Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rolling in the Albanian Harvest

Dustin making the Albanian Eagle.
From August 25-30, 2016 our UniShow TACO team of 9 musicians, dancers and a unicyclist joined forces with an Albanian church planter for 6 shows around Albania. We presented to over 2,500 people and saw more than 140 responded to an invitation to follow Jesus. Most of these shows were the culmination of a year or more of prayer and labor by pastors and leaders in these communities as they utilized the platform to announce the launch of new churches starting within a few weeks. In other communities we were partnering with young churches to help them connect with locals. In every show we were able to share the Gospel openly and it was exciting to see many respond each time.

It seemed the whole village of Remas came out to watch us perform our first show of the tour on the street in front of a cafe. The assistant mayor welcomed us and greeted the audience at the start of the program. We heard afterward that many locals had been stressed and our show brought hope and new life to them. Not only had they never seen anything like what we presented, but even 60 year old men said they had never heard the Gospel message before. The ground was soft in this village and our organizer is confident a church will be planted here soon. 

Novosele is the hometown of a lady named Mira who has been driving 3 hours to this village weekly for 3 years to work toward starting a church. She organized our event there to help launch the church in a few weeks. During the show, when Dustin was holding up a wooden cross for the Gospel illustration and gave an invitation for people to surrender to Jesus, a man who was a bit tipsy immediately walked forward, crossing himself, wanting to respond. JuYoung prayed with him afterward, as the man cried and shared great needs. Despite his inebriated condition, it was obvious God was working in his heart. He connected with the local believers and they will continue ministering to him. We were blessed after the show by a local Orthodox architect who liked our show so much that he took us out for dinner.

The team at dinner with our new friend.
Next we presented in Divjake to help a pastor and 12 lay leaders promote their church starting in a month. The Director of Culture gave permission for the event and was very pleased with what we shared. He wants us to return and offered to loan his sound system next time to make it an even bigger event. The audience was subdued throughout the show. We were told afterward that they loved what we presented yet hadn't seen anything like it before so didn't quite know how to respond.

Katie moving with her hoop.
In Berat we presented by the river on a busy walking street, with the 2,600 year old castle ruins that we had visited earlier that day, high on the mountains behind us. Members were present from the thriving church that was planted a few years ago as a result of a UniShow outreach during TACO's first visit to the area. This church has now planted 2 other churches in nearby villages. At that first show, a girl was in attendance who was suicidal. After hearing Dustin's testimony and the Gospel, she gave her life to Jesus and has been serving in the church ever since. She came to our show this time excited to see us and we were able to pray for her as she is about to start university, still walking closely with God! About 20 new people signed up at our event to join the church. 

View of Berat from the Castle.
David and his dance moves.
We were able to support another growing church in Cerrik. Members were present with matching shirts and greatly helped by providing a sound system and being present as security. In this city, over 150 youth have been radicalized so we knew adherence to a different religion was strong in the community. We were happy to hear we could be completely open during the program since when TACO was there earlier this year, they couldn't even say Jesus from the stage yet still had an angry protestor afterward. We had no trouble this time and people even seemed to be paying more attention during the prayer of surrender to Jesus, where over 20 responded. 

Rose singing to her beautiful harp music.
Because we had attended an international church on Sunday, we me a lady who works at a Christian radio station. Through this connection, David, Dustin and Rose were invited to the station to record an interview on our last day of this tour, sharing about how we use the tools of dance, unicycling and music around the world with TACO to spread the Good News. Dustin got the Gospel in through his testimony, David promoted concerts the next week in and around Tirana and Rose shared her first-time visitor impressions of Albania.

Then we wrapped up the week with a show in Luc. We didn't learn until afterward that the state government doesn't even do events in this city because of its bad reputation. Kids were vocal and somewhat disruptive throughout but it was still a fun show with lots of enthusiasm from the audience. Thankfully, the quietest part of the show was during the Gospel presentation and about 50 people responded. We wished we'd had more help with security because after the show things got a little crazy and it's surprising the only thing that went missing was JaeHyeouk's hat. We still had meaningful interactions amidst the chaos. 

Sabri is part of an initiative with other Albanian pastors to plant 400 churches in Albania before 2020. His personal goal is to plant 70 new churches, greatly relying on TACO outreaches. So far, under his leadership 28 have been planted. It is always so exciting to minister in Albania where the fields are ripe for the harvest and the results are so visible with people responding to Jesus and churches being planted and grown.

Beautiful Albania.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Testing the Times in Turkey

As has been the case for a decade, we have gladly been utilized as "guinea pigs" with TACO, as they sent out the UniShow to new areas, testing the response to outreaches.  This year, our scheduled tour in Turkey occurred just one month after the July 15 coup attempt and during the 3 month state of emergency in the country.  Permission had been received for shows in many cities and venues around Turkey but under the circumstances, all but 2 cancelled.  Since things seemed to have calmed down enough, and we still had these opportunities, our team of 9 decided to proceed, hoping to present 5 shows in 2 cities, Çanakkale and Istanbul, in 4 days.  These were the first public outreaches TACO had done in Turkey since the coup so we didn't know what to expect.

We had permission for 2 nights of shows in Çanakkale on August 19-20.  We presented in a great location along the seaside in a basketball court with surround seating next to the big wooden horse from the movie Troy.

Our 2 shows the first night in Çanakkale drew over 1,200 people total who were attentive and engaged.  With boats and sea as our backdrop, a team member shared how Jesus is her lighthouse in troubling times, before performing her song on harp "Ready for the Storm".  A lady later said she brought a friend to the show who was facing some difficulties and 'storms' in her walk as a new believer.  Her friend said our team member's music was "so encouraging" and she felt the song was sung "just for her".

Another team member won the crowd over and some were even moved to tears as she shared how her great, great grandfather was an ANZAC who fought and lost against the Turks in this area and died as a result, but because of the grace and forgiveness of Ataturk in victory, she and other Aussies have been welcomed with open arms back into Turkey.  She connected this forgiveness to how God wants to forgive each of us and show us His grace.  Dustin wrapped things up with a clear Gospel presentation while the audience listened to every word.

While most people were very positive about our presentations, there was one very verbally aggressive man who caused a scene after our second show the first night and tried to get others upset with what we were sharing.  Our translator called the police who came and eventually took the man away because the law is actually in our favor to share our beliefs freely.

Our plan the second night in Çanakkale was to do two shows again.  The first show went great with an enthusiastic and responsive crowd of 550.  However, afterward, a few angry and threatening people stirred things up so much that our leaders had to spend several hours in the police station correcting false statements that were made about what our group was doing.  Though several hundred people were awaiting our second show that night, it had to be canceled.

Once again, the uproar provided opportunities for us to share more with people.  As people approached one team member asking what the problem was, she told them some were upset that ironically, we had been sharing a message of peace and what God has done in our lives.  Those she was talking with thought it was terrible others would react that way.

A man, offended by the irate reaction of a loud minority, asked Katie what was going on.  Though he claimed to be an atheist, after she explained the Gospel which was causing the division, he said, "Don't give up; keep sharing this important message!"  He thanked her for their conversation, saying several times that it made him feel new.  He then connected with a local pastor and said he would join the fellowship meeting on Sunday.

Two other team members individually connected with students after shows and met up later with them to continue discussions about faith.  They plan to stay in contact with their new friends to keep building these relationships and speaking into their lives.

In total, after the 3 Çanakkale shows, 81 people filled out surveys and received packets with a DVD and other literature; 31 of these people said they were interested in talking with someone more about what we had shared!  These open shows in Çanakkale were a test of sorts since they were the first we've done in Turkey since the coup.  Çanakkale is one of the most open and liberal cities in Turkey so the negative reactions were unusual.  It's a shame that hundreds of people were happy with our presentations and 5 were not yet it prevented us from proceeding.

For our 4th and final show of this mini tour, we presented in a new neighborhood in Maltepe high on a hill in a plaza between shops and restaurants with the most amazing view of Istanbul any of us have seen.  A suicide bomber had killed 51 at a wedding in Gaziantep, Turkey the night before and often 3 days of countrywide mourning follow such a tragedy.  The venue organizer didn't mind us proceeding so the show went on.

Because this was a new contact, we kept this a closed event, as far as sharing.  One team member connected with the audience in a beautiful way, dedicating her "Ready for the Storm" solo to them in light of the recent difficulties, sharing how God is her strength in scary times.  Dustin shared how God will always be with us in trials to give us strength to go on. 

Afterward, many had great conversations with those in the audience.  Then our hosts provided a delicious meal for us at a nearby restaurant, apologizing that they couldn't give us more. They were very impressed and were not expecting such a quality presentation.  They definitely want us to return to put the great, underutilized venue to repeated good use.

Though we didn't have many shows on this tour, we are thankful for the opportunities we did have to share God's love during this tough time in Turkey.  We know God was at work through us and touched people with his love.