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Changing the Atmosphere

Over the years, Louise and I have often met Christians who have never been able to let go of their past to such an extent that, in many ways, their past had become their present identity. No matter what the occasion, these dear folks would inevitably find an excuse to drag up something from the past that, to them, explained why they were the way they were. Somewhere, someone – an individual (a parent, a sibling, a friend, an enemy, a co-worker) or a group or an organisation (such as the Church) – had hurt them, betrayed them, denied them, abused them, offended them, or whatever and this seemed to have had a lasting negative impact on their lives.
I often asked such individuals if they had forgiven that person(s), or institution(s) and I received varied responses…sometimes surprised, sometimes vexed, or sometimes even angry. It was as if letting go of the past hurt or pain would deny an integral part of their person.
I have seen this same tendency here in Gambela as well…but here the negative is not applied to an individual only, but to an entire people group. We have seen this especially when there is conflict between people groups…suddenly the past is resurrected and groups will gather together to rehash old grudges to confirm their beliefs that the other group cannot be trusted…or to justify their own bad behaviour. Sadly, we have seen this even among believers. This atmosphere of negative memory seems to be the fuel that ignites and feeds the passionate and violent responses to disputes we have witnessed over the past few years. These negative memories appear to be deeply engrained in the very identity of each group, giving rise to a culture of revenge, which is deadly.
Like the individuals in the West who nurse their grudges like suckling babes, some here hold onto negative memories as if their very lives depended on it…as if letting go would somehow bring about an end to their identity as a people group and slander the memory of those who have died as victims of violence in the past.
But the message of the cross is directly opposed to such an atmosphere…in His prayer regarding His murderers, our Lord clearly said, “Father, forgive them as they do not know what they are doing.” Indeed, forgiveness is very much part of our identity as the people of the cross. We are forgiven and therefore we must forgive. God does not hold onto our sins against Him and consequently we ought not to hold onto the sins of those who have sinned against us. It never ceases to astonish me how those who pray the Lord’s Prayer so easily still somehow justify their holding onto negative memories.
Of course we all need healing…very few of us, if any, have managed to make it through puberty without scars or wounds…but there is a point in our Christian lives where maturity demands full-scale forgiveness and a release of the past. Otherwise we run the risk of walking out of step with the Spirit…and in step with the self-righteous.
And so we need to bring about an atmosphere of forgiveness – and all that goes with true Christian forgiveness – in this place.
But this is nothing less than an attempt to change the spiritual atmosphere over this entire area and to change the perceived identity of people groups. This involves prayer at a much deeper level than we have ever prayed before and it involves what some have called spiritual warfare.
Angus Buckhan once said that the recipe for a miracle is simply to attempt the impossible for God. I am well aware of how fragile we are as earthen vessels, to use the Apostle Paul’s image…but he also said that in our weakness, God is strong and that God has purposefully chosen the foolish and weak things of this world to shame the wise and the mighty…if those things are what it takes then we are qualified. We are fragile, foolish, and weak and the task is impossible.
But our God is the Almighty God and all authority in heaven and earth is His and the chariots of God are thousands upon thousands. Indeed, the battle belongs to the Lord.
Would you pray with us, please, for the Holy Spirit to move in the Gambela People’s Region? Without Him, we are nothing and we can do nothing…but with God, all things are possible…even the casting down of strongholds that have existed for hundreds of years…even the opening of spiritually blind eyes….even the resurrection of the dead.

I was reminded this morning of Jesus’ words in His letter to the church in Pergamum. “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.” Satan has wreaked havoc in this area for years. It is time he is deposed and dethroned and his work destroyed. Pray with us, please.

Next Steps – Big Steps

Hello, dear friends! We have news to tell, and big plans to share.

As Mary Beth shared last month, she had an amazing recital! By May 21st (two weeks later), she had taken her final exams and graduated summa cum laude with her Bachelor of Music! I am so proud of her, and I’m happy to report that she has been undergoing a fantastic period of “academic decompression” over the last month.

A few days after her graduation, we ended our lease and moved out of our apartment in Fullerton and the, having packed up a few belongings, we headed to my parents’ home in Indiana to continue our deputation (raising support) among churches in the middle of the country. Hitting the road has been hard, and more than a little stressful at times, but the Lord has led us to connect with some amazing people, and we are so grateful for the new relationships we’ve been given!

But now, it’s crunch time. SAMS has worked with us to put together a plan for returning to Belize on August 1st for this year. This is not due (as we had hoped) to our having raised all of our necessary financial support: on the contrary, we are still about 25% short of our budget. However, our belief and hope is that we ought to begin ministry in Belize and continue to keep our supporters (including you!) up-to-date with what we are doing. Our prayer is that the Lord will stir up the hearts of current and new supporters to give and help us meet our budget in the next month before we leave (again, our arrival date in Belize is August 1st).

For us, this means that we are hurriedly trying to get everything ready for our return to Belize in five weeks. Tomorrow (June 28th) we fly back to San Diego for a wedding and to finalize the move of our California belongings, either to storage or to Belize. The following week we return to Indiana to visit with a few more churches and leaders, and to similarly finalize the move of our Indiana belongings. And then July 17th we fly to Toronto, where we will participate in a two-week MissionPREP training. From Toronto we will fly directly to Belize and begin this new (now married) missionary adventure in ministry.

Does this sound like a whirlwind? It’s felt like that to us.

We genuinely need your prayers for us in this transition, especially for the following:

  • Financial support: pray that God will meet our financial needs and help us raise full support as soon as possible, whether before or after we return to Belize.
  • Logistical success: pray that God will go before us and make our steps smooth as we prepare to return to Belize.
  • Spiritual nourishment: pray that God will sustain us spiritually as we continue moving from place-to-place, and then plant ourselves back in Belize.

Thank you all so much, for your prayers and encouragement and your support! May the Lord richly bless you all!

Prayer Letter: June 2016

Have you ever found yourself in a place where you are so lost you have no idea which way to turn, what to say, what to do, or even what to think? Or have you ever felt that you were simply so amazingly inadequate, or that you could or would never measure up to what it seems you are expected to do, or that you are so out of depth that sinking and drowning seems merciful? I have felt that way many times since coming to Gambela. Lord, are you sure You have the right couple?
We recently walked through a fairly long, underground tunnel without any light whatsoever…it was pitch dark and, as such, a very disorientating experience…a good illustration of how we often feel here.
And yet, even in the darkest of times, we have always sensed the loving, gentle Presence of our Father – never chiding or condemning or guilt tripping, but rather understanding, encouraging, patient, and comforting. We have, of course, stayed put these past two years and have seen the Lord supply our every need from His vast treasure trove of spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and financial resources.
But both Louise and I also grew up with the Southern African idiom, “a farmer always makes a plan”, so our tendency has been to look for a positive plan rather than to immediately roll over and give up…sometimes naïvely so, but the Lord did say we needed to have faith like a little child, right? And He has never let us down…never…
And so we have managed to face every difficulty with weak, but firm faith in the conviction that as God has called us, He will get us through whatever it was we were facing at the time…whether it was the all out slaughtering of people all around us, or the flooding of the compound, or wondering whether we will have enough scholarships for the students, or, most recently, trying to keep the College going with only two full-time faculty members!
But, as many of you know, placing one foot in front of the other and moving forward is easier when one is sure you are holding the Lord’s hand as He leads you on…or, more often than not, when He is holding you…all of you…and carrying you through!
This month has been a month filled with many varied blessings. We first spent a wonderful time with our family in the northern parts of Ethiopia. This was a very informative trip on many levels as it gave us such insight into the history of this amazing country and the faith of its people. But it was also a wonderful time of fellowship with our family and a restful time for Louise and myself. We really miss Mike and Marianne very much.
We returned to Gambela a day before a security specialist friend of ours came to check out our compound to help us, or more specifically, Rosemary, compile a security report for our Diocese. Of course the obvious things were mentioned again, the need for a wall, for instance, but he also saw a lot of things we did not see and we are very grateful to him for his time and effort.
Then, our dear friends from Greenville, South Carolina, James and Julie arrived. We have been planning this trip for years now, ever since we first talked about us coming here. They have a very special prayer ministry in the US and have come specifically to pray with and for us, our folks here, and over Gambela as a Region. This is the first time we have ever had a team come over just to pray…and it has been such a wonderful blessing for everyone involved. They have been overwhelmed by the immense need here (they said they have been more busy here than they are at home with their full-time jobs!), but their tender love and heart-felt compassion have been very much appreciated by all.
They also brought wonderful gifts to encourage us…beautiful, peaceful, praise music, DVD’s, and books. It has been like Christmas…but also like Easter in a spiritual resurrection type way. We have been lifted up and strengthened.
But I have told you this for a reason: This morning, Julie pulled out one the books and told me to read the opening lines. This is what I read:
“You carry a profound and unfathomable call on your life, placed there by God Himself. It is fresh and new and completely beyond your natural ability to accomplish – God has called you to do something you cannot possibly do. You can meditate on that call for the rest of your days, strategize it to no end, even try and seize it; it doesn’t matter. Like reaching for the stars, God’s call is beyond you. It is a gift God has given each one of His children. In fact, your inability to accomplish it is exactly why He has selected you to carry that call.” Cooke, Graham, Beholding and Becoming, Brilliant Book House, California, 2004, 7.
Wow. That short paragraph was like the voice of God speaking to me. A timely reminder, once again, that this is not about me, my talents, gifts, or abilities, or even my strength or my faith. It is all about Him and His grace and love and mercy and compassion. By calling us to this ministry, God has ensured that the work and the glory is His, not ours or anyone else’s. That’s the only way that this ministry will last…
I love Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians. “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty.” Foolish and weak…check, and check. I also often remind myself that my weakness is His opportunity to display His power and His love. Isn’t our God AWESOME?
After prayerful thought, the idea is still to go ahead with the College as planned before we heard that we would be down to two full-time lecturers. Our dear friend Frances will be coming to teach a four-week long intensive English Grammar course to prospective students. We will only be taking in 8 to 10 new students, so please pray for the Lord’s guidance in the selection process.
Also, 10 new students means we will need 10 new scholarships/bursaries, so please pray that the Lord would raise up supporters for these students. We need US$ 3,500 per student per year, which includes tuition, books, materials, housing, food, travel costs, and per diems for the Field Education weeks.
I have written to various friends and institutions asking for possible self-supporting, part-time lecturers for the remaining subjects. Pray again that our Lord will open the right doors at the right time for the right people. We already have one taken care of! Praise God! He is always a few steps ahead of us, isn’t He?
No, this is not easy…but it is not up to me…in fact, it is, always has been, and always will be beyond me.
We love you and are truly grateful for all your love in return. Thank you also for your on-going support in so many, many ways. But thank you most of all for your prayers.
Johann and Louise

Evangelism in Honduras

Rev. Victor with acolytes.  Rehearsal for the Consecration.
The Iglesia Buen Pastor story is a good example of how the church is growing  in Honduras.  The man in the center of its success is Rev. Victor Velasquez, currently an ordained deacon.  He founded the mission  and nurtured it to where it is today. 
In 2006, Fr. Juan Jose Diaz asked Victor to go to Santa Maria, an hour outside of Danli on the road to Olancho. (Click here to see map.)  Fr. Juan told him that he had a few acquaintances there. Would he go and see if he could start a church?  Victor, who at that time had no car, hopped on the bus for Santa Maria, which is on a dirt road highway in the middle of nowhere. 
Chander’s adobe house and meeting place for the mission.

Soon Victor had a small group meeting regularly.   After gathering in various places, eventually they were invited to the adobe home of Alexander (Chander) Flores, who converted his living room into a permanent meeting hall for the mission.  Victor celebrated the Eucharist on Sundays, offered Bible studies, teachings, and other worship. He also did pastoral work, visiting families and the sick. The community continued to grow.

Between 2008 and 2013, Victor was replaced by Fr. Alejandro Chirinos, dean of Danli. During this time, the work slowed down and membership faltered.  Fr. Chirinos, as a teacher and singleparent father of several children, was unable to make a sufficient time commitment. Eventually, the mission was handed back to Victor.  With his attention and enthusiasm, the momentum returned.
At the same time, Good Shepherd Church from Lake Wales, Florida, under the leadership of Fr. Tom Seitz, came to Honduras seeking a partnership with the  local church. After exploring various options, they began working with Fr. Chirinos and the Santa Maria mission. They started to look for a piece of property, on which they could build a new church. Also, they made a contract with the mission to provide funds for youth scholarships, a sewing coop and implements for an incomeproducing garden. The mission, in turn, promised to send timely reports on their progress.  

In gratitude for the Church of the Good Shepherd’s help, the mission voted to call themselves ‘Iglesia Buen Pastor’, which is Good Shepherd’ in Spanish. 

The site of the future church.   Jeannie Loving, SAMS missionary, with parishioner.
In 2010,  the land was purchased.  And in 2013, the construction began first with a security fence around the property and then the church.  On June 26, 2016, ten years after the founding of the mission, the church was finished and consecrated.   Many of the  members, including Chander, participated in its construction.

Fr. Tom Seitz and Rev Victor celebrating the Eucharist.
During this time, Victor, accompanied by several parishioners, pushed into mountain villages around Santa Maria. He started new missions in Montuñuela and Valle de Jamastran.  He also began serving the community of San Lorenzo, initially reached by SAMS missionary Jeannie Loving. All the while, he continued to serve as pastor of Mano de Dios in Danli,  his home church.

Most of the people in Santa Maria are campesinos,  farming on small lots and getting odd jobs, where they can. They are poor and have a limited education.  I asked Victor why they come to his church.   His answer was that the church gives them as sense of worth. It teaches them  that they are valued children of God

The church has programs, in which they can participate, both spiritual and practical.  They include a Savings with Education Program, which teaches people how to use their money; Cursillo, a retreat weekend with courses in basic Christianity; Happenings, a similar program for teenagers, and others. The church also gives its members the opportunity to be leaders in the church governance. Additionally, young girls, who are often neglected in favor of sons, are empowered by having women role models as priests and diocesan leaders.
The meeting room inside Chander’s house.

The mission’s primary work is to deepen the members’ faith in God. In Honduras, God is always present, unlike in the often agnostic US and Europe. He may be relegated to the periphery of  life, as people engage in negative social behavior, such as promiscuity, drugs, family abuse and violence.   But when called to task,  Hondurans need no introduction to a spiritual world and know what God asks of them.  

The work of the church, therefore, is to sharpen the sense of God through spiritual formation, both formal and informal, and to bring people’s lives in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.

Alexander “Chander” Flores

Through Victor’s efforts, the church today has 80 members and two peripheral missions starting in the mountains.  And the original missionary vision that brought Victor to Santa Maria continues. Chander Flores is currently in training to be a Pastoral Leader. Upon completion of studies, he will be going into the mountains, as the pastor for one of the new missions.  

Some positive lessons on how to evangelize, learned from this experience, can be summarized as follows:

1. Local leadership.   The primary inspiration came from the  Honduran church, in this case Fr. Juan Jose Diaz.

 2. Teamwork.   Although Victor provided the primary leadership, this church would not have been possible without the help of Chander, his family, the other lay Hondurans, the support of the larger church, the missionaries, and Good Shepherd Church in Florida.
3. Foreign missionary sources provided assistance only.   The leadership was always in Honduran hands.
4. The Gospel was preached both by word and by example.    Victor provided a positive role model for the church. He was concerned about both the spiritual and physical welfare of his parishioners.
5. The church continues  to found new missions and the process begins again.