When Sara Pavlova was applying for colleges she knew she would have to depend on God to provide the funds to attend. Her upbringing as the daughter of a church planter from Macedonia had already prepared her for that.
“I came from a poor family,” said Pavlova, whose family lived in the basement of a house in the early years of her childhood.
Eventually, Pavlova’s grandfather helped her family build their own house. Then, just as they were getting settled in to this more established way of life, they felt God calling them to plant a church in another town.
“We all felt that we were called by God, but it was so hard because our lives were in this city,” Pavlova explained.
Pavlova’s family ultimately decided to answer God’s call. They gifted their home to a single mother and moved on to the next church planting experience. During her childhood, Pavlova’s family also followed God’s lead to serve in Bulgaria, India, and the United States. The family never had much money, but these experiences helped Pavlova learn to trust God.
Pavlova applied to LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and trusted that God would provide the finances. Her faith grew before she even set foot on the campus.
“I was accepted with a message that 90 percent of my tuition would be covered the first year,” said Pavlova. “I really learned to trust God.”
The next few years, LCC was not able to provide Sara with the same amount of funding, but Sara was once again amazed at how God provided for her.
“I got a job for which I was praying for a long time ago, and God also gave me several other small opportunities like babysitting and tutoring, which helped me financially.”
Among these smaller jobs was a position as a piano teacher for three of the children of Scott and Lisa Neumann, missionaries with Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) who serve at LCC.
“Coming to Lithuania has developed my relationship with God on another level,” concluded Pavlova. “I have learned to trust God so much more, even praying for the rain to stop so I can get home dry.”
Pavlova’s awareness of the Holy Spirit’s direction for her life is a gift that CRWM missionaries recognize as they serve alongside people around the world. This year, as we celebrate Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on earth, we’ll explore ways that the Spirit has been at work around the world.
Following the Spirit in Honduras
Amidst the coffee, corn, and cattle in the rolling mountains of Honduras’s Olancho region, the Holy Spirit has been preparing Rigoberto Juarez for ministry in an unlikely way.
Juarez left his hometown of Mangulile for gang life at a young age. His activities in the gang led him to fear for his own life. Vulnerable and helpless, Juarez fled back to Mangulile, where he eventually joined the church.
“In Honduras, you either join a gang or a youth group,” said CRWM’s Caspar Geisterfer, who came to this generalization after serving as a missionary in Honduras since 2008. “Everyone has a basic need to belong, and the strongest sense of belonging in Honduras is either on the streets or in the church.”
Like many new Christians, Juarez was still grasping what it meant to belong to this new group when he first met Geisterfer. Most of his ideas of what a Christian looked like came from watching Christian television programs, but he longed for a deeper understanding.
With people like Juarez in mind, Geisterfer developed a practical tool to help Honduran Christians understand what the Bible is saying to them. He calls it “Cornfield Theology.”
“We work with less-educated pastors and church members,” said Geisterfer, describing how Cornfield Theology uses real life examples to explain theological ideas. “Together, we discover the purposes of God and the ways of the kingdom, using the Heidelberg Catechism.
“People don’t take the time to teach others how to read the Bible,” Geisterfer added. “Cornfield Theology is very conversational and relational, helping people meet God where they already are.”
From the very first question—What is your only comfort in life and death?— participants discover what it means to belong to the body of Christ with relatable examples.
“When we talk about belonging, we talk about the tattoos or hairstyles that show you belong to a gang,” Geisterfer cited as an example.
As he developed Cornfield Theology, Geisterfer knew he needed local people to help him come up with practical examples. Juarez quickly became one of his top choices.
“Rigoberto is one of those people who just can’t sit still because he has to tell others about Jesus,” said Geisterfer.
Today Geisterfer and Juarez have about 90 participants in five different Cornfield Theology classes around Mangulile. Together they draw on their own experiences—Rigoberto as a gangster and Caspar as a missionary—to share what the Bible means to them.
“People are having fun and learning what it means to be Reformed,” Geisterfer concluded.
Following the Spirit in Uganda
Often the Holy Spirit leads us to places we wouldn’t go by our own choice. That was definitely the case for members of Christian Reformed Home Missions’s Global Prayer Safari (GPS) in Uganda.
From pristine sandy beaches to garbage-filled fishing villages, members of the GPS team saw many sides of Uganda’s capital region of Kampala. One place stood out for many of the participants—the Zika Forest.
The mosquito-spread disease that originated in this forest has recently made headlines for its spread across Central America, but its history in Uganda goes back much further.
Local pastor and member of the GPS team Musoke Kisule is well-versed in this history. He pastors a congregation right at the edge of the Zika Forest. Kisule says the place has been known as a “place of burial” since the 1800s.
“After the death of many people in a great battle, the king ordered a mass grave to be dug,” recalls Kisule. “Many people who died were buried in that forest.”
Decades later, when the virus started to spread, people initially blamed these deaths on the spirits of the people buried in this mass grave.
“People started consulting ancestral spirits, and the forest was dedicated to the devil,” said Kisule.
Even after researchers discovered the virus, the forest is still regarded as a spiritually dark place. People continue making sacrifices to these spirits, but God has been at work through people like Kisule.
“God has given us grace to plant two churches around the forest,” says Kisule. “We’ve been struggling to pull down the stronghold of evil powers from all these years.”
When Kisule and other local pastors heard that missionaries and volunteers were gathering in Uganda to pray with them at the Global Prayer Safri, they knew this would be a great opportunity to continue re-claiming this forest for Christ.
On the first day of the event this past February, the volunteers hiked to the Zika Forest with some reluctance. They had heard much of the history, and they had already had a full day of walking and praying.
“I usually consider myself a pretty flexible person, but that day I found that I could still be uncomfortable,” said Ken Koning, pastor of Calvin CRC in McBain, Mich.
In the forest, the group prayed for cleansing and renewal. They prayed that the evil spirits would leave and never return. They prayed for peace and safety for those living near the forest.
“As a missionary in Uganda, it was interesting to watch the spiritual warfare battle in action,” said CRWM’s Karen Lubbers. “The African men and women got louder and louder in their prayers, stomping the ground and punching the air. The Westerners took steps back to see what was happening, watching with wide eyes. Everyone knew God’s Spirit was at work.”
“Praying together manifested the glory of Jesus in ways that we couldn’t experience in our one-on-one time with God,” added Kisule. “It brought divine intervention and breakthrough in the community and in the lives of everyone participating.”
Learning to Follow the Spirit in the New Mission Agency
Christian Reformed World Missions is now looking forward to its next phase of ministry, joining with Christian Reformed Home Missions into a new, unified agency. Zachary Segaar-King has been nominated to be the director for this new agency, pending synodical approval. He and the staff of both agencies see the Holy Spirit as central to their future.
One of the primary goals King has for the new agency is to help the denomination become more aware of the Spirit’s leading. He feels that the CRC can can learn from the great examples of Christians from other cultures and denominations—those like Sara Pavlova, Rigoberto Juarez, or Musoke Kisule—to improve in our spiritual awareness.
“I think we as a denomination and I as a person need to grow in walking in step with the Holy Spirit,” King said. “I say that based on my Pentecostal roots, growing up struggling to spend so much time in prayer and being in a country [Haiti] where people will pray, pray, pray. Sometimes it seems overwhelming, but I think we can continue to benefit from walking in step with the spirit.”