2|8|9: What brought you to Grace for seminary?
Chris Van Allsburg: My pastor encouraged me to go to Grace because of its reputation for the original languages. He also told me I might meet my wife at Grace!
2|8|9: Why seminary and not some other graduate degree?
CVA: I just had to know everything there was to know about the Bible: Hebrew, Greek, hermeneutics, theology, apologetics, church history, missions, culture and more. It was a dream come true. I still feel privileged to have been given this experience.
2|8|9: Tell us some of your favorite professor stories.
CVA: "Chris, you were a rough hewn stone." I still feel rough, but seminary and a life-long process of ongoing mentoring are still shaping me. My wife can attest to this.
Second memory: One bright sunny day, James Joiner and Dr. Soto and I were walking outside McClain, and there was this squirrel minding his own business. But it was the fattest squirrel I'd ever seen! It was like a big, plump cat. Well, I just had to catch it. Never mind that squirrels have teeth, claws, infectious diseases, and are impossible to catch. I chased that puppy. I took off without saying boo and followed it up into a tree just outside the hall. I was in the branches, but it was too high for me to grab. Plus, my big backpack full of Greek & Hebrew lexicons and grammars ruined my versatility. Sadly, James tells me the tree is no longer. It's been since cut down. I used to hang from a tree close by like an ape. These things keep us young; but they don't impress professors. "Who is this guy?" There was legitimate concern.
Third memory: I rented from Dr. Plaster my final year at Grace. Living in Dr. Plaster's basement meant living with a loud, knocking sound every time water was used in the house. That meant any part of the house, not just the basement. And this knocking sound was so loud, it was like someone pounding on the door. We used to say, "Come on in!" when the knocking sound came, just as a coping mechanism. It was fun. However, one day, I was monkeying with the water heater because I wondered if that's where the sound was coming from. (Turns out, it was actually the sump pump). So I grabbed this pipe, bending it and so on, and oh no, it breaks! Water floods all over the basement. I didn't know what to do. In a frantic pace, I shifted a few things around and ran upstairs to tell Ginny. Now, they had to buy a new water heater. I felt so guilty, and I told the whole story, feeling very foolish. So, I offered to pay for it. I begged Dr. Plaster to let me pay—that I'd just borrow money from my dad, and pay it off eventually. I told Dr. Plaster it was my fault, but he said, "Oh no, Chris. We obviously needed a new one." And he smiled at me. The whole time, he didn't show any anger at me for my messing around with the water heater. Dr. Plaster was such a good man. I loved him like a father. I know I stand in a long line of men who can say that. I miss him. He was so good. He was so good!
2|8|9: What do you value most about your Grace education?
CVA: I graduated as a life-long learner with a lot of ministry versatility. It was very spiritually formative for me. It showed me how to be a life-long learner. There's confidence from that—going through the ringer and surviving. Seminary created a passion in me for teaching and preaching the Word of God.
2|8|9: How has your seminary degree afforded you ministry versatility?
CVA: Well, I've been invited to teach at a seminary in Addis Ababa for a summer (which I had to decline—but maybe next year!). An MDiv can land you adjunct positions at local colleges, Christian schools, and other places. On top of that, an MDiv can help you sound pretty smart at parties.
2|8|9: How did Grace help prepare and equip you for your current work?
CVA: For the work in Addis, my cross-cultural classes with Dr. Tom Stalter were indispensable in helping me understand how different cultures work. This enables me to shift my paradigm to get closer to the one in which I'm placed. This helps produce some humility. I really wanted to avoid being the "white savior." But no class could have ever totally prepared me for what I would encounter in Addis.
2|8|9: What are your current jobs/roles?
CVA: Carolina Tape and Supply: I operate machines.
Bethel United Church of Christ: pastoral assistant, preaching, Bible study, youth Sunday School, visit shut-ins.
Transformation Love: member, Board of Directors. I edit newsletters and stories, host fundraisers, give presentations. We visit widows and orphans in their homes, interview them and try to get them sponsored. Child sponsorship puts children in church and school, gives them regular meals, medicine, clothing, shoes, school supplies, the gospel and hope. Hope in Christ!
Chapter Director, Ratio Christi, Lenoir-Rhyne University. Ratio Christi (Latin for "Reason for Christ") is the brain-child of Southern Evangelical Seminary and exists to exalt Jesus Christ on the university campus by teaching Christian students how to answer and interact with the intellectual stumbling blocks to historic, orthodox Christianity. The ministry also hosts debates and open forums regarding various apologetic issues. I love this work (which includes discipleship), and I love my students! I praise God for this appointment. To learn more about Ratio Christi, visit www.ratiochristi.org.
2|8|9: Why did you get involved with Transformation Love (i.e why this org. and not some other)?
CVA: I got involved with TL through the local church I visited in Korah. There are a number of ministries in Addis, but Korah has been virtually unknown. Praise God for TL!
2|8|9: How many times have you been to Ethiopia? And for how long?
CVA: I've only been there once, and only for seven days. Missionaries in China used to scald vegetables in boiling water in order to kill the cholera. This is what happened to me: I was scalded in such a short time. I'm a little embarrassed to say I was only there for 7 days. But—that's all I could muster at the time. More to come, by the grace of God.
2|8|9: I hear you have an upcoming trip in 2 months? Tell us about that.
CVA: Oh, I dream about it every day. A team from my church is meeting Sherry (president of Transformation love) and her team (from CA) over there, and we plan to interview children, take current sponsored children on a two-day retreat, play games with them, do arts and crafts. There is mention of painting the nails of the women and washing their feet, in order to give them a semblance of beauty and dignity. A lot of women there suffer the stigma of shame due to HIV/AIDS. There will be teaching and preaching of the Scriptures, of course!
2|8|9: What are the objectives for your visits?
CVA: Love people. Love people and bring them hope and give the children the necessities of life, and an education and get them out of the slum. Teach them the gospel, that Jesus Christ is Lord (Romans 1:1-5). Provide a holistic ministry: body & soul.
2|8|9: Tell us about Korah Dump.
CVA: The dump exists on the southern sector of Addis, a city of 5 million people. The dump is a square mile of human waste, decay, stench and suffering. It takes in rejected items and dejected lives. Next to the dump is ALERT hospital, which exists to serve the massive leper colony nearby. The Korah community is a cacophony of immigrants from the countryside who arrive daily seeking relief from diseases - especially HIV/AIDS. This "scavenging" colony is close to 80,000 people, many who actually live on the dumpsite - building houses from trash, wearing what others have discarded and eating what others have determined inedible. Families with small children live in squalor; exposed to the elements, they are riddled with disease. People wash clothes in muddy, wooden tubs. The air is foul. Murder and rape are common and the urge to vomit is ever-present. Young girls are at the greatest risk. My heart breaks at the thought of it.
2|8|9: What's life like for families, women, children who live in Addis Ababa or live off of Korah Dump; what does the future hold for them?
CVA: The future that most Korah families, women and children face is bleak. My dad and his wife asked me this question just the other day when I showed them a picture of a couple teenage girls from the local church there. They asked, "What happens if they don't get sponsored?" I broke down. I couldn't answer. You don't even want to think about the answer. They sell their bodies on the street—just to eat. Can you believe that? Just to eat. They see little hope in this place save for the Christians who come and offer them love in the name of Christ. It's nearly impossible for me to talk about the future of the children who aren't sponsored by someone from the local church. They have no hope in this place. None. Not unless we Christians come and help them, and love them in the name of Jesus Christ. But why are we building million dollar complexes when these children need just $35 a month? I don't understand.
2|8|9: What do most people you meet in Addis Ababa believe about God?
CVA: The Academic Dean of the seminary told me: "There are no atheists in Ethiopia." Everyone in Addis believes in God. Some are Orthodox. This is much the same as the Roman Catholicism of Martin Luther's Germany: there is syncretism with pagan ideals, there is prayer to saints, and Mary. Jesus is an inhuman divine, so far removed from human experience that He transcends it. And the Father? Nowhere to be found. But touch the church gate, and do fastings and prayers…this is the way. Trust the saints—they will help you. And trust the priests. They will show you the way. There's a power structure there that keeps people from the Father.
There is the Protestants or "Pentes," short for "Pentecostal," which is similar to our evangelical Baptists. There is a real need for good, sound teaching there. The prosperity gospel is rampant in all parts of Africa, and there is immorality among the pastors. Praise God, there are good churches as well. There is a burgeoning Muslim population. There was this girl in the market who said to me, "You are Orthodox, I can tell." (I had asked her if she was Orthodox, or Muslim, because she was wearing a head covering. Both religions do this). I said, "Oh no. Pente. Jesus is my only hope. Jesus died for me and rose from the dead for me. Jesus brings me to God." And I made grand, sweeping gestures up to the sky with my hands. She says, "Did Jesus die for Muslims? Did he die for me?" I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye, "Yes, he died for you." "Pray for me," she says, and she didn't miss a beat. The words came in an instant. She told me she had a New Testament, and I advised her to read any one of the Gospels, and then the rest of the NT. I pray she does.
2|8|9: What's the hardest thing you've seen in Addis Ababa?
CVA: That would be people living in squalor, riddled with disease. People washing clothes in muddy, wooden tubs. Garbage for food. Girls smiling and flirting in mud stained dresses--almost as if to say, "American man, please, please take me out of this place....I'll do anything." Orphans running up to me and wrapping my arms around them, just to be held. I saw a dead man in the streets. I saw a naked man begging. I saw a legless man carting himself across the road. I saw a blind woman begging. Some of the women will even steal babies from the countryside and use them to solicit money and food. Desperation doesn't begin to describe it. "I don't give them money anymore," said the Dean of the seminary. "Not now that I know this." The sadness on his face silenced me.
2|8|9: How has the exposure to these things changed your life, your worldview, your perspective on God?
CVA: My passion for missions has gone through the roof. I have questioned my Calvinism to the point of sickness. "What about those who've never heard?" But where else do I turn? A not-sovereign God? I have a severe disdain for the "American Dream," even as I have to fight off that dream as it entangles my heart. Who wouldn't want a "nice everything" with a cottage on the lake and those great vacations? My relationship with God has come out stronger, but only after going through a press. I've always loved Jesus—but the Father? He seemed distant. But a friend reminded me as I wept on his shoulder and let out all my anger and frustration, "Jesus is the express image of God the Father. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Chris, God the Father weeps, too. He weeps with you." I decided to read Job. In 7:16, he tells God, "Leave me alone." Well, that's what I had told God after I had gotten back. The comfort I felt after realizing Job had said what I said, made me realize God the Father loves me, and that he wants to be my Father. God is my Father. He's my Heavenly Father—and he loves me. Loving the Father, and being loved by him, changes everything.
2|8|9: Tell us one of your favorite stories from your experiences in Addis Ababa:
CVA: That would be Hiwot. Hiwot is a girl I met during a home visit in Addis. Her daddy died when she was eight, and her mommy has AIDS. They live in an 8x8 foot mud home. Hiwot was so kind, and gracious. I saw her the next day at the Good Samaritan service where I preached (through a translator). I asked someone what would happen to her when her mother eventually died, and the answer filled me with fear. But while I was in Korah, I learned about Transformation Love's child sponsorhip ministry at the local church there. So I met with Hiwot and her pastor. He brought her to the seminary where I was helping with classes. I ran to her and hugged both of them. As we ate a meal together, we wept knowing I was leaving the next day. I told Hiwot, "You're like a daughter to me." She said, "You're like a father to me." For some reason, this girl was special to me. I was just drawn to try to fill her father's shoes. After escorting her to the taxi (we met at the seminary), she said to me, "I love you," in really broken English--yet so clearly. I was laid bare. All I could do was walk off and find a quiet room to weep some more and face a long plane ride home. But, by the grace of God, something special began that day. Hiwot is now in private school, goes to church and Sunday School, gets food, medicine, hygiene products, oil for her hair, clothing and shoes. She's learning about Jesus. She's discovering a Father that is and will always be with her. I get letters from her and emails some times. Her life humbles me--this fourth daughter I now have. Her name is Hiwot, Her name means "Life." Ah, Life!
2|8|9: How do you believe God is good when you're at Korah Dump?
CVA: A few years ago, I was very sick with a fever and chills, and I was angry at God for all the evil in the world after learning about what happens to women in Juarez, Mexico. I was reminded of Robinson Crusoe, who tells the story of how he was also sick with fever and chills on the island. Out of the sky comes a man—a man of great size and stature. Fire explodes in the air all around. The god-like man crashes to the ground with a mighty earthquake and he holds a giant spear 30 feet long. He says to Robinson, "All these years, have I kept thee with provisions, and still you do not repent. Now you shall die." While curled up on my bed, I said, "God, you're good. I believe that. The Bible says you're good, so I believe it, despite the evil in the world." The next morning I was not sick. I was well. The same applies here. God is good. Our only recourse to this is to look at Jesus. Look at the cross. There is no other God. What other god has done for us what Jesus has? There is no other. He took evil upon Himself. We must look to the cross.
2|8|9: When you return home from Ethiopia, what's the hardest thing about entering back into American culture?
CVA: It's repulsive to see actresses crying about going to jail for 12 days. Silly game shows. Shows claiming to be a portrait of "reality." Wasteful indulgences. Things we take for granted--abundant food and clean water always just a few feet away. I cry a lot. I've always been a sensitive person, but I cry every day now. I've been very depressed. I've had to deal with (and repent of ) a lot of hatred for my own country, and for the church. Churches build 5 million dollar complexes. Why aren't we building orphanages and schools? Why aren't we helping families adopt children? Why do we preach health and prosperity (they do in Africa too!) when the NT talks about suffering, denial of self, and taking up the cross, giving to the poor, storing up treasures in heaven? The Church needs to repent of this—big-time!
Also, my wife was on the phone with me after having gotten back, and she started to cry. What's wrong? Nothing. Honey, tell me. She said, "I feel like we're in two different worlds." I said, "Honey. We are. You just have to give me grace, patience and time to get back to your world. I'll get back. Just pray for me, and love me, and it will be ok." One time, I fell to my hands and knees, crying with such intensity, and my daughter asked me, "Daddy, are you ok?" I was shaking violently, and could barely see her through my tears, but I looked at her and said, "No honey. Daddy's not ok." It takes time after something like this. As a friend of mine says, "Once you go to Korah, it ruins you. That's the way it works." I can attest, it's true. But Jesus says, come be ruined. Be ruined for My sake and for the gospel. Die to yourself. That's what Jesus says.
2|8|9: What have you learned about God/faith through your work with Transformation Love?
CVA: Sherry, our president at Transformation love, has experienced the same thing I have: depression, anger, despair. But she told me last fall, "Chris. I'm not depressed after this trip. I just heard about a 7-year old girl who was raped, but I'm not depressed. Instead, I'm praising God that He is working with us and through us to help this girl and others like her. I'm choosing to praise God for the good work He's doing." That's the attitude I try to have. I think of Hiwot, my daughter, sister and friend. She's told me over and over how much she loves me and how I am her father, brother, pastor and friend. She sends greeting to my wife, and all three daughters. I get letters from her and emails sometimes. She wrote to me for Easter and said she wants to call our new baby "Holy." That's her name, for Hiwot. "Holy." She must've been reading 1 Corinthians 7:14! We can't change the world, but we can change—by the grace of God—one child at a time.
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