Mission work in Europe is notoriously difficult. The average European, in the general perception, is sophisticated, urbane, post-Christian, relativistic, and definitely not interested in hearing the message of the gospel.
Nevertheless, according to the recent report of Paul Klawitter, Grace Brethren International Missions’ Europe Director, progress is being made. In the past year, Klawitter reports, there have been 14 professions of faith, 13 baptisms, and dozens of relational bridges built with people in France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and other European countries. And some 46 European believers are now in leadership training.
But now a new strategy by Grace Brethren in Europe seems to hold unusual promise for the future–going where the spiritual seekers are.
A pilgrimage route that stretches from France across northwestern Spain, called “The Way of St. James” or “St. James’ Way,” has been in existence for more than a thousand years and is walked by several hundred thousand spiritual pilgrims each summer.
People set out on foot from their homes or from popular starting points all across Europe to walk for weeks or months to visit the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, where the apostle James is said to be laid to rest. Some come on horseback or by donkey, and others by bicycle. But many simply hike the route.
Shirley MacLaine, the American actress known for her “spiritual” activities, for example, walked the 458-mile route in her 60s in 30 days in 1996 and wrote a book about the experience.
Serving as House Hosts
This summer, Christians–including Grace Brethren from a number of European cities–will be serving as “house hosts” at a facility named the Pilgrim’s Fountain, located about 50 miles (71 kilometers) from the destination point of the route, Santiago de Compostela.
Owned and staffed by Campus Crusade for Christ, the Pilgrim’s Fountain has become a popular stopping-point for hikers, who are offered water, coffee, shade, and even dinner and a night’s lodging if needed–all for free. The facility, which opens at the end of May and closes the first weekend of September, houses 10 staff members and will host 20 pilgrims a night during the summer.
Grace Brethren believers, led mainly by GBIM missionary to Spain Rick Satterthwaite, will be staffing Pilgrim’s Fountain for a number of weeks this summer, seeking to minister to the throngs of hikers who will pass it.
“Hundreds stop every day,” says GBIM missionary Larry DeArmey. “They stop for coffee, water, and to use the restroom. Then we’re able to talk with them and give them literature in any of six languages–Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, English, and Italian.”
The house, says DeArmey, is on a sharp curve on the Camino, so people basically “walk right into where we are awaiting them.”
Satterthwaite will serve as “house head” for Pilgrim’s Fountain for three weeks this summer, and will work another week as a helper. Leaders have put out the word for Christian volunteers from throughout Europe and the U.S. to clean, cook, host, and talk with hikers (most speak some English).
The purpose, according to DeArmey, is pre-evangelism. He says that many of the hikers are seekers. Many are in their 20s, but there is a mixture of ages. And since the route has a “Christian” history, hikers are not at all surprised to come upon a house like this. In fact, many say, “this is the kind of place I expected to find all along the route, but it is the only refuge with this kind of personal treatment and message.”
“A lot of Europeans are dissatisfied with their secular culture,” says DeArmey. “Many are true spiritual seekers, but they will not cross the threshold into our churches. Our mission is to seek the seekers. Remember, ‘the Son of Man came to seek the lost.'”
Seeing God’s Heart
The genius of the Pilgrim’s Fountain strategy, according to DeArmey, is that the seekers are already out on the St. James’ Way. Believers’ providing comfort and rest to them enables seekers to see the hearts–and God’s heart–in the lives of Christians.
“I was deeply moved by the French kids I talked to,” says DeArmey, reflecting on time he spent there last year. “It is a mystical experience for many people. Even if they don’t define their search as a spiritual one,” he says, “we find many people who have had it with materialism and they are seeking for something else. This is a venue where you can encounter spiritual seekers by the thousands.”
DeArmey reflected on one young lady who came down the trail using, as many do, a chest-high walking stick. She stopped briefly at the Pilgrim’s Fountain, then resumed hiking toward the cathedral. She stopped, came back, and asked, “Would you bless my staff?” and so DeArmey had the opportunity to pray with her and for her.
DeArmey is leading a team of eight Americans who will join with GBIM Europe staff and some European Christians to walk about 120 miles of the route July 1-9, 2005.
American Christians are encouraged to pray for their European brethren this summer in this ministry, and to join them, if possible. Part of the strategy involves follow-up, since many of the hikers come from cities where Grace Brethren International Missions has already established beachheads–Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Prague, and others. More information may be obtained from www.gbim.org or by e-mailing DeArmey at firstname.lastname@example.org.