“If your dream doesn’t scare you, it isn’t big enough.”
On a warm September day, I read that slogan in large letters on the back of a semi-tractor trailer as it passed me on I-57 in Southern Illinois. I was on my way to a missions support raising seminar near Indianapolis, Indiana, and I was scared to death.
When I tell people I am a prospective missionary to Estonia, the first thing I’m asked is where it’s located. I’ll get to that in a bit.
But the second question is almost always about my journey to missions. I know I’ve always been fascinated to hear how others found themselves in the field, and here’s my story.
A Career Pursuit in Journalism
I was raised in a mostly Christian home in a very small town in Southeast Missouri. I consider my true conversion to have happened at age 16, at a skating rink during a See You at the Pole rally. I was immediately drawn to missions, although I wasn’t sure if that meant I would serve in the field or stay home and support missionaries financially and in prayer.
However, I was also very career-oriented, and for the next 13 years that – along with serious relationships – kept me from seriously considering joining the field.
I went to college and earned a journalism degree. On the last day of my internship, essentially my last day of classes, I was offered a position as editor of a weekly newspaper in Southeast Missouri, just 50 miles from my hometown.
Defining “Moving On”
I spent the next six years as an editor at a weekly newspaper, and then reported at a nearby daily newspaper. Although I am hesitant to say I was pursuing the American dream (have you seen the average salary of journalists?), I was focused on establishing myself and furthering in my career.
I was happy pursuing this and felt I was where God had called me to be. I became very active in my local church, working with the youth group, teaching Sunday school and even serving as a board member.
In the fall of 2013, however, everything began to change. For the first time, I felt the urge to move on. I had promised myself I would stay at my current job for at least three years, and that deadline was quickly approaching.
Initially, I assumed “moving on” would mean another reporting position, and I began applying at newspapers throughout the Midwest. I felt some would be a better fit for me, but none of them felt right.
By early spring of the next year, I started to feel very discouraged. I even related to Moses: God was telling me to leave, but I had no idea where He wanted me to go.
Discontentment, Tears & Total Release
My focus began to shift in late March. My church hosts a yearly missions convention, and I was sucked in immediately. I hung on every word the missionaries spoke.
The last service was a Sunday night missions-oriented worship service. When the altars were opened at the end, I went to the front and just sobbed.
I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy.
I had gone through some stressful experiences in my personal life in the previous six months, and I also had that feeling of dissatisfaction with my career.
“God, if you’re going to make everything suck until I do things your way, I give up. You win,” I vividly remember praying.
I later realized those tears were tears of relief. Instead of trying to shoulder my future on my own, which is a load I can’t carry alone anyway, I turned it over to the One who can.
Beyond National Borders: The Missional Search
I got home that night and although I had to work the next morning, I stayed up past midnight searching the Assemblies of God website for missionary openings.
For those who aren’t familiar with the system, AG Missionary Associates serve one to two years, assisting missionaries who are already on the field. Although I had no area of the world in mind (I looked at all the openings), I was drawn to university student ministry opportunities in Sweden and Poland.
A Small Fleece
Just a few days later, something happened at work that, although insignificant in itself, further confirmed it was time to move on from my job.
That same night I went to a St. Louis Blues hockey game with some friends, including my pastor, Dan Martin. Dan and his wife, Diane, previously served as missionaries to Portugal. I rode with him and shared everything that was on my mind. He was very encouraging.
One hangup, however: I’d never been on a mission trip, even stateside. And I’d never even been on a plane.
An Adventurous Solution
Fortunately, one of my good friends, Shannon Huett, was serving a two-year term in Tallinn, Estonia. I contacted her, and within a few days I Skyped with her about missions. I told Shannon my interest in Sweden and Poland. She suggested I visit her and then take a ferry to Sweden and a bus to Poland.
Initially? I thought she was nuts!
That’s the kind of thing adventurous souls like Shannon do. The girl lived in Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps! Meanwhile, I’d never lived further than two hours from home. Also, it was often difficult to take much time off work, even though I had three weeks of vacation saved up. I knew I’d likely have to quit my job to make a trip to Eastern Europe of any substance.
That was just not feasible.
A few days later, however, I talked to her sister, Brooke. Brooke suggested she could fly over with me, although she wouldn’t stay as long. That made my first flight seem less scary. She also pointed out that I had been waiting for months to leave my job anyway. What better incentive than an impending trip overseas?
I’m very much a planner, and taking things day-by-day is not my style. Neither is living without much financial security.
As a journalist, I never made much money. I had considered teaching at one point, and that would’ve meant a raise! However, I lived below my means and always had enough to pay my bills, save and give.
Yet, somehow within a week of talking to Shannon, I decided the next time I paid rent, I would give notice and move in with my parents, who live close to where I worked. The next month I gave notice at work, I also ordered a plane ticket which wiped out my savings.
Did I mention how scared I was?
Estonia’s Warm Welcome & Life-Changing Memories
On July 7, Brooke and I set out on our grand adventure, the most incredible month of my life.
I’m not afraid of heights, and all our flights went off without a hitch. After stops in Newark, New Jersey, and Copenhagen, we arrived in Tallinn the evening of July 8. Within half an hour of arriving at Shannon’s apartment, we were greeted by fellow missionaries and Estonian believers for a chocolate and tea party.
While Brooke was in Estonia with me, Shannon took a few days off, rented a car and we went on a cross-Estonian road trip.
We ate honey fresh off the honeycomb. Despite a lifelong fear of stinging bugs, I even held the honeycomb as Shannon’s friend Andrus knocked buzzing little bees off of it! I experienced sauna for the first time. I ate scrumptious Russian pancakes. We walked around Hansa Days, a festival celebrating Estonia’s heritage in Tartu. We also spent a day at Estonia’s most popular beach in Parnu.
After Brooke left, however, I spent the next few weeks just living life with the missionaries. A team from Minnesota came in, and I assisted with a kids’ day camp in Kadriorg Park. I also served on the hospitality team for the church’s preview service, serving snacks and coffee afterward.
Through the Baltics to Poland
Although I had already moved on from Sweden by the time I planned my trip to Estonia – I felt God closing that door – on July 21 I left to spend a few days with Curtis and Sara Hobbs in Poland. I had never traveled to another state by myself, so initially I was intimidated by the prospect of traveling to another country on my own. Brave Shannon made it sound so simple, though, so I set out by bus, riding through Latvia and Lithuania on my way.
I spent an awesome few days with the Hobbs family. They were amazing hosts and showed me around the old city, took me out for pierogies and were patient with my many questions on the religious environment there.
I was blown away by Poland but have not felt called there. I pray the Hobbs find the right person to help them continue their selfless service to the students in Krakow, a major city of Poland.
Back in Estonia: T-Minus One Month to Launch
Throughout the next couple of weeks, I took in more of Estonia. The team was planting a church there (Focus Church), but it didn’t officially launch until September. I visited Toompea Church near Tallinn’s Old Town on Sunday mornings.
I knew my trip to Estonia would be life-changing, but I didn’t realize how much I would connect with the people – both missionaries and native Estonians.
By the end of my trip, I found myself making plans independent of Shannon, and I’m sure she was thankful she didn’t have to babysit me!
I enjoyed Japanese curry with missionaries from Arizona, watched missionary kids so their parents could have a free afternoon, strolled through the Japanese Gardens with a new Estonian friend and munched on vegan food in Old Town with another sweet Estonian gal.
When Shannon went to Norway for a few days, I even had the apartment to myself and got a taste of what everyday life could be like there – buying groceries, navigating public transportation and everything else on my own. And I’ll never forget to the day trip to Helsinki, Finland, with new Estonian girlfriends!
Breakfast Invitation & the Unexpected
Something very unexpected happened on my last full day in Tallinn. Nick and Olivia Puccini, who oversee the church plant in Tallinn, invited me for breakfast.
I shared some things with them I don’t share with many people, and we had a deep conversation. Then they asked me something I didn’t expect: to join the team!
I had spent much of the trip admiring these missionaries, maybe even putting them on a pedestal. Meanwhile, with Focus Church I just did many of the same things I do in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with my home church. I really didn’t expect that that would catch anyone’s eye. It also bolstered my confidence, as one of my biggest obstacles to missions was feelings of inadequacy. I was very flattered and thanked them, though Estonia hadn’t even been on my radar as a missional possibility.
Homeward Bound…For Now
The next morning, I began my journey home.
That was as much of an adventure as the rest of my travels. An eight-hour flight delay in Sweden led to a missed connection from Newark to St. Louis, and I was faced with spending the night at the Newark airport. Fortunately a very gracious friend in Brooklyn offered me her couch for the night, so although I’d never been to New York City, I got to traverse trains and subways alone late on a Friday night.
The next evening, however, I finally returned to Missouri soil.
When I began planning my big adventure, I said I just felt the need to go. I figured going would get the travel/missions bug out of my system. I’d return to the states, find a local teaching or reporting job, and I’d go back to supporting missionaries in prayer and through programs like Speed the Light.
When I did finally return, I told myself I would wait at least a week before making a decision. I didn’t want to jump the gun while riding a high. But before I even got home, I knew what my decision would be. I couldn’t imagine doing anything but missions.
I applied for a Missionary Associate position (1 – 2 year commitment), but was still unsure of my destination. I kept in touch with the Hobbs family, as well as missionaries in the Netherlands, Scotland and a few other countries. Some of those areas really appealed to me!
But I couldn’t deny it: I left my heart in Estonia.
A year ago, I didn’t even know exactly where Estonia was located. I knew I would have a blast on my trip, but I did not expect that the missionaries I met would immediately feel like family. Even more so, I never imagined I would become great friends with some of the Estonian women in such a short period of time.
Spiritually Dry: Estonia’s Rich History & Emptiness
I’m drawn by what I learned of the country’s culture and history. The country has gone through various religious stages throughout its history, from the pagan religions of its early days to the Christian religion of merchants from Western Europe, to the prevalence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Now almost religion at all. Less than a quarter of Estonians profess any religion. It’s often touted as one of the least religious countries in the world.
Even now, I found some with a Christian-like religious background see God as angry and ready to pounce on those who sin. They don’t have a close personal relationship with Him as their Heavenly Father.
I think that’s the largest draw for me. I have often said it’s not my Calling to stand on street corners and try to convince other people to believe as I do. Unfortunately, I think that’s what many people have in mind what they think of missions.
At its core, though, missions comes down to the two greatest commands: Love God and love people.
There are Estonians who are interested in the gospel. There are others who have never even considered it because religion and spirituality just aren’t a daily consideration in their lives.
And I desperately want to be there for both groups of people.
To teach them that God isn’t angry with them. He simply wants to know and love them, and for them to know and love Him. Despite an amazing team, the need is so great in Estonia that the mission it Tallinn is still desperately short on volunteers.
An Uncomfortable, Bright Future
The scary part isn’t over.
Leaving my family for a year isn’t “comfortable.” Forming my support team and asking them to financially support the mission is so out of my comfort zone. And those uncomfortable feelings have challenged my love for Estonia. Do I love the people enough to put myself in an uncomfortable position to serve them? Absolutely.
My prayer 10 months ago was, “I give up. You’re in charge.”
Now? “Here I am. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)