The following is an excerpt from the book, “Last Man Standing: Jesus and the fight for a Generation” by Michael J. Meyers
In December of 2000 my wife, Patricia, and I travelled to Brazil with our two boys to visit her family over the holidays as we had so many times since we married in 1995. It just so happened that at the time I was spending my devotional time on the compassion of Jesus in Matthew 9:36. Scripture tells us that as Jesus went from village to village and encountered the people living there, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless.” As we left the airport in the mega-city of São Paulo, and made the journey past the shanty towns, past the homeless living beneath every overpass and children begging on the street corners, something hit me and hit me hard. Beyond the purely intellectual conception that this reality was “unfortunate” and sad at some superficial level, I felt absolutely no emotion, no compassion and certainly no strong desire to do anything about it. How could this be? “I am a Christian”, I thought, “a follower of the most compassionate One and yet I am an emotional flat line.” The unquietness in my heart that had preceded my first spiritual awakening was back.
One afternoon during our visit, my father-in-law asked if I would accompany him the following morning back to São Paulo to retrieve his brother, Roberto, who was there receiving cancer treatment. The city of São Paulo is one of the five largest cities in the world and is about a five hour drive from the city of Assis, a town of about 100,000 souls, where my wife was born and raised. Knowing that the drive alone would be tedious for him, I agreed and, in order to get a good night of sleep before the drive, slept in a room apart from the one Patricia and our boys stayed in.
I still hadn’t been able to shake that unsettled feeling about my compassion deficit. Remembering that Jesus said; “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete,” (John 16:24) I decided to take advantage of the solitude and carry my need for compassion before the Lord in prayer. Now I will preface the following account with the fact that I am a typically wary person when presented with the spiritual “experiences” of others. I tend to view goose bumps, warm feelings and vague “leadings from the Lord” with a good dose of skepticism. After all our emotions, fatigue, expectations and even our diet can play tricks on our minds. On this occasion I chose to pray lying prostrate on the bed. As I prayed, very sincerely asking God to resurrect that part of His image in me that is compassionate, I began to feel a warm feeling pass over my body from my head down, not unlike the feeling one gets when receiving a strong pain killer intravenously. This warmth was accompanied by brightness within my closed eyes as though someone were shining a flashlight in my face even though my face was down on the pillow. As odd as all this seemed I didn’t have time to process any of it as I slipped off to sleep almost immediately.
The following morning I awoke with not so much as a second thought about the previous night’s experience and headed off for the long drive. After picking up Uncle Roberto at the cancer hospital, we began to navigate our way back out of the city, my father-in-law, Rubens, at the wheel and I riding shotgun. That is when it happened; something so small and yet it literally redirected the course of my life. We stopped at one of the thousands of traffic lights in this sprawling metropolis. We were about five cars back from the front. As we waited in the stifling heat for the signal to change, I noticed a boy, probably seven or eight year’s old, barefoot and dirty, with the ragged t-shirt and short combo typical of street kids in South America. He was going from car to car, knocking on each window and extending his grubby hand for some change. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I was mesmerized. As he moved his way back, finally arriving on the driver’s side of our car, something miraculous happened. This boy, whose name I will never know, didn’t knock at our window. He didn’t extend his hand. He just looked through the window, past my father-in-law and directly into my eyes. Those sad, deep brown eyes seemed to be pouring into my soul all the sorrow and suffering of his story. At that moment, as we looked into each others eyes for what seemed like an eternity, I heard God’s voice speaking to my heart, “You asked for my compassion, well here it is.”
The feeling that washed over me can only be described as melting or perhaps a dam rupturing and releasing its power all at once on the valley below. I could suddenly understand what the Lord meant when he said he would remove my heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ez 36:26). God’s resurrection power had done something amazing in that instant. I suddenly felt deep sadness and a real desire to do something even though I had no idea what. As the light turned green and we moved away I turned my head toward the window and wept quietly. Even then I didn’t realize what a game changing answer to prayer that really was, but it would all become clearer soon.
Arriving back in Assis I was on fire. I wanted to take every street kid into the house, make them lunch and share Christ with them (even though I didn’t speak much Portuguese at the time). My mind was going a million miles per hour. This compassion thing had opened up a whole new world to me. The fire continued blazing and my mind reeling after we returned home to Virginia. Along with the fire came a real burden for the spiritual and physical needs of children, particularly children in Brazil. From that burden a vision began to take shape in my mind. The vision was of a Christ centered community outreach center that would minister to at risk children. It would be a place where they could be kids; a safe place where they could see, hear and experience the love of Christ and find the narrow path that leads to abundant life, just as I had found way back in Mrs. Polhemus’ backyard bible club. It would begin in Assis.
Despite all the excitement there were some very real hurdles to clear. For one, I hadn’t shared this excitement with Patricia yet. This was largely because we had just purchased our first home, a long time dream of ours, and we were getting ready to move in. I, being the brave, macho man that I am, was absolutely terrified at what her reaction might be to my news and the possible implications for our “comfortable” life. The other thing holding me back was that, being a big shot Operations Manager gave me exactly zero experience with Christian missions, much less working with at-risk children. I could imagine the laughter of my family, friends, colleagues and church leaders were I to share my big idea.
The last of our worldly possessions loaded into the back of a little box truck, we rolled through Loudoun county Virginia on our way to our first home, a neat little end unit townhouse in Ashburn. Everything we’d ever wanted. Patricia’s joy was almost palpable as we turned into the quaint little community of Ashburn Village. Always a master of timing, I decided that this was the moment for true confessions. “So sweetie, I have a hypothetical question for you. What would you say if I told you that I felt the Lord calling us to go to Brazil to minister to at-risk children?” Brave no? Smooth certainly? Well she started to cry. I kid you not. I made her cry. What was I thinking!? This was going to be bad. And then she spoke. “I have been feeling God say the same thing to me for a long time now and I was just afraid to say anything to you, what with us buying our dream home and all. I thought you’d think I was crazy.” O me of little faith. God had this all worked out ahead of time. Why had I had doubts? What kind of missionary has doubts?
Now what do we do? Sell it all and book our tickets to Brazil? Not so fast. Even with that confirmation from the Lord there was still the reality of our total lack of qualifications and the financial resources necessary to begin a ministry. Aside from a few months of experience as a Sunday school and ESL teacher, I had no training and no experience. How could we hope to begin? Are you sure you want us in this game Coach? I felt like a Junior Varsity player asking to play in the Super Bowl. The Lord used two examples from scripture to minister to my heart in those days and to shine a little light on what He had in mind. The first is this passage from the book of the prophet Amos.
“Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos 7:14-15
God has a record of taking people completely out of their comfort zone to do His work. No matter what we think our giftedness is, God knows us better. This way there is little doubt as to who is worthy of the glory and the praise. It is always the Caller and never the called. God was going to be able to use me. Though I couldn’t see how, He who called would also prepare and empower.
The second example was of Moses and his eventual return to Egypt to lead God’s people into freedom. You may recall that when Moses first sensed his “calling” he presumptuously moved out to respond, by killing the Egyptian, without waiting on God’s direction and preparation. (Exodus 2:11-15). It took forty years in the desert learning to protect and lead sheep, while under the spiritual tutelage of his father-in-law the priest of Midian, before God had prepared and humbled Moses sufficiently to be the leader of the Exodus. Now I am no Moses to be certain, but the principle God seemed to be impressing on me was, don’t be presumptuous. I will do this in My time. What could I say? “Here I am Lord, prepare me.”
Despite the obvious “giants in the land” (Numbers 13:32), we were convinced this burden was of God so we committed to prayer and told the Lord that we would obey and take the first small steps towards a life of full-time ministry and missionary work.
Passed Through Fire
The Lord went right to work. For starters, my career in the commercial real-estate field came to an abrupt end, due the downturn in the market following the terror attacks of September 11. Things got so bad that by March of 2002 our company had decided to sell our division off to a competitor. I had the uniquely distasteful experience of letting go a lot of very fine people and then letting myself go as well when I chose not to move to another division in Minnesota.
Jobless with two small children and a mortgage to pay I was struggling to see what part this could possibly have in His plan. The only work I could find quickly was with an automobile dealership. Again with the car dealership! And again my brother-in-law Joel was there with an “encouraging” take on the situation. “Working on pure commission will certainly be the closest thing to living on faith that you’ve ever done.” Thanks a lot! But you know what, that stint as a car salesman did teach me some critical lessons in faith. Besides getting great deals for every family member and friend I could think of, I made almost no money as a car salesman. To put it simply, I was horrible. But I did discover that, despite my failings, God is still faithful. Not once during those days did we miss a mortgage payment or go without food on our table. God provides. Lesson learned.
A short time later Patricia was, very uncharacteristically, thumbing through one of those community newspapers that no one ever reads, when she saw an ad for an Operations Manager at a nearby community center. “Hmm”, we thought; “a community center.” “That seems to fit with our vision for ministry. Sounds like it might be a God thing, let’s check it out.” When I went in for the interview it really did seem like a “God thing.” The management team was made up mostly of other Christians and the position involved overseeing all of Operations including children’s programming. This would give me my first opportunity to gain experience I would need developing community based programs in Brazil. It sounded perfect and they liked me to. I was called in for a second interview and offered the job. Perfect, right? My heart sunk when they told me the salary, half of what I had been making in my previous management position. How could I take a job that I knew wouldn’t be enough to pay the bills? At least selling cars I could potentially make enough, even though that never happened. I went home to talk with Patricia. We prayed, we talked and we prayed some more. When we came back to talk again we both felt that this was in fact a God thing and that we would need to trust Him again. I served happily as the Operations Manager of that little community center for a year and you know what? We never missed a payment or went hungry. One month Patricia told me over dinner that we didn’t have enough to pay the mortgage that was coming due. We prayed and, what do you know, we received a check from the IRS for a tax refund we didn’t know we were getting. It was just enough to pay the bills. Over and over again that year God showed Himself strong on our behalf and strengthened our faith.
“Don’t worry, because your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things.” Matthew 6:32
At the same time that we were being given practical training in faith based ministry, we began a mission’s internship program through our church, Reston Bible Church. Back when we first felt the call to missions I had contacted the chairman of the Reston Bible missions committee, Bill Hurley, to ask his advice. He didn’t know me from Adam but graciously invited me out to breakfast and then patiently listened to my whole story. I’m not sure what Bill thought of me there tearfully telling him how I was going to follow God’s call to Brazil, but I do know that he gave me some very good advice. “Hold your horses!” Draw close to your home church, he said. It is the church’s role to prepare, anoint and send missionaries into the world. If you go off half-cocked you are likely to cause more damage to yourself, your family and your cause than good. Bill was a tough ex-police officer who shot straight and pulled no punches. I would love to say that my relationship with him and our missions’ leadership was always lots of holding hands and kumbaya, but the reality is that we had our share of conflicts and misunderstandings in the beginning. My wiring has always led me to question the way things are done if it doesn’t make sense to me and to push the limits of change. In the business world my “wiring” was an asset, but I’m afraid it rocked the boat a bit in “church world.” As you might imagine I probably gave Bill more than a few grey hairs. In the end and through it all Patricia and I learned a tremendous amount about godly authority and leadership. The internship program gave us an invaluable base of knowledge in missiology, the history of Christian missions, the role of the church, and the width and breadth of the modern missions’ movement. For this we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Bill Hurley and the faithful members of the Reston Bible Church missions’ committee for lovingly holding the reigns on this zealot and giving us godly direction.
In early 2003 Patricia and I led a team from several northern Virginia churches down to Brazil on a “scouting” mission and to hold an evangelistic day camp. We had made contact with a local church that was interested in impacting the children there and were hopeful that they would become an ongoing partner. The trip, which led to a follow up trip in 2004, was a huge success and served to confirm even more clearly to us that this was where we were supposed to be.
At the end of that first mission the senior Pastor there in Brazil sat us down and asked point blank if we would come and stay full-time to help them continue the work. I can’t explain why, maybe it was the caution I had learned with our missions committee, but I politely told Pastor Valmir that it was our heart to come and stay someday, but we would need pray about it and let him know if God confirmed the timing. I couldn’t believe my own restraint, but I was sure that when the time was right God would make it very clear.
One of the folks on that first team was Kim Reynolds. Kim was, at the time, the coordinator for the Children’s Ministry at our home church. Upon returning to Virginia from Brazil that year Kim asked if I would be interested in leading a soccer camp outreach that the church had planned for that spring. Still “seeking through serving,” I accepted immediately. What I didn’t know was that Kim had also put a bug in the ear of interim Director of Children’s Ministries, Jen Mitchell, that I might be someone to look at in their search for a new Director. At the end of camp I gave Jen a briefing on how things had gone and what changes I would make in future outreaches. As I wrapped up my report she looked at me thoughtfully for a moment and then, as if someone had spoken a word of confirmation into her ear, she asked, “Have you ever considered becoming a children’s pastor?” “Why yes, I have been preparing for doing evangelism and discipleship with at-risk children in Brazil,” I responded. Jen said, “No, I mean here at the church. We need a man whose heart beats for children’s ministry to come on full-time.” Another curve ball we didn’t see coming. Again Patricia and I prayed, we talked and we prayed some more but it was difficult to imagine a more perfect next step in preparing for the mission field. So, in the summer of 2003, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime as the Children’s Ministry Director for Reston Bible Church in Reston, Virginia.
From 2003 to 2006 we were blessed and honored to minister to the children and families of RBC, teach God’s Word, write curriculum, shepherd a volunteer staff of nearly 200 adults, and develop relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ that will last a lifetime. I had the opportunity to study and sit under godly teaching that would begin to develop what has become my life message, and the basis for this book. As you can see, by “serving to seek” we saw in every one of these opportunities and challenges a door that God opened in preparing us for the work He had called us to.
In early 2005 we traveled back to Brazil once again. As I sat one afternoon with our friend Pastor Flavio, who we met on our previous mission projects in Assis, sipping afternoon coffee, he began to layout for me a burden and vision that he felt God was impressing on him. It was a little like the twilight zone. I had never shared our long term vision with Flavio before, but as he talked I heard him describing in great detail the very thing God had placed on our hearts years earlier. He ended by saying, “The church wants to get behind this, but we need someone to lead. I realize that you have a home, a family and a thriving ministry but…could you be that person?” Once I got over my goose bumps, I told Flavio that we would pray over it and get back to him. It was the opportunity we had dreamed about and our prayers and conversations confirmed it was time. It had been a wild ride, but the Lord had brought us through five years of preparation and now “Open Arms Brazil,” or “Braços Abertos Brasil,” as the ministry is known in Portuguese, would be born. We had so much more to learn but that would come as we continued to be refined by both trial and triumph.”
Today Michael is Family & Executive Pastor at First Christian Church of Venice, Florida, and International Director of Open Arms Worldwide.
Michael Meyers – President/Founder
Phone: (571) 267-8062