The First Steps of a Long Journey

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I had moments when I was purely and simply scared.  I was beginning to learn to trust God and know that God would provide and that I would be protected, but mine was an easily broken trust.

When, with deep longing, I began to seek God, it was reasonable that God would send a friend like Jonathan.  It was even more reasonable that this friend would recommend a spiritually life changing book and that we would become something I had never heard of, “Spiritual Friends.”  But some decisive life-changing events are not reasonable and can never be foreseen, even with 20 X 20 sacred vision.  My spiritual vision was and still is much more limited than that.  Even now, some people do not believe me—or at least assume I am exaggerating—when I present, let’s call it, “My Romanian Affair.”  (Hungary was involved too, but tangentially.) 

I had heard of Romania and I knew something of the over the top evil of Communist President Nicolae Ceuasescu.  I also understood that Romania was one of the few Communist Bloc Countries that the Soviet Union could not count on to always follow the party line.  That’s about it.  Oh, and the capital is Bucharest.

One evening in January, 1982, I was home alone with Stacey.  She was approaching her second birthday.  The phone rang.  It is best to always be open to the extraordinary finding its way into our lives by way of the ordinary, a chance meeting, a compelling sentence in a book, a phone call. 

The previous June I had traveled to Haiti on a mission trip and when the leadership for that trip failed to show up, we collectively pleaded with Reinhold Kerstan, the Associate General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), to take us under his wing.  He agreed, though it turned out that there were serious gaps in the planning of our trip that even Reinhold could not fix.  I had never before nor since been so physically uncomfortable.  One day, bananas for two of our meals—and glad to have them.  Water we could not drink.  No air conditioning.  Most often, no bathrooms.  All we had was heat, blazing heat that felt like walking through a wall of fire.  I confess, the misery got the better of me.  Even so, it was impossible to miss the other misery, the people of Haiti, broken bodies, starving children, mothers too weak to walk trying desperately to carry their children somewhere.

Reinhold, with his wife, and I had the only two hotel rooms that had no fans.  I hate the heat!  Unable to fall asleep in sauna like conditions, we both ended up outside just before 12:00 A.M.  We decided to take a walk and soon found ourselves in the slums of Cap Haitien. The residents were miserable too.  Everybody was outside.  Dozens of children were playing.  Old men were strumming ancient guitars and everybody was smiling—it turned out we were the next best thing to color television.  Three young boys were playing with their homemade go-cart.  They let me ride while they pushed and Reinhold took pictures with my camera.  The experience was fun, wildly entertaining.

When I returned home, I wrote Reinhold a letter with copies of the photos.  He lost the letter and pictures, never even opened the envelope, until one evening in January, 1982, when he began to gather together his income tax records.   How do such things happen?  There among tax documents was my epistle and the memories of our late-night tour of Haiti’s deep poverty and good, long-suffering, people.

That January day Reinhold, on behalf of the BWA, was taking the last steps in gathering a team for a preaching mission to the Communist Countries of Hungary and Romania.  This venture was ever so serious business; the vision was to sustain and strengthen the binding ties between North American Baptists and our sisters and brothers trapped in oppression behind the Iron Curtain.  At the exact time Reinhold’s group was in Eastern Europe, another BWA mission team was in Russia.  That group included Billy Graham.   Reinhold had enlisted Baptist leaders (including denomination and college and seminary presidents as well as journalists and dynamic evangelists) from across the United States and Canada.  They would depart for Europe the Monday after Easter.

Apparently, in the sweltering hours between 12:00 midnight and 2:00 A.M., ambling the dingy back by-ways of Haiti, I had made an impression on Reinhold Kerstan.  Our phone conversation began with shared memories but relatively quickly shifted to an upcoming pilgrimage to Hungary and Romania.  Reinhold tossed out the hook–“Earlier today one of our group members called to cancel.  I had no replacement in mind.  When I read your letter and remembered our late-night walk, I knew I needed you to bring your gifts to the Baptists of Eastern Europe.”   I was thrilled.  Was I also called?

As independent as we are, Baptists do not fly solo.  I realized that I needed to consult with one individual and two groups.  The individual was, of course, my wife.  The Board of Deacons at my church was one group and the second was my spiritual support group.  I could not go forward without their blessing and I would, in the extreme, need their support.  Each of these conversations was nothing short of “weird,” in the most excellent way.  I had carefully created my script and planned my answers to the inevitable questions.  My explanations did not seem to be necessary.  Before I got around to each of them God already had a powwow with my bands of believers.  Each person was swept up by the possibilities and the certainty of God’s call.  I became more enlivened by way of their faith.  On schedule, I called Reinhold Kerstan and leapt on board.

Once committed to this journey, my faith often waivered.  Deep inside I was emotionally vulnerable.  I was given to taking bold risks, but not without a severe measure of fear and trembling.  My experience preparing for the many unknowns of our quest to Eastern Europe was a near perfect replica of my emotional/spiritual experience before I became a father.  Nothing could have been more important to me than Stacey’s arrival, yet the preceding days and months were occasioned by trepidation and even nightmares.  Last week I went back and read my journal that has daily records of my encounters in Hungary and Romania as well as summaries of my preparations and my follow-up activities.  For the past 31 years, many aspects of my mission trip to Hungary and Romania have been well remembered and often told.  But I had forgotten much of how difficult it was for God to prepare me and how much pain and fear I endured and overcame.   My journal reminded me of the whole story.  (To be continued next week.)

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