What you see in this picture just looks like a group of friends having a picnic in a park, yet there is something deeper happening. A closer knowledge of God is being kindled in international Christian relationships. Relationships of agape love are just one benefit of SAMS’ Agape Year program.
Facilitated by SAMS Missionaries Nathan and Erika Twichell, an Agape Year experience provides space and time for young adults embarking on adult life to slow down and dig into the hope of the Gospel. For nine months, “Fellows” take a “gap” between high school and college to focus on Christian mission in Pennsylvania and Thailand. Nathan and Erika recently escorted the current Fellows, named Christian and Nate, across the globe after a season of ministry and study in Pittsburgh. In the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, Christian and Nate get to come alongside the Asian staff of St. Andrew’s Church Community Learning Center in fostering relationships with locals to share the hope of Christ. Christian and Nate teach English language classes at the Community Learning Center and spend time with people of the community. As they share knowledge and the love of God, Agape Year Fellows get to be mentored by Asian church leaders in an international context.
Nathan Twichell describes the spiritual wealth of this experience: “Thailand is 1% Christian. People in church aren’t there because they have a family heritage of Christian faith. Church for them is not cultural; they are mostly first-generation Christians. So for our Fellows this is an opportunity to spend two months with Christians for whom involvement in church is costly.” For Americans, the Christian faith is often something partially inherited. In contrast, being a Christian in Thailand is highly abnormal. The Fellows’ experiences working closely in mission with Asian Christians helps to clarify faith: What in my Christian perspective is more from Western culture? Versus, what in my Christian perspective is core to the Gospel?
Agape Year is an opportunity to see God’s kingdom through the lens of another part of the body of Christ. As they lead a team to Thailand each year, Nathan and Erika tell the Fellows and their own young children: “We are going to Thailand to see family” – the family of God. Fellows spend earlier parts of their gap year ministering in Pittsburgh to international expatriates and the homeless. This adds up to eight months spent with “others” from a different culture. What can God teach someone about the core of the Biblical Gospel in these foreign contexts? Agape Year is a rich, formative experience for the Fellows as they embark on life after high school.
This week, Fellows Christian and Nate embark on a week-long trip to a remote village (without running water) in Thailand with church leaders of St. Andrew’s Parish, followed by debriefing. Please lift them up in prayer, that they would draw closer to God through this experience and that the people in the village would see the light of Christ in them.
SAMS Missionaries Guy and Summer Benton are program directors for Better World, a gap year program of the New Zealand Church Mission Society (NZCMS). Better World has a vision to equip “a whole generation of young people to reach into the suffering in the world around us and bring the light of the gospel of Christ.”
Keep reading for a testimony from a recent graduate of Better World.
“Our final ceremony to end the Better World Programme for the year wrapped up on Saturday the 14th December. It was here where I truly realised just how many people have been supporting us all year long. Generations of NZCMS supporters and missionaries showed up to send us out, most of which I have never met, who have been praying for a revolution of missional youth to carry the radical heart of Jesus into our communities since they were my age! That is a long time. I feel very excited to see what God is doing in our generation, and how he is raising up young people today to live as radically as Jesus did in our world as we know it. It was a sudden realisation that this gap year is a small part of a much bigger plan. Far bigger than I realised. God is answering the prayers of generations of passionate people, some of which have prayed every day for the last 50 years.
“Better World has done exactly what it set out to do. It has re-awakened passions in me that God planted years ago. It has moved my heart and challenged me to respond to areas of injustice I never thought I would be interested in. Before this year, I was planning to live a safe life. Safe from financial problems, safe from inter-personal conflicts, safe from judgement of others – safe through the eyes of the Western world. I used to believe in God, but not in a God that was bigger than these things. I have now learned that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I am excited to step out into the next season of my life to
continue to learn and up-skill in the areas I feel most passionate about,
whilst continuing to live prayerfully and radically in community, trusting that
God will be in front of me as well as behind and beside. Sometimes this looks
like lifting your foot up without knowing where to put it down, but stepping
out in faith anyway, in the knowledge that God will show you. This is a bit
scary, but trust me, God is bigger. He has been bigger than me and my life, he
is bigger than our politics. He heals, and he saves, and he loves. Most of all
“This year has changed the course of my entire life. I would recommend it to absolutely every curious young person who is wanting to ask the hard questions about God and about injustice. It is challenging and by no means is an easy ride. Our comfort zones may be familiar, however nothing grows in them. I challenge you to quiz God on where he might be moving and ask him to show you where to go next. It was the best decision I ever made.”
“Where there is a will, there is a way”- especially if it is the will of God. Ron McKeon, SAMS missionary with his wife Debby since 2008, was not one to accept tragic circumstances as an excuse not to follow God’s call. As we wrap up our focus on perseverance this Advent with our SAMS theme “Keep Calm and #CarryOnAdvent,” we would be amiss not to give tribute to a minister of the Gospel who persistently gave witness on Earth to the glory of his “Lord, Savior, and Friend,” until he went home to God on September 28, 2019.
Ron speaks to Portuguese parishioners in 2006.
At the time of his passing, many of our Society were together at the New Wineskins Conference in North Carolina. During the announcements before Eucharist on Sunday morning, New Wineskins Director Jenny Noyes recapped Ron’s call to ministry powerfully while sharing the sad news of his death: “[Ron] was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2003, and they removed his tongue and thought he couldn’t eat or talk again through the mouth. But God had called him to be a preacher, and he obeyed- not only did he learn how to eat and swallow, not only did he learn how to talk and how to be able to be heard and understood without a tongue- but He was ordained and God called him and Debby to Brazil- where he learned Portuguese.”
Filled to overflowing with God’s love by the Holy Spirit, Ron and Debby engaged in ministry in Brazil initially through short term trips, year after year. They stayed with a different church family each time so as to build genuine relationships. Ron engaged in preaching and pastoral care of clergy and laity, magnetically engaging youth with the love of God after church services. Debby trained children’s ministry teachers with Portuguese translations of the program Godly Play, empowering them to raise up other teachers. In 2015, Ron and Debby became full-time missionaries and moved to Brazil. Ron and Debby dedicated themselves to helping the Anglican churches in João Pessoa grow spiritually, numerically and missionally–especially through equipping Brazilian leaders for ministry.
Debby trains children’s ministry teachers in the Portuguese translations of Godly Play, “Na Presença do Pai.”
Ron McKeon’s life could be described as a path in the footsteps of several biblical figures. Ron’s daughter Anna reflects on his life, and the road he travelled to ordination: “I always thought he portrayed a bit of Jonah- he would switch jobs searching for the right one yet he always knew that God was calling him to go to seminary and become a priest, but he didn’t think he was the right person for the job. God was calling him to ministry and kept sending ‘whales’ until he finally said- okay, I will go into ministry. He had some Job in him too- his brother died in the World Trade Center attacks, and then a year later his mother passed away, and then four months later he got tongue cancer. But, like Job, he was never angry, he didn’t say ‘oh, forget God.’”
Far from it! The saving grace of God, as well as a second chance to serve Him on earth, joyfully propelled Ron not only to remember God, but also to share worshipfully the love of God with the people of João Pessoa, Brazil.
This time of year, Christians are likely to hear or read the Angel Gabriel’s consolation to the Virgin Mary regarding the first Advent of our Lord Jesus. “How will this be?” she asked. “Nothing is impossible with God,” the angel said. Armed with the knowledge of the Spirit’s miraculous favor upon her and her cousin Elizabeth, Mary carried our Lord, Savior, and friend in the womb, persevering in the face of social disgrace. Her betrothed, Joseph, also placed his confidence in God, caring for Mary and the Holy Child in Bethlehem and as refugees in Egypt. Ron likely heard a similar message from God- nothing is impossible with Him. Ron’s miraculous ability to taste food, to talk and be understood in spite of new speech impediments astounded doctors and medical students. It was impossible. Well, God specializes in “the impossible.”
The relational depth of Ron and Debby’s ministry was evident in the love and care they received back from the Brazilian church community, the Anglican Diocese of João Pessoa, as Ron fought an aggressive cancer. His family shared how this church community “surrounded this ‘couple of Christ’ with love, support, and assistance with the cultural uniqueness of Brazilian daily life. And so, as Ron’s days grew short, this special form of Brazilian love and support grew to immense importance for both him and Debby.” Over Ron’s last few weeks the clergy of the diocese held an around the clock prayer vigil by his bedside.
SAMS Mission Director Stewart Wicker passed on a story from Diocesan Bishop Marcio Meira of Brazil of Ron’s perseverance in spite of devastating setbacks in the weeks before his death. “It was made clear to Ron that he would not ever speak again. So when Bishop Marcio went to visit him, he was surprised to see that Ron had a guitar since he had never seen Ron play one. Ron was able to communicate to the bishop that he had just picked it up because if he was never to preach again, he would learn the guitar to praise the Lord in order to continue his ministry there.” Ron carried on the hope of the Gospel to the very end of his life- he never took his limitations as an excuse not to give witness to the greatness of God. He continues to worship God in heaven, joyfully anticipating with us the day when Christ will make all things new.
How did Ron never give up? How did he maintain hope after losing his brother, his mother, his tongue, and finally his voice? He learned that his identity was not in the fulfillment of his plans and hopes, but as a servant “hidden with Christ in God.” While giving the missionary testimony at New Wineskins Global Mission Conference 2013 (which you can view here), Ron concluded:
“The unexpected is God’s plan for my life. Only with a life hidden with Christ in God can Debby and I put all that we possess, even our very lives at risk, to serve God alongside our brothers and sisters wherever we are sent, that all may have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of peace and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Mentors, parents, and teachers receive great pleasure when their mentees take what they are learning and share it with others. Missionaries experience the same joy when people in whom they have invested carry on the work of the Gospel to new communities, especially when they make an arduous journey on mules to do so!
Mike and Betty Kaszer have been bringing medical mission teams to La Ceiba, Honduras for many years, providing healthcare where it is scarce. Rev. Nery Yolanda Varela Zuniga is an Anglican priest in this community, at the church Iglesia Santisima Trinidad. They met her 12 years ago, shortly after she was ordained. In Betty’s words, “She’s smart, energetic and sold out to Jesus. She’s amazing! She imitates everything we do in the medical clinic and in discipleship. She has picked up our training, even though we didn’t realize we were ‘training’ her. She is carrying on the work we started and building up the pharmacy at the clinic. She is only 36 years old. She loves the Lord so much! When you see her she radiates love and gives you a big hug.”
Recently, the Diocese of Honduras informed Rev. Nery that people of a small mountain village, Las Flores, needed food and clothes. She figured that they also needed to hear the gospel, so she went prepared with a team of people from La Ceiba to minister to this village of about 25 families. However, this day-trip was not a simple drive to a local destination. The team drove 3 hours to the base of the mountain, followed by a 45-50 km (28-36 mile) trek up a mountain with the help of mules. This village is multi-cultural with various people groups from within Honduras, and the chief of the village, Don Pedro Ramirez, is a descendant of Maya Shortis Natives. As they ministered, 10 people responded to the Gospel message, and Rev. Nery baptized them. The team from La Ceiba returned home the same day- spiritually encouraged by the Lord’s work in Flores and quite tired, no doubt!
Nery plans to return to the village with a small medical brigade. The
Kaszers have started an operating clinic in La Ceiba, from which Rev. Nery will
take the doctor and nurse on the next trip (date to be determined). Rev.
Nery will use the medical ministry skills she has learned from the Kaszers in
Raising up leaders in mission reaps joyful fruit. Betty shares her joy, “If you go and build a building, it can be lost in an earthquake, but when you teach people to disciple other people, it goes on forever.” Whether missionaries train locals in evangelism, healthcare, or construction skills, investment in local leaders is a gift that keeps on giving in the mission field. How will you #CarryOnAdvent this season, empowering others to share the hope of our King’s first advent (coming), as we wait in hope for His second advent?
See the video below of Rev. Nery’s team ministering in Las Flores. You may hear an unexpected voice join in the singing!
Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and there are the people! Have you heard that children’s rhyme and finger game before? Or how about- Here is the ground, here is the tent, the family of God says, come and join in! The latter would be a more accurate description of a little community of God that meets in a shantytown, under a tent on a small property lovingly tended by Maty. Maty is a Peruvian woman whom God reached through the ministry of our SAMS missionaries Juan and María Marentes. As María shared the Gospel with members of a shantytown south of Lima, Peru, Maty began shadowing her and helping her tell people the Good News, even before she had clearly confessed Christ. In the Marentes’ words:
“In 2005 we met Maty when she came to be a volunteer at the weekly breakfast for the children in the “pueblo joven” (shantytown) of San Francisco, south of Lima. She was a woman without any schooling, she had suffered a lot in her life. She looked about 10 years older than her real age. She had prodigious hands to knit by hand.
Once the weekly women’s ministry was started by María Isabel, Maty never missed a gathering. She was always attentive and willing to help. Little by little she began to join the evangelistic visits to the surrounding homes. She gave her very simple testimony, but always coming from her soul: ‘Although I don’t know how to read or write, I tell you that the most wonderful thing in my life has been accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior. That has made me a new and a happy person.’”
María, with funds from supporters, found an opportunity to give a small piece of property to the Diocese of Peru for the purpose of hosting a Christian community. Years after the Marentes left Peru to do ministry elsewhere, the Bishop of Peru reported that Maty faithfully defended from “invaders” that piece of land, and now she and a youth group tend the property and draw people into this small church in the San Francisco shantytown, Peru.
We at SAMS are deeply grateful for Juan and María’s faithful service to God’s call in 33 years on the mission field. Originally from Colombia, they retire in Jacksonvile, FL this year after decades of service in Ecuador, Honduras, Peru, Belize, and California. Yet, we know that God’s servants don’t truly retire as much as they take on a different shape of ministry, encouraging us as we all press on toward the goal of knowing Christ and making him known.
“From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 6:14 NIV