E-book: God's Bulgarian tapestry (Part 2)
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Missions International resource pages
by Howard Culbertson
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
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
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
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
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
SNU missions course materials and syllabi
Howard Culbertson, 5901 NW 81st, Oklahoma
City, OK 73132 | Phone: 405-740-4149 - Fax:
Updated: February 5, 2019
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