Before we realized that COVID was going to become a way of life, we were all just hoping to make it through a few weeks of shutdown and then get back to normal as quickly as possible. Several months later it began to dawn on us: that was not what was going to happen. As pastor to our missionaries serving in 29 countries around the world, I began to hear news of them having to suspend activities, of being shut up in their homes, of being prevented from traveling and, in two cases, of entire missionary initiatives being suspended.
Fortunately, most of them were spared the illness, but one of them, our envoy Mary Elmore in France, did suffer a fairly severe case. As acquaintances in Strassbourg began to fall ill, she ran errands, checked up on them and brought them comfort and prayers. When she herself caught the virus, they reciprocated, bringing her groceries, calling on her and praying for her as they had seen her do for them. Shared suffering deepened the bonds of friendship and created opportunities to share the reason for the hope that lives in her.
As they discovered the power of social media and video conferencing, several of our missionaries saw their ministries expand beyond anything they could have imagined.
Matt and Kristy Messick in Loja, Ecuador had been using marriage seminars as a way to introduce the people of their city to God’s wisdom as revealed in the Bible. They were holding small group discussions in their home two or three times a week. When such meetings were banned, they expanded their Facebook presence and migrated to online group chats. Suddenly they realized that they were no longer restricted to a local audience. Their Facebook page currently gets up to 1200 hits a day from across Latin America and they have had couples from all over Ecuador, Venezuela, Florida, and even Reading, PA enroll in their 8-week online courses. The number of graduates has tripled over the past year and they’ve added classes on parenting to help families weather the pandemic-imposed confinement. As a side benefit, though they miss the in-person social interaction, Kristy tells me that their kids are relieved not to have to clean house 2-3 times a week for guests.
In Costa Rica, where it is said that 70% of young girls are abused before they reach 18 years of age, Karen Shogren had developed a course for Seminario ESEPA designed to help church leaders recognize and confront the problem from a Biblical perspective. Two weeks into the program, classes were shut down. Again, the Internet provided an alternative. Thanks to video conferencing, Karen has students from Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica and even Los Angeles, CA. Endemic child abuse turns out to be of grave concern for Latin American church leaders who often fear to intervene in family problems lest they make matters worse. The local government in San José has applauded the evangelical church’s initiative and has offered to help in any way they can. “None of this would have happened without COVID,” says Karen.
Not all of our envoys have seen their outreach expand during the pandemic. Several projects appear to have shrunk, though they’ve actually become more focused and, as a result, they have gone deeper.
Consider the Crossroads Center in Athens, Greece, where Irene and Ephthemes Sioukiouroglou work with refugees from several Middle Eastern and Asian countries. “Last year,” writes Irene, “Crossroads Center was providing 2,500 meals a month to refugees. We were looking for a new location for the expanding ministry but we couldn’t find anything that met our needs. Then COVID hit and we understood why the Lord had put the brakes on that search. We can no longer host communal meals and group activities but we do meet one-on-one with people, either at the Center or through personal video calls. We commonly receive four to six people each hour. We find that we are able to spend much more quality time with each person, getting to know them, hearing their stories, sharing the hope of the Gospel and praying for their specific needs. We are currently involved with about 450 families and individuals. We provide grocery cards, gift certificates, clothing and medicine and arrange for doctor appointments and counseling. We also offer Christian literature in our guests’ languages. We feel so blessed since COVID, having learned to work such in specific ways in people’s lives and hearts.”
And then there is Randy R. and his wife, working in a country where believers are always under surveillance. Because of the shutdowns, free movement throughout their city has been limited. With gatherings of any size being closely watched – including online group chats, they are grateful that they have always stressed the importance of new believers learning to feed themselves spiritually. Randy writes, “Our own neighborhood has become our primary area of influence. We are all restricted to shopping at the same corner grocery store and so we see all of our neighbors regularly. We are all getting to know each other better. Even with social distancing, we have found many opportunities to let our lights shine as they observed our reactions.”
They have also been home-schoolers all along, and, with public schools shut down, Randy’s wife has become the go-to person for frazzled parents in their neighborhood who have suddenly been forced into teaching their kids at home.
Great difficulties have created many opportunities for meaningful relationships with people who need to see the Good News in action in order to be made willing to hear it.
What a determined band of ambassadors our envoys are proving themselves to be, and what an example to us! They do not see a “return to normal” as a pre-condition for effective outreach. On the contrary, they are demonstrating that hard times create unexpected opportunities for the Gospel for those who are alert and willing to adapt.
If you would like to know more about our envoys and how you might help in this unusual time. please contact Duane Moyer by phone at 484-280-0557 or by email at [email protected]