God calls some people to go and share His story in Nigeria, Nepal or Nicaragua. God tells some people to stay home. God calls all of us to listen and follow.
I was 13 years old when I felt the call. Sitting on a two-slat wooden bench in the last row of the camp meeting tent at Covenant Hills Family Camp, my heart was pounding. Since passing notes with my friends seemed far more interesting than listening to another sermon, I had not paid attention to a word of the sermon that evening. As the service drew to a close, however, the missionary offered the invitation, “If you sense that God is calling you to full-time ministry, come forward and kneel at the altar.” My heart was pounding, and I knew I was to go forward, but I felt guilty. I didn’t even listen to the message. How could God be speaking to me? As the music played, I couldn’t battle the Holy Spirit. God was calling. I needed to answer.
My initial thoughts after that evening centered around moving to another country. Surely since the invitation was from an overseas missionary, I was being called to overseas missions. After years reading missionary biographies of Gladys Aylward, George Mueller and David Livingstone, I already had a heart full of faith and an imagination filled with adventure. Would I follow Aylward to China and unbind the feet of women? Maybe I would pray every day for God to provide food and shelter for orphans like Mueller. Surely an uncharted area of the African jungles awaited my Livingstone map-making skills.
Spoiler alert: That family camp tent is the closest I’ve ever gotten to any other sleeping quarters — hostel, orphanage, grass hut or otherwise.
Instead God has kept me right here in my hometown of Lansing, Michigan. My places of ministry have included urban schools and neighborhoods, juvenile detention centers and jails, weekend homeless shelters and inside the walls of my home church. As the years passed, I realized that real missionaries are defined not by where they are but by who they are. I am still learning that adventure happens next door and that every person around me has a story. When God’s story and my story and their stories come together, good things happen and God things happen.
Nine years ago, I felt confident that I had this ministry thing figured out. After staying home while both of my kids were babies, the time had come for both of them to begin attending school. While I had continued to minister in various capacities, I was excited to have more time to devote to ministry. I went on staff part-time at Lansing Central Free Methodist Church. But God had a different plan. Within four months, God asked me to homeschool my son. For a month, I wrestled with God over this. My primary complaint? “My world will be so small.” I followed God’s direction, but in the back of my head, I questioned the ways of God. Why would God call me only to send me home again?
In the way that only God can orchestrate, homeschooling was not only good for my children, it was also a great joy for me. Something I never thought I’d choose became an eight-year journey of learning and growing together. But that was not all. That small world I complained to God about? I discovered that it is a small world after all. Six months after we started homeschooling, a large group of Nepali immigrants started attending our church. By the end of the first summer, an all-ages church weekend event we organized had more Nepali speakers than English speakers in attendance. God did not just send me home, He sent the world to my home. And He did it through a number of people who listened to God calling them.
There was Anu, a Christian woman from Nepal whose heart was to connect these new neighbors to Jesus. First, let me introduce you to Joyce, a quiet single woman who regularly opened her home to Sue, a Mexican missionary, when she needed to come back to the States. Sue was walking around outside Joyce’s home recovering from a medical procedure when Anu, who lived next door, came out to talk. Anu, a Christian woman from Nepal was looking for churches who may be welcoming to Nepali immigrants in their neighborhood. Sue spoke with others at Lansing Central and found Ellie and Roger who also lived in the neighborhood. Ellie does not know the meaning of the word “stranger” — everyone is a friend. She and Roger volunteered to pick up any children who wanted to attend church, but she wanted to meet the parents first. She walked into homes and noticed the need for curtains, and before you can say “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” she and Roger were hanging curtains, handing out stuffed bears, singing songs, and making several trips every Sunday to bring entire families to church.
A few months later, Beth, a homeschool mom whose daughter was soon to graduate, listened to God ask her to use her teaching skills in a whole new way: teaching English as a second language. He has called a retired man, Dave, to get a bus driver’s license, and He had an ex-convict buy a Karenni/English dictionary so he could communicate with his neighbors. We have formed a partnership with Spring Arbor University where students come to serve for our English and citizenship classes. Over the last nine years, we have lost count of how many students have attended classes, how many volunteers have given rides, held babies, entertained children and practiced English. We only know that somehow, every week we always have enough. God has taken what we have to offer and made up the difference.
I now count as friends people originally from Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Congo, Tanzania, Haiti and Vietnam. My children have eaten Nepali and Congolese food, been blessed by Nepalese grandmas, held newborn babies who are the first American citizens in their families, and played basketball with teen boys from Nepal and Thailand. They’ve been on a “field trip” to the government immigration and citizenship center with friends to see firsthand the detailed process of fingerprinting, paperwork and processing. We have new neighbors, and our world is infinitely richer because of it. God may have sent me home, but He also sent me the world.
Joanna DeWolf is an ordained elder in the East Michigan Conference and the author of “Embrace All,” a book in the FreeMo Journal series. Visit joannadewolf.wordpress.com for more of her writing.