I embarked on my Eurovision experience with great anticipation. For over 25 years I have served as a Covenant pastor in the Central Conference and I have always been impressed and supportive of our denomination’s outreach through Covenant World Mission. Serving in two Covenant churches in the metro Chicago area, I have had the opportunity to get to know personally some of our Covenant missionaries, including several of those currently serving in Europe. When the Covenant announced the Eurovision trip in 2010, I knew I wanted to go so that I could experience their ministries first hand and come to understand the blessings and challenges of their particular context. I felt this would enable me to be more supportive of them as a Covenant pastor and a better advocate for Covenant World Mission with my congregation. I was not disappointed!
The Eurovision trip began in Antwerp, Belgium. Here we were to learn about the ministry of Barb and Steve Swanson, Barb serving refugees and Steve as the pastor of the Antwerp International Protestant Church (AIPC). I also met and saw some of the work of short termers Jared and Hannah Baker who partner with Barb and Steve in these ministries. Fortunately, I came a day and a half early before Eurovision 2010 was slated to officially begin in order to spend some personal time with Barb and Steve. Had I not done that, I quite likely would not have made it over to Europe because the day I arrived was the day an Icelandic volcano began spewing ash and shutting down northern and central European airspace for several days. I thank God for being able to come early… I would not have wanted to miss all that I experienced on this trip!
What impressed me about our missionaries’ ministry in Belgium was the effort and patience needed to build significant relational bridges both with Belgium citizens and refugees. Theirs is very much a ministry of significant personal investment. As friendships begin to take root (facilitated by the vital gifts of hospitality Barb and Steve and Jared and Hannah lovingly practice) opportunities to share faith are granted because first, one has shared their life in service to another. A highlight of that stay was sharing a meal in the Swansons’ home with two refugee families. Everyone shared in the preparation and enjoyment of the food and the discussion was both lively and profound.
Next, it was on to Paris where we encountered the ministry of Francisco and Stephanie Ramos. We stayed in a Protestant mission, in the heart of Paris and after an afternoon of seeing the sights, plunged into the ministries of the Ramoses and La Fonderie, an outreach that focuses on the arts. Francisco and Stephaine have partnered with other evangelicals to reach out to artists in this highly sophisticated and artistically minded city by developing a gallery that also can function as a space for the performing arts. These showings prompt conversations and build relationships that open doors for Christian witness. Hospitality also plays a critical role in this ministry. I experienced this first hand. Attending an opening for three painters (which included Francisco Ramos), I found myself in conversation with a young woman who requested prayer for a need in her life and later with another man at the event.
The following day we learned about outreach to immigrants in Paris. We were challenged on our preconceptions about immigrant populations and what is the core of the Gospel message. It was a challenging lesson in contextualization that stretched our understanding and opened us up to the complexities of faithful Christian witness in a post modern and often antagonistic environment.
When our time in Paris had come to an end, it was time to fly (yes, airspace had now been reopened) to southern Spain and learn about the Covenant’s work in Malaga, Spain. Covenant missionary Eugenio Restrepo greeted us at the beautiful Malaga international airport. After settling into our rooms at a Protestant retreat center on the outskirts of Malaga, we made our way back into the city to attend a Roma/Gypsy worship. It was thrilling to share music and movement, testimonies and prayer and to hear the word powerfully preached by one of our team members. Following the two plus hour service, we dined late at night (in true Spanish cultural fashion) with the pastor of the Roma congregation and his wife. These committed Christians have been trained and discipled by Eugenio and Pia Restrepo through their teaching ministries of theological education by extension. We toured Malaga the following day and learned more about the teaching and preaching ministry of the Restepos at one of the largest Protestant churches in Malaga.
We left Malaga blessed and impressed by the work of God taking place in dramatic and steady ways. The Roma /Gypsy movement is the fastest growing Christian church in Spain and other parts of Europe. Through such ministries as summer soccer outreaches and using the Bible to help teach English to interested Spaniards, people are being reached.
The last site we were privileged to visit was La Coruna, Spain, where Rob and Nancy Reed, Jorge and Noris Maldonado and short termers Steve and Rebecca Hoden shared mission and ministry together. Of all the locations, the ministry in La Coruna is what many would characterize as traditional missions: planting churches, small group evangelism and one-on-one discipleship. But don’t mistake traditional for outdated or outmoded! The church these missionaries base out of is headquarters for Alpha / Spain, the hugely successful evangelism movement begun in the Church of England. We saw firsthand the effects of our missionaries ministries as we met individually with two believers and heard their testimonies. We concluded that day in the home of one believer and his family and heard his story of salvation in Jesus out of a life of crime, addictions and marital discord. Christ not only saved his life and his soul, he restored his marriage, Praise God! We drove along northern Spain’s coast and heard missionary Rob Reed share his vision for church plants and 20,000 new believers in the next 20 years. We prayed together, learned about the struggles of church life, and the challenges of raising children in two and sometimes three cultures. The human dimension of foreign mission came alive for me in La Coruna as did the reality of God’s rich supply of grace, strength, and hope.
I would be deeply remiss if I did not mention the richness that John Kerl, who, along with his wife Letha serve as Regional Coordinators for the Covenant’s European Mission and his son Evan brought to our Eurovision team. Each stop along the way we were enriched by John’s accessible and engaging commentary and conversation. He gave us historical background; cultural background and context; spiritual insight and understanding necessary for doing effective ministry in Europe. He also always seemed to know the best places to see and visit to enrich a very brief stay in Europe. Along with his son Evan, John Kerl handled all manner of details, from language barriers to navigating all manner of mass transit systems with grace and aplomb. We were in such good care that we never worried about anything and were freed to experience all that Eurovision 2010 had to offer us. The Kerl’s ministry was a tremendous blessing and benefit that enriched my experience beyond words.
I returned to the States exhausted and enthused. It was a privilege and joy to share with my congregation at Edgebrook Covenant Church in Chicago an even more ringing endorsement and support of Covenant World Mission on the Sunday following my return. I had a first hand snapshot and knowledge of just a portion of all God is doing in Europe through our Covenant missionaries. Their dedication to Christ and efforts on behalf of his mission and kingdom is both inspiring and heartening. It changes lives. It changed mine.
Rev. Gregory S. Mesimore
Edgebrook Covenant Church, Chicago, IL