On Sunday I received my boarding pass for the first three-hour leg of my flight to Manaus, Brazil. I have to tell you I was a bit disappointed when I realized I had a middle seat. Part of the disappointment is that I know somewhere there is a computer program that always figures out how to put the three largest guys in the same row together. But being generally adaptable, I shrugged and knew I would sleep anyway.
After I arrived at the training center for church planters I could only laugh about my middle seat. The first man I spoke with was a church planter from far up the Rio Negro, the largest tributary for the Amazon River. He has the nickname, “jungle-boy”. In part because he is all of 5’2″ and skinny. But more because three years ago he was lost in the jungle for four days before finally making his way close enough to a village that he could make contact with people. In order for Jungle-boy to get to the training center he first had to paddle for 2 hours in a dug out canoe to get to a larger tributary. There he got in a small motor boat for 3 hours, then a larger boat for 2 more hours and finally a bus for 7 hours. That’s him on the left of the picture with the striped shirt.
Along with about 80 other people, all of whom had similar travel stories, he came to learn more about Jesus and improve his ability to minister to people in need. These indigenous church planters come to the center just outside Manaus twice a year. They come hungry for the truth of God’s Word and for the fellowship of their fellow laborers. They don’t have seminary degrees or even Bible College training. Most of them came to faith in Christ because the Presbyterian Church of Manaus sends large boats up and down the river to provide medical care, food, clothing, education and the message of Jesus. Once coming to faith they continued to grow and now are planting churches in the very villages they grew up in. Most of them make less than 100 dollars a month but they are delighted to serve others and share the hope of the Gospel. They will never be mega-church pastors. Most of their villages are only 50 to 70 families. The next closest village would be a couple of hours away on foot or canoe.
After spending the day training these amazing people, I was asked to teach in the city for three hours in the evening. The audience was completely different. These were not villagers from up and down the rivers but instead people who live and work in Manaus, a city of 1.8 million people. They were 40 Bible College students who are working towards becoming pastors and missionaries. They packed into a room that in the states we would feel crowded with half as many people. All of them have regular jobs and included at least one lawyer and a couple of I.T. guys. Yet on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights they gather from 7 to 10 to learn about the Bible and ministry. They were so engaged and had so many questions that we went till 10:30! In fact the regular instructor had to call a halt to all the questions and bring and end to the evening. There were no students looking at their watches for the time to leave. None of them left early. All of them were extremely grateful that I came and talked with them.
What struck me was that in both settings these folks counted it a privilege and a joy to dig into God’s Word and be trained to serve others in Jesus name. They couldn’t get enough. Their questions and comments reflected people who wanted to do their best and invest themselves completely in whatever the Lord had for them. They understood the life and death nature of this thing we call ministry. But they also laughed and joked like people with no cares in the world. These are followers of Jesus who are aware of how far they have come because of Jesus and they want to bring as many people along as they can. They are all about serving the Lord and others. No body is worried about their career, or image, or how to spend vacation, or complaining about how stupid their boss is or how unfair their company is or that they had the middle seat. None of them feel cheated in life. Instead they seem to really count it all joy that they share in the life, ministry, and even hardships that come from the fellowship they have with Jesus.