2. A Presidential Thread
The first American Nazarenes arrived in Bulgaria in the summer of 1994. From the very beginning, they've used sports as an icebreaker. It began with "pickup" soccer games on a school playground. Young adults from the U.S. would meet to play with neighborhood young people after school. Eventually, exhaustion would take over. As they sat resting, they would begin talking about more than just soccer. Conversations would often turn to deep spiritual issues. When cold weather arrived, a dilapidated old gym was found. The playground soccer games turned into basketball games.
The sports evangelism strands in this tapestry do not start there on that asphalt playground. They go back to 1962. That summer, a Venture for Victory basketball team recruited an All-American player from Pasadena College. The team had a sports evangelism tour scheduled in the Philippines. They had games planned against various Filipino teams. At halftime of those games, the American players did not go to the locker room. Instead, they stayed on the court to share their Christian testimony with the spectators.
That All-American basketball player from Pasadena was Loren Gresham. The trip to the Philippines was his first time outside the United States. It was a transforming experience. So, the next four years found him doing sports evangelism every summer. He began to wonder: "Shouldn't every Nazarene college student be involved in some significant cross-cultural missions experience?"
By 1967, Loren Gresham had about finished his master's degree. He landed a teaching at the Nazarene college in Bethany, Oklahoma. While teaching, he went on to complete his Ph.D. in international studies. Besides teaching history and political science, he also wound up as the school's basketball coach. Finally, after twenty years at SNU, Loren became the school's provost. Four years later, in 1989, he moved up to become the president.
That same year momentous things happened on the international scene. Just months after Loren Gresham became SNU's president, the Iron Curtain shattered. The communist empire fell apart. The once-feared Soviet Union dissolved.
The summer following his first year as university president, Loren Gresham went to Berlin. There, he met with several Nazarene leaders to brainstorm evangelistic strategies for eastern Europe. It was a productive meeting. They talked about ways to use Nazarene college students in the former Warsaw Pact nations. That Berlin "summit" produced some very concrete results. One was that students from several Nazarene colleges spent the summer of 1991 in Russia.
Loren continued to dream about longer term missions involvement for Nazarene college students. Most young Mormons spend two or three years as volunteer missionaries. That intrigued Loren Gresham. Finally, in the summer of 1993 his ideas had crystallized enough. He began talking sending young Nazarenes to mission fields for a year. It was a vision of new college graduates copying the "Mormon model" of volunteer service.
As the SNU president, Loren Gresham goes to district assemblies. There, he exhorts churches to send students and to give their educational budget commitments. In 1993, as he spoke to district assemblies on SNU's region, he outlined a dream: that of mobilizing young people for a year of volunteer missionary work. The young volunteers would serve primarily as helpers for career missionaries.
Two trips to eastern Europe were fresh in Loren's mind. American tourists were pouring into Russia. Some of those were Nazarenes. Loren Gresham saw missionaries Chuck and Carla Sunberg spending time caring for these tourists. That wasn't the focus of their missionary call, of course. They had gone to Moscow to evangelize the Russians, not care for Americans. So Loren began imagining how pairs of fresh college graduates could lighten those missionaries' load.
Loren envisioned pairs of young volunteers going to the airport to pick up visiting Nazarenes. They would then be the tour guides for U.S. visitors. The volunteers could even handle some office chores, such as bookkeeping and correspondence in English. They could help educate missionary children. And they would do all this at no cost to the church or the missionaries.
That same summer, Robert Scott, Nazarene World Mission Division director, attended the Dallas district assembly. Loren Gresham was there representing SNU. When Loren talked about his "Mormon model" idea, he got Dr. Scott's attention right away.
At that point, the church faced more open doors than it knew how to enter. Robert Scott had found one of those open doors on the Balkan peninsula. While in Bulgaria on a fact-finding visit, he had fallen in love with it. He liked the flower stalls lining cobblestone streets and the open-air cafes. They gave Bulgaria a homey, lived-in feeling. Robert Scott's interest in Bulgaria went beyond its attraction to him as a tourist. As he walked through Bulgaria's cities, he sensed God's call to Nazarenes to come. Unfortunately, Nazarene World Evangelism Fund resources were stretched way too thin. Following his trip to Bulgaria, Robert Scott was in the Dallas district assembly. There, he listened to Loren Gresham explain his "Mormon model" idea. He saw how, with minor alteration, Loren's idea could be used to enter Bulgaria.
At General Assembly that same summer, Loren was elected the General Board's lay college representative. Loren Gresham wound up on the General Board committee overseeing the World Mission Division. A few months later, Southern Nazarene University sent the General Board a written proposal. It outlined a way for the university to join forces with the General Board to start work in Bulgaria. SNU would provide the young volunteers; the World Mission Division would formulate the strategy and oversee them. In February of 1994, that proposal came before the Nazarene General Board. The partnership proposal was exactly what Dr. Scott had requested. Since Loren Gresham was on the General Board, he was also there to talk about it. So, it was swiftly approved.
By late May, the first volunteers started arriving in Sofia. Two months later Loren Gresham went to Bulgaria for a visit. Greeting him were eleven adult Nazarene volunteers, the first fruits of his vision.
As Dr. Gresham's dream of youthful volunteer missionaries has unfolded, not everything has gone smoothly. Bulgaria's political bureaucracy presented the volunteers with formidable challenges. Most of the first group of Nazarene volunteers were in Bulgaria on 30-day visas. About once a month they had to exit Bulgaria. They would usually cross the border into a neighboring country for a day of sightseeing. When they reentered Bulgaria, they got a fresh entry stamp in their passports. That gave them thirty more days in Bulgaria. This did allow (or force) them to visit other countries. It also made for some uncertainty in their ministry.
The government did not have to keep giving those visa renewals. In fact, one day team members left government offices with glum faces. Officials had just said that new visa renewals would not be forthcoming. It was nearly Christmas. It was supposed to be a season of joy. For those volunteers in Sofia, however, there was considerably more apprehension than joy. It looked like they might have to return home or transfer to another country.
It was an uncertain time. At one point, Linda Gresham said to her husband, "Maybe we got in over our heads."
She was right. From a human point of view, the university was in over its head. This was a pioneer faith adventure into uncharted territory. Christian colleges struggle to recruit students and stay solvent financially. Partnering with a mission board for work overseas seems far different from that. That's why there's a university president thread in the tapestry. It's hard to imagine weaving it without Loren Gresham. . . . [ continue reading ]
Thread from empty spools
|We needed to keep doing even more, ever reaching into new areas. But, with resources already stretched thin, how could we? How could we do anything more? Had the resources stretched as far as they possibly go while still having some effectiveness? . . . [ read more ]|