"Greetings from the Mission Field"
July 18, 2021
Greetings from the Mission Field
Before I jump into the meat of my talk for today, I’d like to share an interesting backstory with you.
Not long after we arrived in Ecuador, we were at a potluck lunch after a church service and had the opportunity to sit with an Ecuadorian missionary named Carlos Ruiz. We were sharing our stories with one another when Carlos said he had once worked at radio station HCJB, the Voice of the Andes, in Quito, Ecuador. He began working there after college in the 1980s. I said, “Oh, what a coincidence, I know somebody who also worked at Voice of the Andes in the 1980s, his name is Don Larson.”
Carlos smiled and said, “Don Larson hired me, he was my first boss, and he played a big role in my following Jesus, because he hired me to work for this Christian radio station knowing that I was not a Christian.”
Carlos said he would forever be in Don’s debt. I smiled back at Carlos and said, “you are not going to believe this.
“Don Larson lives in Brownsville, Texas, where he manages another Christian radio station. However, he happens to have family who are members of my home church in Carson City; Jamie and Faye Wheeler are members of our Mission Committee. But Carlos, this is the part you won’t believe… at this very moment, as you and I sit here and talk, Don is standing in the pulpit at my church in Nevada delivering the sermon.”
That amazing conversation, one of God’s great coincidences that we all know aren’t a coincidence at all, was the first domino in a long line that led directly to most everything I am going to tell you about today.
Greetings my friends, Kellie and I are so blessed to be back home again, in this place which really is our spiritual home—not only because God’s Holy Spirit touched our lives in so many ways here, but because you are here, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
For those of you who are friends who we just haven’t met yet, I would like to share a few quick things about us.
My beautiful wife Kellie and I worshipped here for a little over 20 years. I served as an Elder and she as an Elder and a Deacon. Inside these hallowed walls, we said goodbye to my mother and brother, and to Kellie’s dad, and to so many saints with whom we were blessed to worship.
Behind the drums here, I was honored to praise God with a few thousand songs over the years. My son Jeremy and I were baptized together in the Family Life Center, and just on the other side of that wall [in the Old Sanctuary], Kellie and I shared our wedding vows.
By the grace of God, we’re trying our darndest to live up to these and the many other gifts He has showered upon us.
Another of those gifts was the opportunity to retire early at the end of 2017. We spent most of 2018 on the road in our RV, on a sojourn around the U.S. checking out stuff we hadn’t seen before. THAT was an amazing experience and one we highly recommend.
But during that time, we felt God’s nudge to use this new chapter of life to serve His Kingdom. It just didn’t seem right to squander this gift of being free from full-time work, on being perpetual tourists, or just carving out a day-to-day existence where we worshipped him but didn’t really respond—passionately respond—to the Great Commission.
Based upon a lot of research and a recon trip before we retired, we had already planned to spend an extended period of time in Loja, Ecuador. We chose Loja because it offers:
- a place where we can live comfortably on my pension and continue to save until we reach full retirement age;
- a city with good weather year-round;
- a culture with a foreign language worth learning at our age;
- an economy that uses the American dollar;
- and a place with opportunities to serve.
But, after the introspection of our RV road trip, we decided that service and evangelism would be a bigger part of our time in Ecuador.
So, two years ago this month, we headed south. We made a six-week stop in Costa Rica to attend a Spanish-language school for missionaries, and thus began what is sure to be a lifelong struggle to learn Spanish. Then, we continued on to Ecuador with our lives packed into eight suitcases.
After a few months of getting settled, including applying for residency and outfitting an apartment, we thanked God for the journey and prayed that he would start using us for his purposes.
What I would like to do this morning is tell you about some of the journeys He’s put us on, and, through the lens of these experiences, to get you thinking about your own faith walk and how God might use you here in Carson City, or elsewhere.
First, a little bit about where we live.
Loja is a city of about 200,000 people. It is in the Andes mountains at 6,700 feet and is a bit isolated from the rest of Ecuador. The closest major city is a four hour drive away.
Loja is a young city, with over 60% of the population under age 30. Ninety-eight percent of Lojano‘s consider themselves Catholic, but many young people have drifted from the strange brand of Catholicism they practice there.
We have written about this in our Ecuador blog, but they worship a wooden doll called Queen El Cisne that is the likeness of the Virgin Mary. Each year in August (before the pandemic, anyway), nearly a million people come to southern Equador for a five-day devotional march. The faithful throng moves the doll from her full-time home in the rural town of El Cisne, up the mountain to the cathedral in downtown Loja, where she spends several weeks on the main altar to be worshiped by the Catholic community.
They do this, despite the fact that their own Bibles say, in the very first commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven, on earth, or in the water. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”
Yet, this is exactly what happens. Even the Pope has allegedly said that Ecuador needs to be re-evangelized, because of its drift into a cult-like wilderness.
Responding to the challenges and opportunities of this situation, we are aware of at least three major missionary organizations operating in Loja, with 20 or so professional missionary families and at least 5 to 10 part-time missionary families, like the two of us.
In February 2020, just before the onset of the pandemic, we and some of our Christian-American friends met in Loja to talk about planting a new church. We agreed it would need to begin as a house church, and then would expand into a more traditional setting. As a result, we did some research to get ideas about how to structure a house church service, because none of us had done that before.
This led to our discovery of We Are Church, a house church movement initiated by Francis Chan, in the San Francisco area. Discovering We Are Church led our group to read Chan’s book, called Letters to the Church, which explains his decision to leave his very successful and seemingly healthy megachurch to begin a tiny house church.
In short, the book reframed our thinking about church planting and made us reconsider the traditional model of church that we all grew up with. We now encourage all believers to read the New Testament more closely and literally where the idea of “church” is concerned, and to more deeply consider what God wants for—and from—our churches.
The church of the Book of Acts didn’t meet in beautiful buildings like this one; they met in homes. In fact, it was some 300 years before the first Christian church building was constructed. Their worship was participatory, focused on the gospel, and intended to allow the Holy Spirit to work through everyone on a regular basis.
Because they had no building or paid staff to fund, the early church was remarkably scalable and was able to grow very quickly, without worries about finding a qualified pastor or constructing a building to accommodate all the new believers.
In studying the New Testament model of church, our traditional church planning group became a house church planning group.
Now, one year into our pandemic-hindered experiment, the body is going strong. We began with six people and have since had over 40 attendees and a consistent group of around 25. We plan to soon divide into two churches.
We have developed a website to support our network of house churches as it grows, and will be adding practical tools to help new house churches. We are also planning leadership and discipleship programs to help ensure that growth.
For Kellie and me, this house church has become the center of our worship and evangelism experience in Ecuador, and through this, God has led us to many other fun and fulfilling things.
So, let’s talk about what’s happening in Ecuador…
When the pandemic began, people living on the margins throughout the world were immediately impacted; this was especially true in Loja, a very working class city. They have a pretty cool tradition there of families hanging a red flag in front of their house if they are running low on food, so that friends and neighbors know help is needed.
Our American friends, David and Elizabeth, decided to respond. For over a year now, they have been providing weekly food deliveries to approximately 35 families—and they fund this effort almost completely out of their own pockets. Kellie and I got involved many months ago, and each Monday we help deliver a little food, and some good news around Loja.
In following the adage to “teach a person to fish,” David and Elizabeth want to help their food recipients become self-sufficient, so they have hired an Ecuadorian social worker to better understand the families’ struggles, to connect them with other resources, and to encourage them to develop marketable job skills.
In delivering food to these families, Kellie felt moved to bring a little sunshine to the many kids we encounter. So, she began baking homemade treats to share. She is now constantly making cakes, pies, banana bread, and other goodies to love and encourage our many neighbors, friends, and missionaries in Loja. Baked goods, we have found, are a great way to connect with people.
The last Saturday of every month, members of our house church travel about an hour to an impoverished, rural agricultural community called Mollepamba, to provide a program for the kids there. We offer them Bible lessons, games, crafts, snacks, and most importantly, the Gospel.
Our friend, Maria, who organizes this mission effort grew up in Mollepamba and knows the challenges faced by kids there. She initially had difficulty getting families to participate because the local Catholic priest was not warm to the idea. But, Maria has remained persistent, and we are building relationships with the kids and their parents while teaching them the great news about Jesus.
I’d like to tell you quickly a little about Maria. She is a single mother of four who we have sort of adopted as our family in Ecuador. In turn, her beautiful parents in Mollepamba have adopted us as their gringo kids. And so, we have a family to hug in Ecuador when we are missing ours here.
Ten years ago, despite being pregnant and having three young children, Maria escaped an abusive marriage in Mollepamba to rescue her kids from that situation. The children now range from 10 to 17 years old and are incredibly sweet, and well-adjusted, and happy.
With only part-time work, María still struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, but her church family in Loja has become a safety net that allows her to sleep a little easier.
Her 17-year-old daughter is particularly sharp. Fernanda wants to go to medical school, and Kellie and I want to figure out how to make it happen. This week, she is graduating from a search and rescue and first-aid program, and next week she will begin EMT training. We thought these experiences would give her a leg up before she starts college and so encouraged her to pursue them.
For over a year, we have also been involved in an English language program for adults, called Reflection, English, Friends and Fun. It began in person before the pandemic, moved online, and is again happening in person. Each Wednesday evening, there is a 15-minute presentation on some topic in slowly spoken English.
We then break into small groups and chat about the topic in-depth for 30-40 minutes. We always try to make a link between the topic and faith or God’s work in our lives.
The hope is that this group will attract people with the promise of speaking better English, leading participants to build friendships, which then leads to evangelism and discipleship.
We have also been involved in two other reading programs targeted to kids, one of which is now thriving under the stewardship of a newer missionary in Loja.
One of the things I was most looking forward to in retirement was having time to study God’s word and writing about it. So, I’ve been doing a deep study of the words spoken by Jesus and creating a daily devotional that puts his teaching in historical context and explores how we can apply it in our lives; this has been a fun project.
I’ve also written some Spanish-language tracts that I hand out to taxi drivers, store clerks, and other people we encounter. One of these tracts almost completely consists of Gospel scripture and is intended to open Catholic hearts to the unexplored truths in their own Bible.
Another tract addresses the topic of Queen El Cisne by sharing Bible verses that should give anyone pause about the idol worship happening in Ecuador.
Our Spanish skills aren’t yet strong enough to debate people about the merits of our faith. But, we know enough Spanish to offer a handout that might lead to introspection among the local faithful, or those who have become disenchanted with their faith.
VBS, the Greatest Journey:
Some of you may be aware of Operation Christmas Child, a program of Samaritan’s Purse that seeks to share the Gospel with kids around the world through a teaching program called “The Greatest Journey.” Every year, Christian churches in first-world countries—like FPC—pack up shoeboxes with age-appropriate gifts and send them to poorer countries—like Ecuador—to be used as an evangelism tool.
We were involved in the sending side of this program a few years ago at FPC, and are now involved on the receiving side in Loja. Kellie and I are leading a team from our house church that is developing a week-long Vacation Bible School program using the “Greatest Journey.” Just a few weeks from now, we are going to bring a lot of fun—and some Good News—to 50 or so kids in one of Loja’s poorest neighborhoods.
Church in Macará:
Finally, one of the first projects we got involved with after moving to Loja was one that we had been working on here at FPC, with the Mission Committee. Our dear friend, Pastor Leo Calva (who preached here a year ago) planted a church in the town of Macará, on the border with Peru. As that church has grown, it needs a better worship space, so your Mission Committee and many other supporters got a construction project off the ground.
When Kellie and I visited the site in 2019, we decided to try and help the project through to completion. We had organized a construction team to visit from the U.S. and began working on additional funding. But then, the pandemic hit.
Then we started thinking, maybe we could raise funds to have the project completed by local labor. Not only would this maintain the project’s forward momentum, it would also provide some economic activity in a struggling small town. A friend of ours from Arizona very generously chipped in $22,000, and progress continued.
But, again, the pandemic reared its ugly head—this time with a lot of sick people in Macará. So things have been on hold for several months but we hope to get them moving again soon.
I am sorry for going a little long today. There is actually a fair bit of content that I eliminated from this talk. A Christian radio station was recently re-launched in Loja; a very promising program for youth and young adults is getting off the ground; there is a new drama and music program being used to reach young Lojanos; and, there is a well-established program to help couples grow in their love by growing in their faith.
It’s so encouraging to see all God has going on in Southern Ecuador.
Prayer Needs and Financial Opportunities:
We know from experience that FPC Carson City is extremely generous with its prayers and finances. So, I imagine some of you might like to know if there are ways you can help.
First and foremost, we need to be praying that people’s hearts are softened to receive the Gospel message. After centuries of looking elsewhere for salvation, Lojanos need to open their Bibles and discover the amazing hope that is right there for them. Please pray that people would be open to the Gospel.
And, of course, each of the programs I mentioned, as well as the missionaries in Loja, can use our regular prayers.
Most Christian programs in Loja are doing okay with funding because of the many expat missionaries who raise money internationally. However, I’ll offer three possible ways you could help financially, if you are so moved.
First, the Ecuadorian missionaries in Loja, like our friend Carlos Ruiz, struggle more than those from other countries to raise support, because it just isn’t in the DNA of Ecuadorians to support missionaries. So, anyone interested in partnering in an ongoing ministry could have neat experience becoming a friend and supporter of an Ecuadorian missionary. There are two or three I can think of specifically, and all are affiliated with U.S. nonprofit agencies.
Second, if you would prefer making a one-time gift over an ongoing commitment, Ecuadorian churches have been struggling during the pandemic and could use a little shot in the arm. Pastor Leo Calva’s church, Semilla de Mostaza, has a U.S. nonprofit partner through which donations can be made.
Finally, there is Maria’s daughter Fernanda and her quest to attend medical school. If you would like to have a profound and lasting impact on one family, I believe helping Fernanda through college would cause ripples on the water that would reach beyond our ability to see.
Anyone interested in partnering in Ecuador can reach out to us by email, and we will help you make a connection.
Kellie and I want to thank Pastor Bob for having such a heart for missions that he is willing to share God’s pulpit, and to all of you for being interested in the things happening in Loja. It is such an honor to celebrate with you the work that God is doing in the world.
If you ever have an interest in visiting Ecuador, we have a travel blog you can check out at HolaFromLoja.wordpress.com. And, if you ever have a desire to visit Loja, we have a comfortable guestroom and a fantastic view of the city we would love to share with you.
I hope that hearing about how God is moving in our lives has offered a little inspiration for how he might move in yours. Our Lord has some water that needs carrying in this world, and he’s somehow managed to use these two cracked pots to haul a few drops. He can do the same through you.
Since we decided a couple of years ago to be more intentional, and open to his nudges, God has brought us on a wonderful adventure of growth and discovery, and we praise him for it.
After that first domino fell during our lunch conversation with Carlos Ruiz, an incredible tapestry of dominoes continues to unfold in our lives.
Thank you for your time today. May God bless each of you, your families, and this church—through the power of his Holy Spirit and the saving grace of his son, Jesus… Amen.