by Ken Zacharias, BOM Foreign Secretary
A half-century of ministry in Nicaragua was celebrated on April 6-10, 2017, as our sister conference, the FIEMN, and representatives from EMC Missions joined together at Camp Maranatha, 40 minutes from Managua, the capital city.
For the celebrations, a one-day conference event was held with 900 people in attendance. In addition, there were four regional gatherings. Lester and Darlene Olfert, former workers in the country, assisted the FIEMN’s national leadership in planning these special events.
EMC missionaries initiated the work in 1966 and were present in Nicaragua for 25 years. Since 1992 the FIEMN has ministered without an active EMC missionary presence.
In attendance was one half of the EMC’s first missionary couple to Nicaragua, Doris Friesen (1966-1974), and her four adult children, spouses and two grandchildren. Others missionaries who returned were Lester and Darlene Olfert (1970-1989), Ron Olfert (1971), John and Connie Reimer ((1975-1982), and Ernie and Diane Koop (1983-1992). Several former missionaries were not able to be present.
Doris Friesen testified of how she and her husband Fred, who has passed away, left Canada to travel to a country they had not visited before and where they didn’t personally know anyone. God led them one step at a time. They found a place to live and identified a new housing development to begin house visitation in Managua.
A couple, Juan and Argentina Reyes, opened their home to Bible studies and soon there was a group studying and turning their lives over to Jesus. They were the first baptized believers. The Reyes’ daughters, Marisol and Carolina, and their children are all active in the same church today. Josefa Argueda and other founding members were also present at the gatherings. The church continues today. To God be the glory!
Now 42 years after leaving Nicaragua, Doris said she was overwhelmed with the growth of the FIEMN, hearing how many churches and outreaches there are.
John and Connie Reimer
John and Connie Reimer reflected that, “For us as former EMC missionaries and the present church in Nicaragua there was and is a cost in sowing the precious seed of the gospel. For us as missionaries there were tears of farewell, the tears of distance, the tears of loss of health and life, the tears of not being understood, the tears associated with fears of earthquakes and wars.
“For the present church, there are the same realities, tears of poverty, tears of shortage, tears of rejection by family. But together we celebrated with shouts of joy, as we saw the fruit of 50 years of ministry and the exponential growth in all of the original church plants. There was a strong sense of “exceedingly more than we could have asked for or imagined” (Psalm 126:5-6).
Although the celebrations emphasized and focused on the first 25 years of ministry and missionary involvement, it is noted that the FIEMN has a clear vision today. John and Connie wrote, “We participated in the FIEMN Pastoral Retreat a few days before the celebrations began and saw and we heard the cry for souls, the tears for the further coming of Christ’s Kingdom. To see the seasoned pastors together with the younger ones casting a vision for the next season was encouraging.”
In addition to former missionaries being present, Sid Reimer, Janice Kroeker, Brad Brandt, and Ken Zacharias (Board of Missions representatives) were also in attendance to witness and celebrate.
Janice Kroeker is the widow of Dennis Kroeker who passed away while serving on a short-term missions team in 2007. She wrote, “After the first regional gathering held in the First Mennonite church in Managua, I felt like my heart was already filled to overflowing. How could I take in more? But the blessings kept on coming!
“Thanks to our capable interpreters, I enjoyed every service immensely. The authenticity, the joy, the love, and the energy of the people! The song, Hay Una Senda (There is a Way), still keeps ringing through my mind, together with the memory of the smiles and warm hugs during this song from all these people who did not know me at all!
“One thing that was really impressed on my mind is the way God took the obedience of the very first missionaries, Fred and Doris Friesen, and multiplied it to the 22 churches and 14 church outreaches we have in Nicaragua today. Of course, that includes every missionary and local pastor since then that also obeyed God’s calling.
“What I took home from this is the importance of obeying whatever it is God is asking of me. It may seem insignificant to me, like befriending my neighbour, baking cookies for kids club, giving to charity or praying, God can multiply that and accomplish more than I could ever imagine! Not everyone is called to begin a work in a new country.”
Sid Reimer, a former BOM board member who was visiting Nicaragua for the second time, observed, “A personal observation was touching for me: there were tears and repeated abrazos (hugs) as the former missionaries and nationals renewed acquaintances. They were reconnecting, sharing heartaches and victories of the past, along with successes of the present. Many a Gloria a Dios (Glory to God) was uttered!
“With the celebrations being broken down into regional events it was very gratifying to attend and visit as many churches and church plants as we did. These churches oozed with passion for outreach. So many of the churches are actively parenting a new church plant! It seems as if that’s a natural expectation. Almost as fundamental and basic as having Sunday School, it was a basic ministry of the church.
“It was common for outreach leaders to travel up to two hours each way by public transit from their home to the new location, very often including weekend stays. Foreign missions appeared to mean in the ciudad (city) or pueblo (town) down the road—and they were committed to it!”
Lester Olfert summarized the 50th anniversary with these words: “Growth had come by working with our Nicaraguan believers as co-workers in God’s service and that it was God that made things grow. By 1992 when the last missionaries left there were eight organized churches. Only five had been directly pastored by missionaries. Today there are 22 churches and 14 outreaches.”
Ken Zacharias is Foreign Secretary to the EMC Board of Missions.