Beyond The Veil: Ministering in the Gulf States

“And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (Genesis 17:18)

We had anticipated this trip for months with mixed emotions. We had heard it over and over, “You’re going where?!” The exclamation mark that ended our preparations and began our final and longest leg of travel to the Gulf States happened in the bowels of the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, as we were about to board our Etihad Airlines flight.

Flanked on every side by men in white robes and head wraps, and women in black abayas and hijabs, our emotions were on high alert. Looking to foster a sense of camaraderie, my husband casually asked a fellow traveller if he was going to be on this flight. Unfortunately, his response of, “NO, I’m not getting on that plane!” did nothing to alleviate our tension, and just like that, we were off to the Gulf States.

After flying through the night, we arrived Wednesday at midnight, exhausted, and very relieved to see the Worker’s smiling face there to welcome us. He loaded our luggage into his SFC vehicle and drove us to his home to get some sleep.

Early the next morning, we woke to a myriad of new sights, sounds, and smells, assuring us that our long journey had not been a dream. The Muslim call to prayer broke the predawn hush, sounding completely foreign to our ears.

Our senses were overloaded as we got out for some sightseeing on Thursday. We spent the day getting acclimated, touring downtown, the market and the local mall. We saw beautiful architecture the likes we had never seen before, and a vast desert landscape resembling a windswept canvas. Transposed against the muted earth tones of the desert, and the stark black and white robes, were the vibrant colors of the people’s zeal for living. Plush rugs, cashmere scarves, fringed veils, and always the aroma of incense wafting in the air. Amber, Jasmine, Frankincense.

Over all, we saw people going about their daily lives. Even though the unfamiliarity of their wardrobe and language seemed strange, seeing families with their children in tow, while they shopped for groceries and other household necessities, helped us to put things in perspective. People are people all over the world.

People are people all over the world. Click To Tweet

As darkness fell on Thursday night, it was time for our first service. It was to be a preliminary meeting for the official anniversary service that would be the next morning. Anxiety, that had been dispelled through the day, snaked back into our minds, as we wondered how we could have service in such a closed place.

Several people, dressed in traditional attire, walked by in front of us as we crossed the street to enter the rented building. At this point, we simply had to trust the Workers’ judgement, who were living and raising their family here.

You might expect that we found a pitiful group of worshippers, huddled together in whispered prayer, fearfully looking over their shoulders. You would be mistaken. This group of 30-40 believers welcomed us with joyful embraces and hand shakes. They listened intently as the Word was delivered, and worshipped afterward with zealous abandon.

The keyboard, drums and electric guitars were just as loud as any back home. We cast several questioning glances at the Workers, to which they simply smiled and continued their enthusiastic worship. We had no choice but to trust and enjoy the atmosphere of pure praise. Later, it was explained to us that the platform and windows were lined with sound reducing material, which kept much of the sound localized and muted to the outside.

Friday morning, which is the religious day in this area of the world, we gathered in a banquet room of a local restaurant. To the Believers, it was their sixth anniversary service. To everyone else, it was just another festive occasion, complete with decorations and a buffet afterwards. Once again, the worship was unrestrained, and this time, there was no soundproofing to buffer the enthusiasm. This small group knew how to throw a great “party,” as seventeen people received the Spirit!

Afterward, as we gathered for the meal, several of the Workers’ local friends joined us for fellowship. The women talked about raising babies, and the men spoke of their shared interest in business and farming. There was much that went unsaid among the group, but was understood nevertheless. I looked around the table at the diversity of nationalities, cultures, languages, and was in awe of the privilege to be in this moment. As I was pondering what it all meant, and where it would lead, a young Muslim wife, dressed in her black abaya and head covering, walked around the table to where I was sitting, knelt at my feet, and presented me with the gift of a beautiful bracelet that she had brought from her village. She held my gaze with her dark henna eyes, as she offered me her friendship. I wondered, if the roles were reversed, would I have offered the same to her?

Location-1 was outgrowing its borders. Forty to fifty Believers are all that can congregate together without drawing undue attention. The Workers took us to see a fifth floor apartment, which had been newly acquired for a second meeting place. We were thrilled to learn that one of the rooms was to be used to start the first Word School in the country. Again, this facility was padded with extra thick carpet, a lifted platform, sound reducing material packed into the windows, and heavy drapes. As you read this, Location-2 is thriving, and working toward a third location in the city.

We traveled south by plane to a more remote city for another assemblies’ one year anniversary service. Location-1 had been flying two people weekly for a year to this city in order to establish, teach and stabilize this daughter work.

We stayed in a beautiful hotel where the group assembled in a banquet room each week. We were definitely not going to blend in here, where everyone that we passed in the hallways was dressed in their traditional attire. Once again, we asked ourselves how we could possibly have a service in this clearly closed place.

The next morning we awakened to rhythmic percussion and voices lifted to lively music. The banquet room was a few doors down, and these Believers were apparently very serious about their praise team practice. My husband and I looked at one another in disbelief, and I said what proved to be prophetic, “You know they’re only going to get louder.”

Once again, we had a powerful celebration service, complete with music, decorations, and a buffet filled with food. Sixteen new Believers were Spirit filled in that service, making a total of thirty-three new babies in all. Most of these were immersed in the Only Saving Name at a later time, after we and the Workers had left.

Although we have a long list of personal stories we could tell about the people we met, one most reflects the hearts of the people we encountered. My husband and the Worker went out for a few hours on a guy excursion to visit a nearby camel farm. As they wandered up, uninvited and unannounced, there was a group of shabab (young men) in their late teens and early twenties hanging out, as youth do.

My husband’s spiritual sensors immediately went on alert as he wondered how he would be received. He had no need to worry. Hospitality permeates even the culture of their young people. The young men welcomed them into their tent, made them hot tea, which they drank while sitting on the floor, talking, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. My husband was even treated to a free camel ride, which he may or may not have fallen off of.

We think often of the man in the airport, at the beginning of our journey, who reacted with such hostility at the thought of boarding “that plane.” When we juxtapose that image alongside these young men’s hospitality, and the memory of my new friend on her knees at my feet, offering a gift, our hearts are saddened to realize the majority of the people we know and love will never have the opportunity to overcome their fear, and come to know these precious people.

I have heard that the Total Immersion Technique is the most productive when learning a new language. This is exactly what we experienced. We were totally immersed in the culture of the Gulf States. In twelve days, we went from being anxious and awkward, to loving these people like family. The sights, sounds, smells and faces, once so foreign, are forever part of us. We will continue to carry the people they represent with us, and lift them up in prayer. Their story has become ours, and we are honored to be able to tell it for them.

Warm Regards, -Pat Vick

As always, feel free to leave a comment, share to social media, SUBSCRIBE to my newsletter, and email me: Pat@PATVICK.COM.

*NOTE: This article was previously published in the May/June 2017 issue of The Pentecostal VOICE of Tennessee magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tongan General Confrence 2016

“Let them give glory unto the Lord, and declare his praise in the islands.”

(Isaiah 42:12)img_0841As we approached for landing on the main island of Tongatapu, two things made an impression on us concerning Tonga and her people. From the air we saw her magnificent blowholes. It seemed to us that no one could live alongside such beauty and not be deeply affected in their souls by its splendor. We also saw her patchwork of dark, volcanic farmland. Considering their 2016 General Conference theme was to be, “FLASHPOINT: Having a Mind to Work,” those rich, fertile furrows assured us that these people were definitely no strangers to hard work.

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Tennessee Missionary Sis. Crystal Reece, was awaiting our arrival, having been in Tonga for the past three years on her first appointment. On the same flight were fellow Tennesseans, Missionary Evangelist Monte and Sis. Diane Showalter along with Tennessee Global Missions Director, Gary and Sis. Pat Vick. Pacific Regional Director, Roger and Sis. Becky Buckland would be arriving later that day.img_0819The Tongan people are very hospitable. We were honored with a Welcome Feast when we arrived at the UPCI Headquarters Church and Bible School. The team was overwhelmed and humbled by platter after platter mounded with food that they had sacrificed to prepare.img_0837Services didn’t begin until Thursday evening, allowing us a few days to see the sights and get our bearings. A van had been rented, enabling our group to travel together. It was during this time that we first visited Tonga’s acclaimed blowholes at low tide. Here, ocean waves crashed into porous channels of volcanic rock, and blew skyward for twenty to thirty feet, in a great symphony of spray and sound. We were also able to drive through the countryside, taking in the sights, sounds and culture of these wonderful people.img_0820Even though they have little in the way of money or material possessions, they utilize every natural resource to enrich their lives. One example of this is their beautiful Tapa Cloth, which they make by pressing the bark of trees into paper-like sheets and decorating them with dye made from local berries. These are coveted pieces of artwork that are given as gifts in friendship and are also essential to the foundation of Tonga’s tourism. Missionary Crystal Reece said it best, “Tongans think they are so poor, but they are really so rich, and have so much to offer.”img_0828Once the conference started on Thursday evening, sightseeing was put to the side, and pressing into the Spirit became our focus. Bro. Showalter was the day speaker. With each session he laid a solid foundation of Apostolic teaching on the New Birth. Bro. Vick was the night speaker, focusing on moving forward into new levels of faith and commitment. Sis. Showalter and Sis. Vick ministered in the ladies’ service on Saturday. The Lord had prepared each speaker with messages that built upon the conference theme, “FLASHPOINT: Having a Mind to Work.”img_0840From the first song in the kick off service, it was apparent that the Tongan Church loves to worship. They are a naturally joyful people. This was manifested again and again, whether it was through their colorful clothing, the smiles on their faces, their beautiful voices as they harmonized in song, or their eagerness to dance with zeal in praise and worship. Since modesty is a cultural norm in Tonga, their long, fully-covered style of clothing allowed freedom in worship. The atmosphere compelled each of us to join in with exuberance.img_0824Each message had to be translated from English to Tongan. Bro. Showalter was overjoyed that his translator was the same man who had translated for him fifteen years before as a young man. What a joy to know he was still thriving in the Church and in ministry.

Bro. Vick’s translator and his family had travelled from the Tongan island of Vava’u (where he pastors) by ferry for twenty-four hours on rough seas to come to the conference. It humbled our hearts to realize that many did not live on the main island of Tongatapu, but had been so desperate for the Word of God and the fellowship of the brethren that they had come at great risk and sacrifice from the outer islands by boat. You might recall a story in the news from several months ago of a ferry that capsized with several hundred souls lost to the sea. This happened within fifty miles and could have been any of these precious saints of God.img_0830The structure of the conference was the same as one would expect at our North American General Conference. This is important to note because the United Pentecostal Church work in Tonga is only forty-five years young. We were blessed to meet eighty year old, Sis. Ofa Manu. She, along with her late husband, were the first UPCI converts in 1971 by Missionary Don Dobyns.img_0808Because of the strong structural foundation that was laid over the last forty-five years, there is a strong Bible School presence in Tonga today. We witnessed three new Bible School students graduate and be presented at this year’s conference. Sis. Crystal has worked tirelessly over the past three years in the Bible School on her first appointment, as well as several years previously in the Associates In Missions program under the leadership of former Pacific Regional Director, Bennie Blunt.img_0831 img_0832

Friday was Missions Night. There was great anticipation from the beginning of service. When the offering was taken, a spirit of giving flooded the sanctuary. The congregation began to flock to the altar to put their offering in the baskets provided. The giving was not done grudgingly, but with a joyful expectancy that God would use every single pa’anga for furthering the gospel.

In the spirit of sacrificial giving, one Tongan minister brought his ta’ovala and placed it on the altar as his offering. The ta’ovala is a woven mat worn wrapped around the waist on formal occasions. In the fashion sense, it is comparable to men’s neckties in North America, but with a great sentimental value. It is woven with many strands to represent community and tied with a four-strand rope to represent family. It is usually one of the only possessions of monetary value that a Tongan man would own, and is passed down from generation to generation.

It took only a few seconds for the congregation to realize what had just taken place before there was an explosion of praise, worship and more giving. Another Tongan minister, who had just received his Local License in this conference, walked to the front and placed his shoes on the altar. He worshipped the rest of the service barefooted. The image of the baskets of pa’anga, the ta’ovala and the shoes of a barefoot worshipper are seared into our minds.img_0811

Being the final day of conference, Sunday was a full day. We arrived to find all the beautiful children dressed in their very best, eagerly waiting to go in for a Sunday School presentation. They melted our hearts as they quoted scriptures and sang, “This Little Light of Mine in both Tongan and English.img_0805That evening, we were privileged to witness as Pacific Regional Director, Bro. Roger Buckland gave the charge to a minister and his wife receiving his Ordination License.img_0821The 2016 Tongan General Conference concluded Sunday night with twenty-two people having been filled with the Holy Ghost. That final worship service was phenomenal as the people praised God for all they had seen and experienced. After all, it had to be enough to carry them back across the sea until the next time they could gather with their brothers and sisters in the Lord.img_0835Monday came all too soon with the team members heading in different directions, some preparing to go home and others traveling on to scheduled conferences. The week had been so full that we hardly had the time to wonder how we would feel when the conference came to an end. Old friendships were rekindled. New friendships were forged. In both old and new, hearts were united for the cause of Missions.img_0839

Our one last trip to the blowholes was at high tide. What had been beautiful was now so much more. With the rising of the tide, every distinguishable characteristic had been enhanced. It was so majestic and powerful that at least one of us wept. However, in all of its glorious splendor, even this natural wonder could not compare to the glory of the Church in Tonga and around the world.img_0838