day he got the invitation, he swiftly ran home to ask his mom for permission to attend. It was an invitation to a Good News club, and he didn’t want to miss out on it, all the neighborhood kids were going to be there. Mama smiled; she could never resist those eager eyes, so she nodded, and he celebrated as he ran out the door and down the street.  

Mary Jane Neville was just an average middle-aged mom. Her own children were now teenagers, but when Children’s Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) presented their vision for reaching kids through Good News clubs at her Central Bible Church in St Petersburg, FL, she was excited about reaching kids for Jesus. She took the training, prepared materials. She hoped to make Thursday afternoon a special time for the kids in her neighborhood. Every week she would share a Bible story and challenge the children to memorize scripture verses. Her husband made her an easel for the flannel graph and a lollipop tree for the memory verse prize. 

That eager-eyed 9-year-old boy was there every week. He wouldn’t miss it for the world. He would learn the Scripture, so he could get a prize from the treasure chest and the lollipop tree. He loved the salvation songs and the stories, so on the day when Mrs. Neville gave the invitation for those who wanted to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior;  he didn’t hesitate. He prayed the “repeat-after-me” prayer and that moment turned out to be  better than all the prizes from the treasure chest and the lollipop tree. Then Mrs. Neville wrote the date of his “born-again” birthday inside the cover of a shiny new Bible and gave it to the boy. It was November 7th, 1974.  

Soon after the Brazilian family moved back to Connecticut, the recession had hit, times were hard, and so they moved in with relatives. The Brazilian boy went to the Catholic school with his cousins, and  he pondered the meaning of the Christ on the crucifix and the Christ of the flannel graph. The Scriptures and the lollipop tree were replaced with candles and rituals but the seeds of the Good News were planted deep in his heart. And though he left the Bible in a drawer to collect dust, what happened on November 7th 1974, would not let his teenage heart run away too far. 

So in 1979, after the big move back to Florida, when the family settled in once again in St Petersburg, the boy who was now a teenager was walking in the halls of a new high school filled with invitations to drugs, partying, and girls. It was just at that crucial crossroads when Robby Kaufman knocked on his door with another invitation. Robby invited him to youth group at Glad Tidings Assembly of God. That very first Wednesday night youth group, the seeds that were planted in his heart by Mary Jane Neville took root and over the months they blossomed as he received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and followed the Lord in water baptism. 

The Glad Tidings church discipled that young man; Charlie Aldridge picked him up every Sunday and Wednesday in the church van, Roger and LInda were his Bible Quiz coaches, and someone else in the church gave him a scholarship to go to Youth camp. It was at that Youth Camp that the Lord called him to full time ministry at the age of 16. 

About that time, he began to wonder about Mrs. Neville and the Good News Club. He wondered if she was still living in St. Petersburg, so he looked her up in the yellow pages, and sure enough, she was still living in the same home. So he went by on a Saturday afternoon to visit Mrs. Neville. When Mary Jane opened the door she could scarcely recognize that tall and handsome 16-year-old young man standing on her front porch, he was barely a shadow of the 9-year-old boy with the funny last name. She welcomed him in with glass of sweet tea and they chatted about his family and all that had happened in his life. 

“Mrs. Neville, I came here today to thank you for telling me about Jesus and I want you to know that I am serving him today and I’ve been called to the ministry.” he shared with all the enthusiasm of a young man dreaming about his future. And as he shared the tears ran out of the wrinkles in her loving eyes.

Over the years Mary Jane watched the kids lose interest in the Good News club, most of the kids in the neighborhood never really followed through on those “repeat-after-me” prayers. Some had completely rejected the faith of their childhood. There were many days when Mary Jane wondered if all the investment of her time, talent, and finances was really worth it. Until that day when Nelson de Freitas showed up at her door step, there with his Bible under his arm and dreams of reaching the world for Jesus. 

And those dreams became reality. Nelson and his wife Rennae have had the privilege to invite children in many countries of Latin American to church, Sunday school and to hear about Jesus under mango trees and on street corners. They have heard countless “repeat-after-me” prayers and some of those kids grown up to become pastors and missionaries.

Nelson always says that he wants to be on the front row in heaven when Jesus calls out  the name “Mary Jane Neville” on that Judgment day. As Jesus shows her final reward, she may be expecting to see the face of Nelson de Freitas but what  shock when she sees all those brown faces from Dominican Republic and Haiti. She may want to question Jesus, ask him if he could possibly be mistaken. But he will point to Nelson. 

“Remember him?” he will ask. 

“Oh, how could I forget that boy with the eager eyes and the funny last name?” Mrs. Neville will reply. 

“Mary Jane,  because of your faithfulness to reach the kids in your neighborhood, that young man has been reaching kids in neighborhoods across the ocean. Great is your reward!” 

Mary Jane Neville is now in her 80’s. Since we began our missionary career she has been among our most faithful supporters. 

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Light on the Path Evangelical Church

The little pink church has its name painted in red on the front wall “The Light on the Path Evangelical Church.” Hidden in the back parts of the Central mountain range where the people live in shacks scattered in the countryside, on that path traveled mostly by donkeys and motorcycles, the little pink church makes its great aspiration; to be a light on the path. 

I smile to myself because I know that “The Light on the Path Evangelical Church” (TLOPEC) probably only has electricity for just a few hours a day. So while the saints are gathered and the electricity goes out, the praises are sung all the louder. I know this because this is how it works in church, here on our island, with the all-too-common power outages. The fact is that the Dominican power company cannot “turn off” the light of the Gospel.

Yet I am inspired by the TLOPEC church. With so little resources, why should they even bother? As paltry and pathetic as this little church seems, I can see a dream alive! At least they are getting a few people together, at least they are worshiping, at least in the midst of the darkness of poverty, the The Light on the Path Evangelical Church decided that they would sing together when the power goes out. 

Still, the TLOPEC church is a great metaphor for what it really means to be a church, to be that which Jesus shed his precious blood for. It seems like sometimes our great aspirations are dwarfed by our actual accomplishments. How easily we sneer at the church today. Love God? They can’t even paint. Spread the saving message to the World? They can’t even spell. (yes there are a few typos on the walls) Yet, I see so much beauty, wonder, grace and even genius in what it means to bring people together into a humble community of faith, where they need each other and where together they need God. 

And how many dreams and aspirations are hidden in darkness because we are waiting for resources, or excellence, or perfection? Surely, I understand the need for quality, but I wonder how often our lofty ideals for a glitzy and glamorous presentation extinguish just plain being a light; right where we are, on a path traveled by donkeys and motorcycles.