Buddy and Loren Fitzgerald, BJU grads, missionaries in Peru
“That is rough but unimaginable” were some of my first thoughts when I heard from missionary friends in Asia about their restrictions due to the coronavirus. Little did we know that, on March 15, the Peruvian president would announce one of the strictest and longest-running reactionary lockdowns in the world.
My name is Buddy Fitzgerald. I grew up in Greenville, SC, and attended Bob Jones from kindergarten through grad school. I was a missions major in undergrad and was required to do a missions internship. I say “required,” but it was really more like “thrilled.” I prayed about the opportunity very seriously, knowing that God could end up directing me to that location long term. I arrived in Peru for a two-month stint in May 2003 to work with a family in the mountains and jungles of central Peru. The Lord did some real work in my heart during that time and eventually led my wife and me back to Peru. We were approved by Baptist World Mission to go to Peru in the spring, and I finished my M.A. program with the seminary in May 2006. After just one very busy year of deputation, the Lord had brought in all our support, and we moved to Peru in August 2007.
We spent a short time in the mountains working with some veteran missionaries to hone our language skills and cultural understanding and to form friendships. However, our hearts were in the jungle. We came to Peru to share the gospel with those who have never had a chance to hear. (Please read Romans 15:20-21 if you don’t have it memorized… Go ahead. I´ll wait!)
Over the years, we have made dozens of river trips, ranging from medical, dental, or wellness, to preaching, discipleship, or exploration trips. We even flipped our boat one time and were stranded on a rainforest river beach (with two babies) for a little while. We still have not been able to move into a tribal village long-term, but we continue to work towards that goal while we plant a church, support national church-plants, and establish a base-station for Amazon jungle ministry.
As soon as the lockdown was announced, we knew that it would greatly affect a lot of our church folks and obviously many others in town. We began by praying that the Lord would open doors for us, allow us to serve others, and direct our steps in order to avoid long or short-term problems. During the first two weeks, we were giving out packages of foodstuffs to church families and their contacts. However, at the beginning of April, all of that changed. A neighbor lady came for food, and we mentioned to her that if any other family or friends needed food, she could send them our way as well. Within a few minutes small groups started arriving, and, as each group came, I preached the gospel, and we gave each person a package of food. We had some ministry funds but knew they couldn’t last long. The second day we had over one hundred people show up, and the third day there were more than two hundred people. I preached the gospel dozens of times, knowing that many of the people who came had not heard a clear presentation of the gospel before.
I asked the people to come at 8 am, Monday through Saturday, but, very shortly, we had people forming lines outside as early 1 or 2 am. Peru has a social medicine system, so Peruvians are used to going to the hospital very early to get a spot before returning at normal hours to see a doctor. As a family, we were spending hours every morning making and sharing these “care packages,” then going to buy more supplies in bulk, before spending several more hours packing more bags. Thankfully, the Lord later gave us wisdom to change our system, saving us a lot of time and energy.
One of the most amazing things that happened was seeing God work. We decided as a family that we would not ask for funds at all. We would simply pray and show what God was doing here. As we did so, dozens of people began asking how they could give. And give they did! Through many sacrificial offerings of individuals and churches, we have been able to distribute tens of thousands of food packages. The Lord brought in over $70k for this emergency relief effort!
The country of Peru officially lifted the quarantine for most of the country just recently, but our region is one that is still under lockdown. We are nearing 4 months at this point and have unfortunately seen too much death here. We have numerous friends and acquaintances who have died from COVID-19, including our mechanic, medical contacts, and even pastor friends. My auto-mechanic, Alfredo, worked on my cars for many years. He was close to my age, and I’m very thankful that I presented the gospel to him on several occasions. Recently we had some deep talks, and I pray that he put his faith in Jesus before ending his time on earth.
Obviously, our greatest joy at this time is the spiritual work that the Lord has done. After a few weeks of preaching, I started thinking about the end of the quarantine and began to give out my cell number to the folks. I told them that if they would send me a message, I would add them to an electronic Bible study group. I have had over 170 people write to me and join our online Bible study! We have seen over 40 people make professions of faith during these months, and many of them are preparing for a public testimony by baptism! Finally, numerous church folks and even unsaved friends have come to help in this daily labor. It is a great joy to continue making disciples of Jesus!
David, Northern Africa
Deputation is tough. There is, of course, great good that comes from it, and in a practical sense, it is necessary in this age for the advancement of the gospel. But the unavoidable fact remains that deputation is difficult. The missionary on deputation faces long, circuitous trips across the country, the pressure of engaging with hundreds of individuals in condensed periods of time, the loneliness of never really developing close friendships, the emotional stress of depending almost entirely on the generosity of others for necessities like food and clothes, and the awkwardness of trying to express a deeply-felt, sometimes lifelong ministry burden in a way that inevitably ends up sounding a bit like a sales pitch.
None of this ought to be discouraging for prospective missionaries. Indeed, I would hasten to point out that our overall experience on deputation has been very positive. But it behooves us to be prepared and to count what costs pursuing a life in missions may include. Still, there are some costs that one cannot fully prepare for ahead of time because they lie so completely out of human control. Such has been the case with the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent global restrictions on meetings and travel. For many missionaries – including our family – COVID-19 pushed deputation from difficult to almost impossible.
The spring and the fall are often the busiest times for deputation since churches tend to emphasize missions or hold conferences during those months. As such, we rely heavily on those times for advancing our support-raising efforts. Throughout March and April, we were scheduled to be in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. By the second week of March, we began receiving phone calls from pastors informing us that they would have to cancel their plans because of restrictions in their states. Quite literally in a matter of three or four days, our entire spring schedule was cleared out. Eventually, we lost all of our meetings through the end of June.
These were tough blows. Missionaries don’t just stumble onto meetings while traveling; they’re a precious commodity. Obviously, meetings bring the possibility of committed support and another step towards on-field service, but there are other benefits as well. For many of us on deputation, love offerings are not just nice – they get us through the month. We had worked hard to get our schedule put together, and several of these churches seemed like they held good potential for us. But, one by one, the calls came, and I found myself taking an eraser to my planner.
We were thankful that most pastors were sympathetic and willing to work on rescheduling us, but as of now, only one has actually settled on a new date. Of course, we understand their situation. The stresses of shepherding a congregation through an epidemic and unknowns about restrictions in the future obviously affect the ability of church leaders to confidently say anything about missionary visits. Many churches have faced great economic burdens as church attendance plummeted to zero. We simply cannot expect churches to take from the needs of their own sheep to tend to ministries elsewhere. But the discouragement was still sharp. We were hopeful that after our spring meetings, we would have moved ahead in our support by several percentage points. As of now, we’ve simply flatlined and do not know how much longer it will take to make up for what feels a bit like lost weeks. The situation has certainly pushed back our target date by several months.
In one way, all of this simply underscores the foundational role of the local church in accomplishing the task of missions. Without churches meeting regularly, the progress of sending new missionaries comes to a grinding halt. This, I believe, is to be expected under a biblical philosophy of missions. But in another way, the situation highlights the need for serious reflection on the deputation process and how we might better prepare for contingencies such as the ones we are now facing.
Many churches have turned to social media for their “meetings” during these months. Platforms such as Facebook and Zoom have become key ways for churches to stay connected with one another. But they also may hold interesting opportunities for deputation. Using them, missionaries have been able to initially present their burden to church leaders and engage with small groups across the country without actually having to travel. We were invited to participate with one church’s prayer meeting via Zoom and were able to share updates with them. Another church invited us to share our burden with their missions committee by the same platform. The possibility for pastors and missionaries to “meet” this way early in the process of forming relationships, before deciding to make an expensive trip, could prove beneficial to both senders and goers.
Still, there are other complexities to consider. We were counselled by many people to publish videos on Facebook and YouTube for pastors and churches to watch since we couldn’t travel. That may be wise in many cases, but security risks prohibit us from utilizing publicly accessible forms of communication. Participating in open livestream services was often simply not an option for us, given our target field. This severely limits our ability to connect with churches when almost all connections are being done over public social media. Small groups on platforms such as Zoom are helpful, but the churches that were ready to host such meetings for us were few and far between. I don’t know that I have a simple solution for how missionaries like us can best proceed under the circumstances.
Nevertheless, this time has also taught us some truly wonderful things. First, we have seen the Lord provide for us in meaningful and encouraging ways. We really have only lost a small fraction of support, despite many churches facing financial stress. Indeed, some churches and individuals gave extra to our ministry to help us during these months, and these gifts are precious to us. God provides for His people by His people, and this principle holds true through all the storms of this world.
We have also learned patience and contentment. Paul himself learned to be abased and to abound through the strength of Christ, and we are finding that it is a sweet secret to learn. Deputation was never really in our control. The Lord is the Lord of the harvest; we are unprofitable servants. There is indeed a great deal of rest to be found in that truth. The Lord knows the right time for us to leave America, and it is for us to believe that He is right and rejoice in it.
Finally, God has renewed our understanding that deputation is about service to the church. It is not about us, ultimately. We may, in the providence of God, never reach our field, but if His Spirit has moved through us to increase the devotion of one congregation, we are pleased. It would be a strange sort of Christian who claimed a desire to spend his or her life building up the church in far off places who also sneered at opportunities to serve the church at home. And now that we’ve been home for so long, we genuinely miss being with God’s people and stirring them up for the glorious work of missions.
COVID-19 has brought about complex problems for missionaries on deputation, and there are no simple answers for most of them. But it has also done us some good. It has brought us focus and has built patience. And, in a strange sort of way, it’s shown us that we long to be on the road again. It has given us certainty about two things – that deputation is tough, and that we miss it.
Shadrach Nyeko, BJU Grad
What do you do when you find yourself in a situation that feels completely out of hand? I am writing this article from a country in Africa that has already been under coronavirus lockdown for more than eighty days. Travel regulations and curfews are now normal things around here. But before all this became normal, I had the opportunity to personally experience and observe how others reacted to the new situation as it developed.
I left the States on March 19th, a week after BJU announced that all classes would continue online. At that time, the global panic was just beginning to set in. When I arrived at the airport here at home, I was welcomed by a team of Ministry of Health (MOH) officials who guided me to walk through two temperature guns, pre-set to monitor those arriving. Following that initial screening, my passport was confiscated, and my temperature was taken again using a hand-held device. When they saw that I was arriving from USA which was considered (at the time) a category one country, along with China, S. Korea, and others, I was ushered into a waiting area. All this happened in the space of about thirty minutes. As I sat there waiting, it started to dawn on me that this might not be a very pleasant reentry. With my passport gone, I could already feel that the reins were out of my hands.
About forty-five minutes later, two men came back with our passports and started reading off names, one by one. I was given my passport and led into the immigration line. But, when I handed in my passport to the immigration official to be stamped, it was impounded for the second time – this time never to be returned. No one else was allowed to keep their passports beyond there. At this point, the normal airport exits had been sealed off. I was permitted to collect my baggage then told to sit and wait, again. I could feel the anxiety beginning to build up within the crowd of arrivals. At this time, a list of pre-selected isolation sites began being passed around with the idea that each person should select where to be taken. I felt a little better, but that feeling did not last. After waiting for almost two hours with no information whatsoever, the anxiety in the crowd quickly turned into vigorous agitation. A few people started to question the MOH officials and guards who had also been passively standing there. The buses which I imagined should take us to the various quarantine places were also parked in plain sight the entire time, so nobody understood why there was a delay.
When all these questions were met with no clear answers, the rowdiness of the crowd started to rise. Some people started threatening to forcefully walk out. There was a wide range of emotions there, from those who sat in silence to those yelling at guards. Some calls were made, and eventually, we were allowed to start boarding the mini-buses. It was 2 a.m. when I boarded. The intensity of the scene further escalated when three army men armed with AK-47s joined us on the trip to the quarantine zone. At this point, many were cursing and saying all sorts of things. To make matters worse, the place was covered in millions of lake flies as the rain poured in the typical tropical fashion. As for me, I was more concerned about the costs of quarantine for the fourteen days. So, I chose a place on the cheaper end of the spectrum from the available options. As it turns out, that may have been a bad choice. Along with me were a missionary lady from Oregon, a teacher from the Netherlands, and Somali businessmen traveling from Amsterdam. This place was so remote that even the driver couldn’t locate it. After several attempts to find it, someone came to lead us there. The road was a very narrow dirt path with a cliff-like drop on one side, eroded away by running water.
When we arrived in the walled, quarantine compound, it was pitch black, and the ground was flooded to ankle level. I made my way to the reception room with a small flashlight, ferrying luggage with me. Names were written in a big book, and we were asked to pay the entire fee upfront. Since some of us could not do so, the boss gave us a grace period following some discussion. I was then ushered to my room for the night by candlelight. It was already 5 a.m. when I set foot in that room. That was the first day, and all of it was only an indicator of what was to come. Over the next two weeks, we would be heavily guarded by police and army men and checked every day. After the 14-day period, no information was given as to when we would be let out. We had been tested, but no results were ever given. From day 14 to day 25 when I finally got out, it was one minute after the other of helpless waiting and wondering what would happen next.
In addition to multiple messages and prayers from friends, church, and family, the words that kept me comforted during this period were from my pastor’s preaching in Daniel 1. He said, “No matter where we go, no matter where we are, our sovereign God is there, even in enemy territory, faithfully guiding our faithful steps, preserving us and accomplishing his purposes.” When confronted with a seemingly out of hand situation, the first step is to recognize that nothing is ever truly out of hand. If it is not in my hands, it was never there to begin with. If God is truly sovereign, which He is, then nothing can ever get out of His hands.
The MOH officials at my quarantine site were always trying to assert their authority in whatever way possible. The two men from Amsterdam comforted themselves with beer on a daily basis. The American lady did everything right for the 14-day period, but after her discipline did not pay off, she started to boil up, eventually bursting out into full aggression, yelling, and spewing out all sorts of unsanitary words. When a situation gets out of my hands, my flesh tempts me to react in a way that makes me feel heard. But what if in such situations, we made sure that it was God’s voice being heard? In the midst of my own troubled heart, God gave me the opportunity to share the gospel with two policemen, one army doctor, four occupants, and especially with a security guard named Joseph. Joseph professed to be a Christian but had ceased praying and attending church after his wife left him. Following our interactions for a few days, he suddenly asked for my Bible and begun to read it. He told me he was learning about forgiveness. From our conversations, I could tell that he was experiencing some change. The anger he had held for so long was beginning to wear off. Through Joseph, God changed my outlook on the whole isolation experience. What is it in your life that feels out of hand today? Remember, it is still in God’s hands.
*If RSS feed is not working for you, please add it to your app or software manually by adding this url:
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.