Though Jon Merchant’s geological satellite mapping job has taken him to Africa nearly 20 times, and he’s seen missions work up close, he’s learning that he doesn’t have to cross the ocean to help fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. He and his wife, Cindi, who as a young girl dreamed of becoming a missionary, can tell people about Jesus right where they live.
And now with My Hope With Billy Graham just over a month away, Jon and Cindi know they can be Christ’s ambassadors in Sioux Falls, S.D., and that their home can become an embassy for His Kingdom.
Jon and Cindi live at Country View Mobile Home Park. Their ministry outreach began there, but it has expanded to the nearby Pine View Mobile Home Park. Both are within two miles of where they worship at Cross Pointe Baptist Church.
“God gave us first the burden for our neighbors and friends, and now it’s extended to other mobile home parks in our vicinity,” Jon explains.
Each spring, Jon and Cindi receive permission to throw a huge block party, complete with popcorn, cotton candy and snow cones. At these events, they publicize handyman work projects that out-of-state church mission teams will do for older or disabled residents. And they promote upcoming summer Kidz Clubs, which include Bible stories, songs, games and crafts—also led by the mission teams.
This past summer in the Pine View park, Jon and Cindi initiated a five-week outdoor Friday Film Night, during which they erected a 12-foot by 8-foot inflatable screen and showed four Christian films that highlighted biblical values, followed by the evangelistic My Hope program “Defining Moments,” which features Christian testimonies and a Gospel message by Billy Graham.
Residents at these mobile home parks did not immediately welcome this outreach. Jon says the vast majority of the 2,500-plus people who live there are un-churched. Some have even been openly antagonistic.
“People were suspicious,” Jon says. “They’d ask, ‘Why are you here? Nobody’s ever been here to help us before.'”
But over the past four years, walls of resistance have started tumbling, and residents are voicing their appreciation and embracing the ministry of words and deeds.
“Cindi and I are discovering that as we’re transparent and build bridges to genuine relationships, the people are allowing us to enter their lives, and they’re now listening to our Christ-centered message,” Jon explains. “As somebody once said, ‘It takes 10 years to be an overnight sensation.'”
Following the My Hope presentation, Patricia, a longtime Pine View resident, said: “I’ve had three groups come through over the years. They’ve worked on my home, my deck and inside my home, and what these traveling angels have done has been a total blessing to me.”
Sherri, who moved in two Labor Days ago, said she wasn’t planning to attend the My Hope program because her back hurt all day and she had family commitments. “But for some reason, I felt drawn here tonight, and I needed to come,” she said. “The program was touching.”
As the Merchants were packing things away, Cindi said, “These courts need reaching out to, and people are becoming more receptive, and seeds are being planted. I praise the Lord, for He is clearly at work here.”
God is also at work 490 miles away in De Pere, Wisc., outside Green Bay. That’s where Jason and Dorinda Steele live and are cultivating friendships with their neighbors.
During the 2012 Rock the Lakes Festival in Green Bay, Jason and Dorinda volunteered as counselors to people coming forward to make decisions for Jesus Christ.
Now they’re turning their attention to friends much closer to home. They’re being assisted by Caitlin Ewing, who works as director of operations for the Church of Northeast Wisconsin and lives on the lower level of the Steeles’ home. Jason and Dorinda’s two children—Reagan and Jacob—are also getting into the action.
On a hot and steamy June night, more than 50 neighbors converged on Jason and Dorinda’s driveway, where they had fun wolfing down gooey s’mores.
In late August, at a southern style barbecue, almost 25 neighbors brought side dishes and desserts while Jason and Dorinda provided the main course and drinks. This time, Jason fired up a smoker that he designed and a church friend constructed. As the smell of smoked brisket and pork shoulder wafted through the air, neighbors mingled and chatted. They especially enjoyed taking home the leftovers.
After each get-together, neighbors thanked Jason, Dorinda and Caitlin for hosting these socials. Several said they had lived there for years but had never met each other.
Following these events, the three privately thanked God for what He’s doing in their lives and in the lives of their friends. And they’re asking God for discernment and His blessing as they focus on a few couples and individuals with whom they’re connecting on a deeper level.
“We have lost the art of neighboring, and My Hope has provided a great opportunity for the Body of Christ to reclaim this,” Caitlin explains. “My Hope is empowering Christians to rally together, to gain courage and boldness as they grow in their identity in Christ, and ultimately to be released for ministry.”
As the Nov. 7 My Hope telecast approaches, Dorinda is getting both excited and nervous. That’s when their friends will come to their home and hear a simple, yet dynamic presentation of the Good News of God’s love, grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
“I’m learning the best way to share Christ with my friends is telling them what He has done in my life,” she says. “Real stories have the biggest impact because people can relate to them. It’s neat just to be considered worthy that God would want to use me to further His Kingdom.”
What inspires Jason is that Nov. 7 is only the beginning of something greater and something long term. “I think November is going to be the kickoff of everything,” he says. “We’ll be able to build on what’s begun, and Lord willing, trust that it will catch fire and start spreading.”
Kenny Qualls and the pastoral staff at First Baptist Church in Arnold, Mo., near St. Louis, are fully aware they’re not only in the people business, they’re in the modeling business. They know that their congregation is watching them closely and that they need to model personally what they’re asking their members to do.
So, the dozens of First Baptist families and individuals who are inviting people into their homes to watch the upcoming evangelistic My Hope With Billy Graham program won’t be alone.
Qualls and his ministerial team will also be serving as Matthew hosts, taking their cue from the Apostle Matthew, who invited his friends into his home to meet Jesus (Matthew 9:10). Just like their members, the First Baptist pastors are cultivating relationships with people they know who need Jesus. They will be asking their neighbors and other friends, along with work colleagues that their spouses know, to watch the My Hope program on Nov. 7. At the same time, they’ll be sharing their own testimony of how God is at work in their lives, and they’ll give their friends an opportunity to pray to receive Christ as Savior.
“We as a staff realize that if we don’t challenge ourselves to be engaged in the Great Commission, how can we ever expect our sweet church family to do that,” Qualls says. “We believe in modeling that. We, too, must roll up our sleeves and do the hard work.”
Bob Caldwell, pastor of outreach, agrees. “I’m still learning all kinds of new things about evangelism, but what’s more important is that I practice them,” he says. “I can take courage, however, in the fact that God is incredibly faithful, and the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of my non-Christian friends.”
At the turn of the millennium, Diane Bast was living the dream. She and her husband, Al, owned a successful automotive service and tire store. They adored their two children and five grandchildren, and they loved their church.
“I was enjoying an idyllic life,” Diane recalls. “Everything was perfect.”
Then Al was diagnosed with cancer. For two years, he and Diane fought the disease while continuing to operate the nine-bay auto facility in Arnold, Mo. In 2002, after 31 years of marriage, Al went home to Heaven.
“I went through the ‘Why me?’ phase,” Diane says. “But as I grew deeper in God’s Word and He ministered to my heart, He enabled me to transition to ‘Why not me?'”
Diane pushed forward, operating the company—still known as Al’s Automotive and Tire—under the same Christian principles as it was founded.
God has since brought Jim Berberich into Diane’s life, and the couple has been married nine years.
They’re business partners. And they’re ministry partners. They long to bring the love of Christ to neighbors, customers, employees and tenants at their rental property.
“Jim and I are always looking for ways to evangelize,” Diane says.
And God is opening doors. When a neighbor was battling cancer, Diane took over a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup. “She was in remission then,” Diane says, “and as we talked, God allowed me to witness and tell her I knew where Al was because Jesus was his Lord and Savior.”
That neighbor will be among those Diane and Jim invite to their home for the My Hope telecast.
“God has done so much for me and brought me so far,” Diane says. “I love letting people know about Jesus and that I can talk to a God who cares about me.”
RELYING ON GOD
When it comes to sharing his faith, Tom McBride is not afraid to be bold. But he’s learned not to be bombastic.
“When I used to strike up a conversation about the Christian faith, especially at work, I’d dive in headfirst,” Tom explains. “But at times, I’d come across like a loudmouth.”
Several years ago, God taught Tom that being boisterous can be a positive trait, if it doesn’t lead to being obnoxious.
“The Lord showed me to rein in some of my enthusiasm and my tendency to be argumentative—and to listen more to the person I was talking with,” Tom says.
“At first I became pretty quiet, which is tough because I like to talk,” he adds. “I’ve learned to be more sensitive and focus on people’s needs and serve them, while praying for opportunities to talk about Christ.”
Tom, who works for Procter and Gamble, and his wife, Sherry, are in the process of moving from an apartment complex into a residential neighborhood in Arnold, Mo. As a P&G employee, Tom can distribute free products, so he recently disseminated laundry detergent, toilet paper and other items to apartment neighbors, especially single moms.
“In this context of serving, Sherry and I can proclaim that Jesus saves,” Tom says. “When people see our love is genuine, that opens doors to speak.”
While Tom has wrestled with being too pushy, Sherry struggles with being overly reserved. “Evangelism is unnatural for me because I’m such a shy person,” she says. “So I’ve struggled with it. But I don’t stop trying to put myself out there. I pray about it a lot and get God’s help.”
That’s what Tom and Sherry will do come November. They’ll rely upon God as they invite friends to their home to watch the My Hope program.
“I can’t wait,” Tom says. “I’m fired up.”
LOOKING FOR OPPORTUNITIES
Pam Chiles and Duane Pitchford love a good party. Now they’re encouraging their respective Sunday school classes to join them in throwing parties on Nov. 7, in honor of Billy Graham during My Hope.
Duane leads a class of 28 men, ages ranging from 50 to 80. “I told them I wanted everybody who had been involved in a Super Bowl party to have a My Hope party,” he says.
The men latched onto the idea. “There will be a lot of them,” Duane says.
Duane will be teaming with his 45-year-old twin sons, Michael and Myron, to host a My Hope event at his house. “I’m always looking for opportunities and praying for divine appointments, especially with students I teach at St. Louis Community College,” he explains. “My Hope has helped me to be more intentional in my witnessing.”
That’s also true for Pam. She and her son, Greg, are food service contract operators, and she’s praying for several of her employees. “I have a passion for evangelism, but I still get a lump in my throat when I start talking with people about Jesus,” she says.
Not only is she praying for her non-Christian friends, she’s also praying that the 25 to 30 women in her Sunday school class will gain a heart for proclaiming Christ.
“The youngest is in her 20s, and the oldest I think is 92,” Pam says. “I’m asking that God will give them a vision for evangelism.”
Pam will be throwing a birthday party at her home in Mr. Graham’s honor. Petit fours will be served, and party favors will be handed to each guest—Mr. Graham’s book “Peace With God.”
“That was the first book I read when I became a Christian, and it, along with the Gospel of John, laid the spiritual foundation for me,” Pam says. “I can’t wait to see what God does through My Hope as we step out in obedience to do what He’s asked us to do.”
SENSING THE CALL
Derick Ragsdale had never been around kids, had never shared the Gospel before and had never been on a short-term missions trip.
Yet here he was with about 20 other people from his church headed to Aurora, Colo., for a weeklong missions outreach to some 40 children in two low-income apartment complexes.
“I felt totally uncomfortable the entire 15 hours on the way,” Derick remembers. “And then I got there, and God changed everything.”
Though anxious, Derick prayed and trusted that God would fill his heart with love for the kids they were serving. “Wow, God answered, and it was awesome,” he says.
Derick especially felt led to focus on two Burmese boys, ages 14 and 11. At week’s end, he had the privilege of presenting the Gospel to the 11-year-old and giving him a Bible, while a good friend shared Christ with the older boy. “He didn’t receive Christ then, but the seed was firmly planted,” Derick said.
On the way home, Derick prayed that God would give him the opportunity to tell his colleagues about the Lord at the dental lab where he works as an accountant. Upon his return, an associate asked how Derick’s week went, then inquired, “What’s a missions trip?” Derick plunged in.
Pretty amazing for a 25-year-old former atheist who committed his life to Jesus just two years ago through the ministry of First Baptist Church in Arnold.
Now Derick will be among a core of college students and young professionals from the church who will take part in My Hope.
“Derick is one of those who senses being called to live a sent-life of proclaiming the Gospel,” said Brad Russell, pastor to this group. “Once they start sharing and seeing their friends come to Christ, they’ll never stop.”
STANDING BY A FRIEND
Julia Geders knows the value of a loyal friend who sticks with you no matter what, even when you hit rock bottom.
In 1979, Julia met a woman named Nancy at the phone company where they worked. Nancy knew Jesus and often witnessed to Julia, who assumed herself a believer because of having grown up in church and having been baptized.
When Julia’s two sons, Joshua and Jacob, were born 34 and 30 years ago, respectively, she thought it would be important for them to be raised in the church. But Julia’s husband, Michael, wasn’t crazy about the idea.
Life started unraveling for Julia when Michael passed away a few years ago. She started drinking. She tried finding peace through Buddhism.
Nancy stood by Julia, always pointing her to the Savior. “For the longest time, I basically blew her off, but I was polite about it,” Julia says, shaking her head. “I strayed, but Nancy never gave up on me, even when I was at my lowest.”
When Julia moved from St. Louis to Jefferson County last year, she knew she would start attending First Baptist with Nancy. And that’s when she fully surrendered her life to Christ.
Now, the two widows will be inviting neighbors to Nancy’s home for My Hope. And Julia wants her sons to watch the program with her.
“People have seen the change in me, including my family, and I want to tell others what God has done for me,” Julia says. “What excites me is the possibility of saved lives.”