Maria felt God nudge her to share Christ with Persians. There was just one problem. Maria didn’t know any Persians. In fact, she didn’t know exactly what a Persian was — there’s no Persian language and no Persia on the map.
But sure enough, within a week Maria met a girl from Iran. When Maria asked her what language she spoke, the girl said “Persian” and Maria knew what God was talking about. She invited the young lady to study the Bible.
Maria didn’t set out to start a new Persian church. She was just obeying God. But that Bible study has now grown to more than 100 people, a mixture of former Muslims from Iran and Afghanistan, former Buddhists from Vietnam and former atheists from Austria.
“The girl started coming to her Bible study and bringing friends. She got saved and started sharing her faith with others, and it was just spontaneous,” said Roger Hartsill, an International Mission Board (IMB) worker from Willowbrook Baptist Church, Huntsville, who is helping Maria.
His wife, Diana, agreed.
“Maria’s always had the desire to serve the Lord. [She] decided to do something in her home, but she sort of got in over her head, and we’ve pitched in to help her,” Diana Hartsill said. “It’s been exciting just to see what God is doing through her there.”
Maria came to Vienna from Brazil more than a decade ago. She had completed a seminary degree as well as a music degree in Brazil and was offered a scholarship to study opera in Vienna. She was quite popular there, even singing at Billy Graham crusades. After finishing her studies Maria settled in Vienna, married an Austrian and embarked on a career, but her lifelong call to missions never dissipated.
In 2014 she started a Bible study in her home. By the end of that year, two Iranians, two Vietnamese and one Austrian had become Christians and been baptized. Twelve new converts, most of whom were Iranian immigrants, were added to their number by spring of 2015. The Bible study became a church.
Maria has now quit her job to be a missionary full time. Her husband works to support them.
“When the work suddenly began to reach mostly Muslim men, (Maria) wisely sought out male pastors (including myself) … as the body has been in transition from an outreach group in her home, to a house church and then to a recognized church within the Austrian Baptist Convention,” said Roger Hartsill, who is mentoring and leading Maria from his home in Germany.
He is in a unique position to help. The Hartsills began their ministry with IMB in South America.
They moved to Europe for the express purpose of mobilizing South American believers who have emigrated to Europe.
The Hartsills want to help Latinos in Europe spread the gospel wherever they go. In some cases, the Hartsills help Latinos find pathways to go beyond Europe to unreached peoples in other parts of the world. But they also see a tremendous opportunity to mobilize Latinos to specifically reach out to other immigrants and refugees in Europe.
“We have discovered that oftentimes a believing immigrant in Europe from elsewhere can more easily connect with the refugee or immigrant than the nationals can,” Roger Hartsill said.
Diana Hartsill said, “Here in Europe, our task is to mobilize (South American) people to reach both Europeans and refugees living among them.” Both of these groups are being reached by the work God is doing through Maria.
Since the Hartsills have started working with Maria, God has continued to bless the church plant. In November 2015, 22 former Muslims — all Iranians and Afghans — were baptized. In April 2016 another 18 Iranians and Afghans were baptized, as well as a local Austrian doctor who has become a strong supporter of the new church. Nineteen more baptisms were celebrated May 28, 2016, including Vietnamese, Afghans and Iranians. In August 2016, 18 former Muslims followed Christ in believer’s baptism. In December 2016, 16 were baptized and in March 2017, 11 more.
“This new work started from zero and has seen 94 adult baptisms in less than two years,” Roger Hartsill said. “Nearly all of the new converts are immigrants from Iran, Afghanistan or Vietnam — places where missionaries cannot freely enter. The growth is the result of these new believers sharing their newfound faith with others from their people groups.”
Long discipleship road
Most of the teaching and discipleship must be done through translators or in a second language, and it’s a long discipleship road — they often have many misconceptions of Christianity to work through.
Their religious backgrounds also put many at risk. Often the new Christians can never return to their families or home countries because of their conversions. They fear for the safety of loved ones who still live in their homelands. There is always the risk of an attack on Christians or on the church, even in Europe. Maria herself was poisoned once by an enemy of the gospel who infiltrated the church, but she said she knows the risk is worth it.
Roger Hartsill visits several times a year to help with baptisms, discuss logistical problems and wrestle through issues that come from having believers from Muslim, Buddhist and Catholic backgrounds in this burgeoning church family.
“My role is primarily as a coach,” Roger Hartsill said. “We have identified an Iranian man who feels called to ministry and whom we hope will assume the role of pastor for this church in the near future. His immigrant status is still pending, but he is already teaching new converts in the church’s discipleship training.”
God has blessed this work, but that does not mean the work is easy. The new church faces many challenges. (IMB)
EDITOR’S NOTE — Names changed for security reasons.
To read more about the IMB’s work in Europe, visit imb.org/Europe.
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