Shortly before leaving Australia in January 1994, we received a letter from a lady missionary, and for a moment I wondered whether to dismiss it as misguided advice. Her words were along these lines: “Please remember that God is not taking you to Colombia to change the Colombian people, but to change you.” For a moment it seemed contrary to our purpose for going to Colombia. We were going to reach people who are lost in sin and needed to be changed, and we had the message that can change their lives. I never did pass those words off as misguided advice. I have held those words close to my heart during the last 24 years and they have served us well.
We came from a 250-hectare sugar cane and cattle property at Wallaville, 60 kms west of Bundaberg, to a 90-square meter second story apartment in an enclosed complex. We hung our clothes in a dingy corner of the apartment, inside with no sun and little breeze. The jeans would take so long to dry that they would begin to smell. In frustration, Lyn hung them inside of the only window of significant size, which happened to be the lounge room window. Half an hour later, she got a call from administration saying she needed to remove the clothes from the window as the neighbors were complaining and it was against the regulations!
Our seven-year-old rode his bike down the driveway and found himself under a car coming out from the underground car park, and later he threw a stone in the air and it went astray and ended up smashing someone’s window. Our teenage children were frustrated by the changes they were experiencing — the cultural changes, the attitudes of the people who thought we were American and made us feel unwelcome. Then when they find out we were not American they wanted to be our best pals — so that we could give them a helping hand to get into Australia.
Then there is the local church. Praise the Lord that would be different. But no, they are human too and so are we. My first preaching experience in Tulua was one of humiliation. I had spent days preparing my message in Spanish, and then took it to a fellow who lived nearby so he could correct my grammar. I preached my message, reading every word. As I stepped down from preaching a brother stepped forward and said, “I didn’t understand a word you said.” My heart sank and I felt frustrated so I asked another brother if he understood my message. He told me that he understood and not to feel bad. But I remembered those words: “God didn’t bring me to Colombia to change them, it’s about changing me.”
During these 24 years God has had a hard job of changing us, and there’s still a way to go. Byron is different to Lyn and she has had her own personal struggles and stories of frustration, such as her home not being home. In our second year our house was the church and the meetings were held in the garage. The plates disappeared and turned up in other places. And there were the personal attacks on our kids because they just didn’t fit the mould, they were different from the other missionary kids. The trouble was that the believers had never had the other missionary kids living with them 24/7, but that didn’t seem to matter. That didn’t help the godliness of our kids either. They are human and reacted also to the situation — in not the most godly way at times.
Those first few years saw a church of about 20 people breaking bread, decline to five people. Infighting between Christians and the missionaries and their kids didn’t help either. Tears of joy with the conversion of Alirio ( the first person to be saved after we arrived to Tulua) were soon changed to tears of sadness because of gossip and slander. Alirio didn't come back. He was a simple fellow and had been damaged by ungodly slander from within. That event brought us to five people breaking bread, four ladies and myself. I had to discipline the only other man and his wife. That was probably the lowest moment of our ministry, but it was the turning point. Since then God has built from the ashes a growing church — not a perfect church by any means. There are still those with loose tongues; there are still the attacks on family and the personal attacks — but they are the exception, not the norm. We praise God because He is a faithful God. He is building His church and it isn’t our fight. That is one of the great truths of Scripture that we have learnt: “I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” We have Godly men and women around us whom we love and are loved by them.
While none of us like tribulations, James reminds us that it is for our benefit. It is to produce patience in impatient people. We thank God for all that has gone on before that has been there to mould us into those vessels of clay that we are — fragile but useful in the Master’s hands.
As we reach out into other areas we see repeated many of the same situations that we experienced in those early years, with the exception that now we have the advantage of hindsight and the confidence that only God can give.
Some of those early believers returned and are still with us. They too have been reshaped by the Potter’s hands. They have been through the furnace and have mellowed. Only this week Olmey (our co-worker) mentioned one man in particular who really gave us grief in those early years. He spent several years away from the Lord but came back repentant. Today he is more tolerant and accepting. Sadly, he lost his children to the world, but he is again walking with the Lord.
We have had the privilege of having our daughter and son-in-law (Alissa and Samuel) involved in the Lord’s work in the campsite and Bible Institute, which is in a small town about 20 minutes away from Tulua. Their three children bring us a lot of joy. They have been through some hard times, but testify to God’s faithfulness in every area of their lives. This year there were not enough students to run the Bible Institute, but several students have shown interest in attending next year.
Over the years we have learned to slow down and accept a culture that is not time-orientated and the favorite word that is used is ‘tomorrow’. “Come back tomorrow” — tomorrow means any time in the future. The health system is frustrating and often vital medical tests and needed treatments are put off for months or years, and the only option is to sue the health fund. Often people die before they receive the diagnoses and treatment they need.
Colombians are not ashamed to show their emotions. When they are happy they are very happy, and when they are angry it is best to stay out of their way. There are several murders in our area every week. Most families have felt the grief of losing a family member to violence, and facing the reality of death has caused them to turn to God. Over the years we have had a few times when our lives have been in danger. It isn’t nice to be looking over your shoulder each time you leave the house. Thankfully, it was only for a matter of days and life settled down again. Each time we have seen God’s mighty hand of protection and felt His peace. Our home has metal railings on the windows and doors and a two-story brick wall around the backyard. There is a watchman in our street 24/7. Thankfully we have never had our house broken into.
The Colombian people are very warm, sociable and hospitable. They will go without food to present us with the best meal they can afford. It is quite acceptable to visit without telling them you are coming, and most will stop what they are doing and gather their family members around them to hear the gospel preached, study the Bible and let us pray with them (Christians and non-Christians alike). It is not often that there is open opposition. We are so thankful for the open doors and feel we need to make the most of these wonderful opportunities.
And he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. — 2 Corinthians 12 :9
A quote from ‘Our Daily Bread’: “…it is easy to forget that we are the packaging and His work is the treasure…which is why Paul says, the treasure has been put in jars of clay so that God would be the one to be glorified. Besides, since when are jars of clay significant? It’s what’s inside that counts!”
by Byron Johannesen