Missionaries go to share the gospel, and discover they are learning more of it themselves.
Published on: 01-29-2022
Anyone who has served as a missionary—either inside or outside their home country—will tell you that “mission is a two-way street.” You give to others, but you also receive. The following insights into Seventh-day Adventist mission work as well as the worldwide regional stories illustrate this notion.—Editors.
The heavy shelling began abruptly in the South Sudanese capital, Juba.
Argentine missionary doctor Peter Fenoy immediately ran out of his office on the compound of the regional headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Security training had taught him about the danger of staying in a building during an attack. If a shell hit the building, he was more likely to be injured than if he was on the street. It was safest to be on the ground, lying near a wall.
Peter saw adults lying on the ground, and children were running. He heard shells falling. He looked around for his wife, Natasha. She was nowhere in sight.
“Natasha! Natasha!” he called.
Running back into the building, he found Natasha sitting at her computer typing a work report.
“What are you doing?” he cried.
Natasha looked up. Her face was expressionless.
“If it happens, it happens,” she said. “If not, it wasn’t our time.”
It was then that Peter understood how deeply Natasha had been scarred as a child by civil war in her birthplace of South Ossetia in the former Soviet Union. As the shells fell in South Sudan, she felt nothing. Her attitude was “If I die, I die.”
Peter and Natasha had moved to South Sudan to bring healing to people affected by a 22-year civil war. Their three-year stint also ended up providing healing to Natasha as she overcame childhood trauma and learned that war is not normal after all.
“When I came to Africa, I learned how abnormal it is,” Natasha said. “I had never heard about the trauma that armed conflicts leave on a person and how they change the personality.” (See full story in Story One below)
WHY HEARTS CHANGE
Natasha’s heart-changing experience has been repeated in the lives of many missionaries, church leaders said. Every missionary who surrenders to the Holy Spirit experiences a change of heart. Missionaries may go to share the gospel, but discover the gospel making a difference in their own hearts.
“The one thing I hear over and over is some variation of the expression ‘I expected to help the people, but in fact I’m the one who has been blessed,’ ” said Gary Krause, director of Adventist Mission and a former missionary kid. “In fact, I hear it so often that it has almost become a cliché.”
Change is required just to become a missionary, said Oscar Osindo, interim director of the General Conference’s Institute of World Mission, which provides cross-cultural training for all church missionaries. By accepting the call to serve, a missionary leaves a familiar culture and travels into the unknown following the example of Jesus, who left the comfort of heaven for the dark earth.
“As missionaries incarnate the life of Christ in a different culture, they see themselves in others, and the cross of Christ breaks the dividing wall with others,” Osindo said. “The blood of Christ unites the two into one humanity, and the missionary will never be the same again.”
Thousands of Seventh-day Adventists have left their homes to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus, who said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20). Currently about 400 families are serving as long-term ISE (Interdivision Service Employees) missionaries, while hundreds go every year as short-term AVS (Adventist Volunteer Service) volunteers. They also go as Global Mission pioneers, reaching out to unreached people groups in their own countries; tentmakers, who use their professions to work in restricted countries; and volunteers with the Asia-based 1000 Missionary Movement and supporting ministries such as Adventist Frontier Missions in the United States.
Most missionaries seek to grow and change in order to fulfill their calling, said Cheryl Doss, a longtime missionary and recently retired director of the Institute of World Mission. “The experiences they face, the intercultural challenges they deal with, the trials and tribulations that always come in the mission field, mean they have to change or break,” she said. “Most change into people with beautiful servant hearts open to the needs of the world.”
Only missionaries who resolutely resist fail to experience any changes in their lives, Osindo said, adding that those who resist “never finish their terms, or they struggle.”
Missionaries who surrender to God and allow their hearts to be molded by Him have remarkable stories, he said. “They learn to trust more in the Lord, and they live to tell incredible stories,” he said.
Story One: From War to War
Natasha Fenoy was 10 when a blockade and heavy shelling caused her to flee her hometown in South Ossetia, a breakaway region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The town found itself cut off from water, food supplies, electricity, and medical services as pressure grew for residents to surrender during the 1991-1992 civil war. When all seemed hopeless, a 23-year-old local man organized a convoy of trucks to whisk off the children to a peaceful part of the region.
Natasha’s parents woke her up at 3:00 a.m. to join the convoy. To reach the waiting trucks, she and her brother would have to cross the central Sovetskaya Ulitsa, or “the street of death,” as they called it, because snipers were targeting the street from a nearby hill.
“We reached the street and waited,” Natasha recalled. “Parents told a kid to run across quickly. We saw leaves falling as a sniper was shooting. We waited a while longer, and then my mother pushed my brother out into the street and told him to run.”
The sniper opened fire when Natasha’s turn came to run. She felt hot air as a bullet whistled past her, and she heard leaves falling from trees.
She and her brother were separated from their parents for some time, but they eventually made it to safety.
Years later Natasha met and married Peter, who was working with an aid organization in South Ossetia at the time.
Memories of her traumatic childhood returned after Natasha and Peter moved to South Sudan. The shelling incident when Natasha stayed at the computer occurred during the waning days of the civil war. After a peace agreement was signed in 2005, child soldiers were demobilized, and Natasha worked with many traumatized children.
“I read how to work with them, and I learned about the signs of trauma,” she said. “I saw myself in every book that I read and said, ‘Wow! That’s me.’ ”
As she read about trauma and assisted the children, she was able for the first time to come to terms with her own childhood. She was able to put the past behind and find new peace in God.
“Assisting people in a conflict situation helped me come out of the trauma that had been part of my life,” she said.
Story Two: Grappling With COVID
Sharon Pittman, who grew up as a U.S. missionary kid in Pakistan and later served in Guinea, Iraq, and Madagascar, never thought that COVID-19 would emerge as one of her biggest mission challenges.
Two waves of COVID crashed over Malawi Adventist University, each threatening the lives of students and staff, and pushed the institution toward financial ruin. As a third wave hit, Sharon, who came out of retirement to oversee the university as vice chancellor, learned to her dismay that 15 students had just tested positive and another 50 were in quarantine. The path ahead seemed dark.
Running her fingers through graying hair, she prayed, “O Lord, I don’t think this could have been what You had in mind when You called me to mission service!”
Despite 35 years of experience in higher education, she had never felt more bereft of professional insight and wisdom.
“Lord,” she prayed earnestly, “please navigate the challenges that the devil has thrown our way.”
In the emptiness she sensed a quiet voice.
“My daughter, I love this university more than you ever can,” the voice said. “Step into the water, and I will part Wave Three as I have done with Wave One and Wave Two.”
At that moment her heart suddenly felt light. All worry and fear vanished. She called together her team to map a way forward with God’s strength.
When contacted for an interview, Sharon was sitting on a beach on Lake Malawi, preparing to chair a much-awaited Malawi National Conference on Higher Education that had been postponed twice because of the first two COVID waves.
“The water on the beach here at our hotel is beautiful, and the monkeys are playing within sight of my chair,” she mused. “The Lord has a great sense of humor in calling me here. He knew that this was the right type of retirement for me where I can serve but also enjoy a few minutes on the beach as well.”
Story Three: Missionary for Life
Homesick for Mexico, Nerly Macias Figueroa sat on a sandy beach in the Marshall Islands, gazing across the crystal-blue water of the Pacific Ocean. She felt certain that God had called her to teach children on Ebeye, but she also wanted to go home.
“Lord,” she prayed, “help me to be a good teacher and missionary for You. Help me not to miss my family.”
After the prayer she felt comforted; her sense of frustration ceased. “I still missed my family, but my mind was focused on my mission work,” she recalled.
Nerly put her heart into teaching while on Ebeye in 2016-2017. When she returned to Mexico, she resolved to remain a missionary for the rest of her life. After receiving a master’s degree in nutrition, she accepted a teaching job at Linda Vista University, an Adventist institution in southern Mexico. The university has become her new mission field, and she has noticed many similarities between her current students and the students she once taught in the Marshall Islands.
“The students have familiar problems, including low confidence,” she said. “I’m teaching them about God—how God has provided for me and how God can provide for them.”
She has seen students change as they develop a relationship with God. The changes remind her of that day on the beach where God eased her mind and brought comfort.
“If you are convinced that God is calling you as a missionary, your life will change,” she said. “You will never be the same.”
Story Four: Praying for Food
No one seemed to be ready for Mkhokheli Ngwenya when he arrived at the village where he had been asked to serve as a Global Mission pioneer in his native Zimbabwe. A debate broke out among impoverished church members over where he would live. Finally a church elder took him in.
Life was difficult. The family had little to eat, and Mkhokheli, who preached and walked great distances to make house visits, had not received his stipend.
“I remember spending the whole day without eating anything, and we just ate porridge in the evening,” he said.
As he prepared to quit, he sensed a small voice saying, “Mkhokheli, will you not sacrifice for Me?” That marked a turning point. His heart was touched and transformed.
“God, if You want me to work, give this family something to eat,” he prayed.
God answered his prayer. A short time later a bus filled with food, soap, and other essential supplies arrived from Adventist-operated Solusi Secondary School. Mkhokheli was astonished.
“From that time, I started to surrender everything to God and to depend on Him,” said Mkhokheli, who served as a Global Mission pioneer for three years and is now studying theology at Solusi University.
“Before I became a Global Mission pioneer, I was fearful even of the possibility of failure in ministry,” he said. “But the experience of actually working in the field dispelled all fear and brought about courage to face the challenges that come with working for God. My wish is to work for God full-time as a missionary. Wherever He sends me, I will go. I love to see churches planted in unentered areas.”
Story Five: Only Life Worth Living
Daisy, a South Korean missionary in southern Asia, felt perplexed when she met a woman who refused to see a physician even though she had been badly burned. The woman would certainly die without intervention. But what could she do?
[To protect her work in a country hostile to Christianity, Adventist World is not publishing Daisy’s full name or identifying her location.]
Daisy prepared a simple dressing for the wound and prayed with the woman. The next day she returned to the woman’s home to replace the dressing and to pray again. She also prayed in her own home, and she solicited the prayers of friends. A month passed, and, to Daisy’s joy, the wound healed completely.
“It was an incredible miracle in my missionary life,” Daisy said. “It was an awesome answer to prayer.”
But what amazed Daisy the most was the change that occurred in her own life during that month. She thought that she was helping only the injured woman by praying for her, but in praying for her every day, she was receiving help from the Holy Spirit as well.
“Through prayer I came closer and closer to God,” she said. “God gave me a chance to grow.”
Daisy is convinced that God called her to become a missionary to change her into His likeness.
“Since I have become a missionary, I pray more, and I have seen many miracles,” she said. “I am so happy to be a missionary, and I cannot imagine any other life.”