Surprises. Any one involved in mission work has had them; I have.
When I was the pastor of Christ Memorial Lutheran Church in East Brunswick, New Jersey we asked the poor in our community how we could help. We found there was a need for affordable day care. None of us knew how to start a day care center, so we did what you do when you don’t know something – we formed a committee. But most of all, we prayed. A secular early learning center was already using the area where the new center would be; income from the existing center was helping us pay what, at the time, was an onerous mortgage. I would be lying if I said we went into this without some trepidation.
After the committee was formed, two people joined the church who had started day care centers. The business of one member was tasked to invest $50,000 in a community project and loved what we were doing. The first year we used the donation. The second year of operation we cleared $20,000 and gave $10,000 to another church starting a Christian day care. Years later, the learnings from that experience helped more than sixty new child development centers begin in the US.
So, what does that have to do with the Missionary to America, Tesfait Tesema?
Tesfait grew up in Ethiopia, in a time of civil disruption. His early years were spent away from his family’s Orthodox Christian faith – looking for fulfillment in drugs and immature personal choices. When the Ethiopian monarchy ended, a famine was raging , and a Soviet style Communist government took over. Tesfait joined the Communists. Eventually he fell out of favor with the new leaders; he was arrested once, and, to avoid further imprisonment, in a harrowing escape, he and two young women fled across the desert to Djibouti. This was not the dream he had for his life.
He was finally able to contact his parents in Ethiopia and begged for their help. By God’s grace, there was an uncle, a trader, who brought goods from Saudi Arabia to sell in Djibouti. The uncle agreed to bring the young Tesfait with him back to the country that contains the sacred sites of Islam. Then, after a few weeks, the uncle left Saudi Arabia to ply his trade elsewhere.
Alone, left to fend for himself, Tesfait Tesema signed onto a building project out in the Arabian desert. He would have to live in a compound, segregated from the general population. Could life become any more difficult? But then, an invitation.
One of the workers in the compound, a Chinese man, invited him to study the Bible with him and a Chinese friend of his. Tesfait, now a young man, did not know any one “studied” the Bible. To him, the Bible was a talisman – something that was brought out on holy days to kiss, or put under your pillow when you were sick. With nothing else to do, in a compound out in the desert, he accepted the invitation. Then, the surprise.
His first step was going to the Bible Study. Once there, the Word of the Lord pierced his heart like the sharp, double edged sword it is. That night he lay awake, terrified at the recognition of his sin, longing for the healing of his soul. He rushed through the Bible given him by the Bible study leader, furiously trying to find the text they had studied; but with no knowledge of Scripture, no sense of how to search God’s Word, he was at a loss. Then, surprise. He discovered that God was taking a step towards him. in the front of the Bible he found “A Sinner’s Prayer.” He got on his knees, and he prayed:
“Dear God, I know I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son. I believe that He died for my sin and that you raised Him to life. I want to trust Him as my Savior and follow Him as Lord, from this day forward. Guide my life and help me to do your will. I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
After that, his life began to change. First, more trouble: he wanted to tell everyone what he had learned – including Muslims. That ended poorly. God then used his fear and pain to do miraculous things to and through His servant, Tesfait Tesema. For some time he led an evangelistic outreach in the Sudan, and began the first church to worship in Amharic. Eventually, he was surprised to find himself in the United States, starting new missions and leading a growing, ethnically diverse, congregation in San Jose, California.
For all those whom God has called, all who take the first step, a surprise always awaits. As Peter said, (Acts 3:12), “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you?”