There was a time when I wanted to be an itinerant evangelist. As a pastor’s son, I got to know many of these men, each one arriving fresh and well-dressed, with stories galore. They stayed in our congregation’s nicest homes, and our church folk brought out their best hot dishes for the potlucks, their orange gelatin erupting inside with grapes, pears, and celery. Everyone seemed to love the evangelists—people laughed at their jokes, were impressed with their recall of names, and the evangelists enjoyed a captive audience for their sermon each night.
But the pièce de résistance was the type of accommodations given to the camp meeting evangelist. Growing up, my family took vacations at our denominational campground, where we’d hear sermons twice daily and three times on Sunday. You had your pick between staying in a tent or camper, a brittle little cabin, or the on-site hotel. We couldn’t afford the hotel, but the evangelist enjoyed its comforts. Sometimes I’d slip inside to patrol the carpeted hallways, stopping just outside the open door to his room where inevitably he’d be playing a hearty game of Rook with his wife, the camp manager, and the snack shack guy.
It felt like an important life, and he was treated with esteem. He brought the Word of God to us, and more often than not, he seemed pretty cool, too. I was envious of his stature, but even more of his proximity to God.
Sometimes, when waiting for an international flight to depart, I sit in relative luxury in the Delta Sky Club lounge—a free perk for all the time I spend traveling, gathering stories from the field. Just like my younger self, I’m chasing evangelists, pursuing and writing about their lives, because I still look up to them. But now I’m the one enjoying certain small comforts, while these missionaires, pastors, and simple servants of God faithfully labor through risk and hardship for the joy set before them in Christ. They captivate me with their stories, and I marvel at how their thoughts seem so centered around their mission and the people they care for. I want to be like them.
I guess my tastes have changed, and for the better. My envy over the evangelists’ perceived comforts and human praise was silly, and it reveals my self-centeredness. Besides, I doubt any of them felt rich or powerful stubbing their toe in the dark on their way to the hall bathroom in yet another stranger’s house. And those I meet and write about today live far from glamour and worldly praise. In fact, their lives are often tests of endurance, driving solo over bumpy roads, climbing rocky paths, always on call, and never quite at home.
I recently spent long hours traveling through Costa Rica and Panama with a missionary by the name of Russ Turner. Few people travel as light as Russ, who is perpetually washing his clothes in a sink, and wringing them out to dry for the next day. And while he kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road, he shared the challenges he’s faced in 40 years of ministry. There were betrayals from people he mentored, lessons learned, and the sweet contentment he feels to be in the hands of our loving God. And since he’s so attuned to the way God is caring for him, I saw how naturally he shared God’s good news with the people we met in gas stations and tourist stops along the way.
Another of my new friends lives and serves in his home country of Hungary. Tibor Miklós is a wildly gregarious and joyful person, whose presence brings energy to any room he’s in. When we’re having dinner together and he asks me for a tour of the food on his plate, I scold myself for not remembering to help him. But it’s so easy to forget that he is blind. Tibor has a remarkably independent nature, yet he is so willing to talk about his dependence. He doesn’t want to be blind, he confesses, but if through his blindness the kingdom of God is being served, then it is something he can be grateful about. Indeed, through Tibor, the blind, disabled, and other forgotten ones are receiving the Word of God through resources like the In Touch Messenger. Christ is uniting His church through the people who have long been neglected.
And then there’s Jonathan Reed. One morning not long ago, I was already in a late-day kind of sweat when I clambered into Jonathan’s open-air Land Rover in Punta Gorda, Belize. We talked for three hours while the truck rattled violently over the road to a town called Delores. Next he led a conference for pastors, took a few of us on an afternoon hike, and set up a remote projector in an open clearing so that 600 people could watch The Jesus Film. As the stars came out and the sky erupted into a shifting display of cosmic beauty, my body screamed for rest. So I clambered again—this time into the back of his Land Rover and quickly fell asleep, even while many of the K’ekchi people were introduced to God’s plan of redemption. When I woke, Jonathan was passing out chips and juice to the long lines of moviegoers. And if that wasn’t enough, he set to work making hot chocolate for the pastors before finally setting our hammocks over the dirt floor in a local K’ekchi home. I’m nearly 15 years older than he is, but Jonathan’s kind of my hero. His godly love and patient concern for others has made him an effective mentor for the K’ekchi pastors of Belize and Guatemala.
While I spied the evangelists of my boyhood from a distance, as an adult I’ve had the privilege of seeing people like Russ, Tibor, and Jonathan up close. Just like everyone else, they get frustrated and wonder if they’re doing the right thing, in the right way. And they face challenges from the people in their care, just as any pastor, parent, or manager would. They also have the confident assurance in Christ that I saw in the old-time evangelists, an assurance that is ever-increasing in me. But what feels truly different about their life is that every hardship, every choice—practically every moment—is awash in significance. All are in service to God, contributing to a larger purpose.
This is an encouragement to me. My travels with these servants of God rejuvenate me and make me grateful about the advance of God’s kingdom, even as they inspire me to be alert to the fieldwork I am called to—in my home, my neighborhood, my church, and my city. Why shouldn’t I see a trip to the coffee shop, a walk around the block, or a drive with my children to yet another soccer practice as moments of service to God? If I’m faithfully in His Word, fervent in prayer, and awake to the world around me, I can be confident that I’m walking in the good works God prepared for me to do.