Blessings and Pitfalls

by Eliza Billingham

The college team in Vietnam--Eliza is in the front row, second from left.

The college team in Vietnam--Eliza is in the front row, second from left.

Two years ago, Thao was a student at the summer english camp when College Church first sent a team of college students to Hanoi, Vietnam. She has aged out of the camp since then, but because she developed such a meaningful relationship with her teacher and is so curious about Christianity, we keep connected with her in Hanoi. I met Thao last year and was excited to get to see her again when I returned to to the camp this year. She keeps in touch with a couple of her teachers from Wheaton, has a Vietnamese Bible and, this year, started reading the Gospel of John.

There are two incredible blessings that are obvious when we discuss Christianity with Thao. First, she is the one who initiates intentional conversations about Christianity. In a communist country where the sharing of values between foreigners and nationals is somewhat suspicious and slightly risky in public, it is an extra gift that she asks the questions, and we try to answer them, often provoking more questions.

This year, Thao began our conversation, asking us to explain John 1:1 to her. What or who was the Word? The implications this had for time and if time was linear, and what it meant that the Word contained life? This revealed the second blessing. Thao is extremely intelligent. She thinks deeply and critically. Her questions are important ones, and after talking with her (her English is great, by the way), we feel like there is not much runoff—she really processes and appreciates what we discuss.

The John 1 conversation led to a conversation about the differences between physical and spiritual life and death, what it means to be separated from God, and how God has conquered death and offers life. But this great advantage of Thao is a great pitfall.

We don’t know how much she differentiates between Christianity and other interesting or foreign intellectual exercises. While we emphasize Christ’s exclusive authority on truth, she has not yet come to the conclusion that his life impacts hers. It is frustrating, but ultimately comforting, that we are not responsible for convicting her of truth. We pray that the Lord will convict her of his truth and his sovereignty in her life. Also, we’re praying that she finds or is found by national believers.

Thao rightly expressed discontentment that our face-to-face conversations about the gospel and her questions happen once a year. Technology is somewhat helpful in extending these conversations, but it is no substitute for a community of Vietnamese Christians who can be a more constant resource. We have taken steps to connect her to long-term workers in Hanoi, but our greatest desire is for nationals to find and disciple nationals. In Hanoi, a city of more than 7.5 million people, there is one government-registered Protestant church and an unknown number of unregistered house churches, so it takes an incredible amount of initiative to find a community of believers. We pray that Thao would become aware and involved in one such community. We know that God is good and delights in making himself known. We thank him that he was in Hanoi before we were and stays behind when we leave, and lets us see a fraction of what he is doing for his glory in southeast Asia.

Post-Trip Ponderings

While his daughter Lauren was in Greece at a refugee camp, Kent Graham traveled with a team of high school students and adults to Bologna, Italy, to serve with College Church missionaries, Mark and Ruth Brucato at the Exchange 2016 summer camp. Watch Mark's video and read Kent's report.

Kent's report
We had the opportunity to help run the sports camp, Exchange, for five days. The 14 high school students from College Church did an incredible job building relationships with 20 Italian teens from the neighborhood surrounding Nuova Vita Church. We had a great time serving together and being Jesus' hands and feet to these 20 campers and their families. 

After breakfast each morning, we would walk over to the church for Bible study. We studied Luke 10 the entire week. This is the chapter where Jesus sends out the 72, two by two, ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” (Luke 10:2-3) The chapter speaks of how the kingdom of God has drawn near and how our joy should be rooted in the reality that our names are written in heaven because of our position in Christ. It continues, helping us understand what it means to sit at the feet of Jesus. 

These lessons were a great way to start our day as it equipped us as a group to understand why we are doing ministry. It was for teenagers like Gabriele (Gabe).

Markino, an intern with Nuova Vita, recently sent this update on Gabe.

“Gabriele is a guy we met last year through Exchange, but after the summer camp we lost track of him, although we have tried to involve him in so many ways. In the meantime, we have continued to pray for him. This year it is by the grace of God that Gabriele desired to return again to Exchange summer camp. This year was different for him. God has used much of the Wheaton team to speak into his life. After the summer camp, he began attending Nuova Vita church constantly, and he has recently also started to read the Bible with me. There are many difficulties with his mother, who does not have a good relationship with Gabriel. We must also address the hatred of Gabriel for his father that he has never known. Another fact is that soon he will be moving away from Bologna. This will make it more difficult for him to attend Nuova Vita. Monday, I spoke with Gabrielle's mother clarifying for her that we want to help Gabriel improve their relationship and not hinder it as was his mother's initial concern. I thank God she understood and invited me in September to lunch at their house to discuss also the possibility of hosting him two times a month at my house with other leaders so they can continue to attend the church and our programs. Pray for him, for his mother and for us; we are closely following this story for wisdom, love and patience.”

This paints a perfect picture of the struggles the church faces daily in Bologna. Believers like Markino know that they must reach out to the entire family to gain its trust in order to share the gospel. The College Church team did a fantastic job at Exchange camp, sharing the gospel in both word and deed. Camp ended with a BBQ, where parents came and saw what Exchange was all about. As a result, a number of parents returned with their children to attend Sunday morning church at Nuova Vita for the first time. We praise God that the Lord of the harvest went before us, and we remain at the feet of Jesus, depending on him for these newly built relationships. 

Reflections on Refugees

Lauren Graham first shared her reflection of serving at a refugee camp with STAMP Greece on a Sunday evening at College Church.

Lauren (right) with teammates Lucy West (center) and Brittany Fellowes (left) outside Moria.

Lauren (right) with teammates Lucy West (center) and Brittany Fellowes (left) outside Moria.

I had the privilege of serving on the STAMP Greece team last month. God blessed us with an amazing team as we headed to the Island of Lesvos to work at Moria, a refugee camp holding more than 2,200 people, and where living conditions are extremely poor.  Each day at Moria, we could either help with clothing, housing and distributing tea and soup or spending time on the family compounds. To give a little more context, Moria was formerly a prison that the government turned into a refugee camp. There is barbed wire everywhere at the camp, and it tends to still feel like a prison at times.

We weren’t sure what to expect, but what we encountered was a lot of beautiful people who had endured immense pain and suffering. The stories our friends shared with us were heartbreaking and demonstrated a lot of vulnerability. We all heard stories we will never forget, and my unforgettable story is of a young man I met at Moria. 

Adnan is a 19-year-old Syrian boy, who was on his own by age 14 and by age 16 had been recruited into the Syrian army. After two years of service, he had watched many friends and family members die. He was not allowed to go to school, and anywhere he went in his town, he was constantly on the lookout for snipers, always living in fear. He chose to flee to Turkey, where he was beaten and thrown in jail. He then made his way to Greece by boat where he was taken to Moria, and for the first time in his life, he slept without fear of being killed in the middle of the night. 

When I met Adnan, I asked him how long he had been in Moria. He said, “108 days.” As we continued to talk, I couldn’t help but hope he was a Christian. His character, actions and speech reflected Christ, but I couldn’t be sure and Christians are definitely the minority in the camp.  Still, he had a gentle spirit. He was slow to anger, he was a peacemaker in the camp and he was thankful to be in Moria. He was thankful for food, clothes and shelter. I continued to ask questions hoping and praying that his faith would come up since our instructions were to demonstrate Christ in and through our actions and to only share our faith if asked. I was amazed as he answered all of my questions in pretty good English, considering it is only one of five languages he knows.

When I asked him what he learned from his journey and his time in Moria, he replied, “My entire life changed during my four months in Moria. I learned how to have peace, I learned how to be a man, I learned how to be thankful that God brought me here. I learned how to help, how to love children. I learned how to feel, and I learned how to be friends with everyone. Before in Syria, I lost a lot of my friends; I was always sad and angry. But when I came to Moria, I saw the volunteers, and I saw how they loved people, how they helped them, how they loved children and played with them all the time. I learned many things from Moria.”

I then took the opportunity to ask him what he learned about God through his experience, and I asked him what God he served. Adnan answered, “I believe in Jesus and God; I am a Christian. I know that God brought me to Moria to meet more people, and he protected me from war and changed my life. Jesus, he died for us; his blood went down, down, down on the cross, for us.  When they would hit him, he would forgive them. I didn’t know how to forgive, but since I’ve come to Moria, I can forgive everyone now.”

He went on to explain that he had wanted to learn about the Bible so he studied it for three years when he lived in Syria. After studying the Bible and the Koran, he decided that he wanted to follow Jesus because, in Adnan’s words, “Jesus had peace and good things, and everything was forgiven. It is not important what you have, because he says, "I am the bread of life, if you eat from me, you won’t be hungry; if you drink from me, you will never be thirsty.”   

Praise the Lord! He is at work. Through war, turmoil and pain, The Lord is bringing the lost to him.  People are being displaced and fleeing their homes, but God is using this as an opportunity for refugees to interact with Christians and to see the difference that Christ makes. It was truly a blessing to be able to be some of the Christians they interacted with as we strove to love our neighbors and to be the hands and feet of Jesus. 

It is really difficult to think that our friends are still Moria, unsure of where they will be next, but it is encouraging to hear how some of them have seen a difference in the volunteers, and how God is drawing them to himself through these experiences. Pray for our friends in Moria and for all of the refugees around the world. Adnan knows Jesus,, but my heart remains heavy for the many who have yet to respond to Christ. They are people just like us, and they need Jesus, just like we do.