This Missionary Life

An inside look at the painful challenges and joyful surprises of following God’s call

An interview with regional coordinators Pia and Eugenio Restrepo

Although the modern concept of missions has placed an increasing emphasis on the “profession” of being a missionary, at its heart missionary service has always been about the complete dedication of one’s life— marriage, family, career—to the gospel. Pia and Eugenio Restrepo have been Covenant missionaries since 1989, and their journey provides a vivid example of this wholehearted commitment. Most recently they served in Spain where they lived for the past eighteen years. In January they became regional coordinators for Latin America and the Caribbean. Recently they sat down with Companion editor Edward Gilbreath to talk about how global missions is changing, how they found the Covenant, and their experiences of being transplants into different cultures.

There’s a great deal of talk today about how our traditional approach to Christian missions is changing. What kinds of things are important to consider as we think about the future of missions?

Pia: I believe God is asking and requiring of us a new movement in missions, where, yes, we send missionaries—but they go to serve, not to help. Author and physician Rachel Naomi Remen says that if I help you instead of serve you, I am assuming that you are needy and broken, and I need to fix you. But when I serve you, I am respecting you as a whole being.

Yes, we send missionaries who have the resources, the support, the experience. But we recognize that when we come to a country, those people’s needs are a resource too, their witnesses are a resource. We see them as people who can serve us because we are joining them. We come to join what God is already doing. That joining has to be on equal terms. I come to you and I learn from you. What have you learned from your pain and suffering? What have you learned so I can learn from you? I bring what I have learned from my own journey, from being resourced and from what others have shared with me. Then we can serve together.

Eugenio: Latin America has a history of being abused by colonialism over the centuries. Spanish “conquistadores” came to America to conquer, using the cross and the sword to convert Indians to Christianity. Today our missionaries need to be aware of that tragic history, and we need to avoid imposing our Western methods, resources, strategies, and evangelistic tools just for the sake of saving souls without loving the people and their culture. We must serve them, listen to their stories, and confess their hopes, sharing their dreams and loving them for whom they are. Mother Teresa said, “There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in—that we do it to God, to Christ.”

There is also a new trend in missions where the sending countries are now receiving missionaries. It’s amazing how many missionaries are coming from all over the world to the United States to start new churches and plant churches here. So there’s this fusion of the East and the West, the North and the South, working together in a new way.

After serving for years as grassroots missionaries, what led you to take on this executive role of regional coordinators of Latin America and the Caribbean for the ECC?

Eugenio: Two words: Curt Peterson. As the executive minister of Serve Globally, Curt asked us if we were open to this possibility of becoming regional coordinators. It was a surprise—we were not thinking about this type of change. But it was an honor. We began to pray and talk to colleagues and friends about it—how they see us, how they see our gifts. And all of them affirmed us and said, “Yes, do it. You are capable, you can fill that role.” And we continue to be missionaries in this role. That is important to us.

What experiences do you think prepared you for this new role?

Pia: To me that question is an affirmation of how God knows our future, of how he blends our past in really creative ways. He called us from Colombia where we grew up in the Catholic Church, in the Latin culture with big families. Then we came to the United States, and we had this transcultural experience of learning a new language, of surviving with two or three jobs, of raising our children in a context where they asked, “Mom, what exactly does it mean to be Hispanic?” And we had to explain to them that they were different.

That experience taught us to trust God, not only financially but emotionally to sustain us when we were so far away from family. We had to create our own way of supplying those needs through friendship and creating our community around us. We thought God was going to send us back to a Latin American context, but then the opportunity to go to Spain came up. The church said, “We want a family that fulfills two special requirements: one is that they are fully fluent in Spanish, and the other is that they are teachers.” And that was us. So we went to Spain and, even from the very beginning, we felt at home.

Eugenio: Working with Roma Gypsies in Spain, training them for ministry and advocating for racial justice and reconciliation gave me the opportunity to relate to an ethnic group that has experienced persecution, discrimination, and poverty over the centuries. They are treated as thieves but admired as musicians. I am sure that these experiences have prepared us to handle social issues that we will encounter in our new role.

When you moved to Spain, did your Latin American background make it easier to adapt to the culture?

Pia: The cultural differences are very significant between Latin America and Spain, but from the beginning, we learned to value those differences. We value the way they eat, the way they go to bed so late in Spain, the way they look at life. Instead of criticizing those things because it’s not the way we do it, we learned to value and welcome that difference—it’s a value of respect. I respect you as God’s son or daughter. I respect you because I value your culture. So we took the difference as our advantage, and very soon the people in Spain began to treat us as equal. They began to say, “Oh, you’re just like us.” I think God was preparing us in that way. Being a foreigner has been part of our identity. We came to the United States and we were foreigners. We went to Spain and we were foreigners, we came back here and we were foreigners. And now we go back to Latin America, and we feel a little bit like foreigners because we have been away for so long. But God is the God of the foreigner in the Bible. He takes care of the widow, the foreigner, and the children. And we have felt those three things in many ways. People have practiced hospitality with us, and we want to practice hospitality to the soul, to the mind, to the body—caring for the missionaries and for our people.

It seems your partnership in marriage and ministry are inseparable. How did the two of you meet? How did your lives and callings intersect?

Pia: We met at InterVarsity in Bogotá, Colombia. Eugenio was the president of the chapter’s group in university, and we met in a Bible study. We started to go out, and after about three years of dating we got married.

Ever since we met, we knew that we wanted to be involved in full-time ministry. We had some missionary friends who encouraged us to do some theological training. So after we got married, we stayed in Colombia with InterVarsity for a while and were part of a local church. Eugenio was essentially the co-pastor of that church.

How did you become a part of the Covenant Church?

Pia: We sold everything we had in order to buy tickets to come to the United States, to engage in one year of language study in English so that we could go to seminary. We landed in New College Berkeley, an affiliate of Graduate Theological Union in California. Through some connections, a family in the Oakland area rented a room to us. At the beginning we were just going to be renters, but we became like family with them. They just welcomed us.

Eugenio was going to be in full-time language study. I spoke English because I had been an exchange student. So I was going to look for a job and he was going to study. But God gave us a gift—and that is that I became pregnant. Unexpectedly!

I went to a crisis pregnancy center to get a pregnancy test, and the woman there asked me if I was considering terminating the pregnancy. I said, “No, no, I am a Christian, I just came here because it’s a free test,” and I told her where I was from. She said, “Oh, Pia, why don’t you come to our church this Sunday? A missionary who has been in Colombia will be speaking at our church.”

I said, “Give me the address, but I don’t have a car so I don’t know if we can get there.” She gave me the address, and I came to the family we were living with, and I said, “Do you know where this church is?” She said, “Yes, it’s that church over there. You can walk!” It was Oakland First Covenant Church.

So we went and we heard this missionary. It was Gwynn Lewis, and he encouraged us to become Covenant missionaries and return to Colombia. I asked him, “What is the Covenant doing in Medellín? Is this a good church for us?” And he said, “Yes, you should stay here.” So we decided to come the next Sunday, and we were so welcomed by the people. They took care of us. They provided a crib for our daughter, Paulina. Pastor John Notehelfer offered Eugenio a job at the church, and we became members of the church and decided to join the Covenant. Three years later they sent us as short-term Covenant missionaries to Colombia.

Eugenio: Besides the warmth of the people, we also appreciated the Covenant’s intentionality about missions and outreach. We liked their focus on Christian education—the VBS, summer schools, and different programs for Sunday school. They had groups for newly married couples, they offered classes for different ages and needs, for the elderly, for the young. We liked that balance, that openness to serving the community, serving a variety of people in different ways.

When did you sense the call to full-time missions work?

Pia: After four years we went back to Colombia as short-term missionaries with the Covenant. We were asked to join a missionary group to start a church planting effort among the upper middle class in Medellín. But it was in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a time when the violence with the drug lords was escalating in Medellín, and all the missionaries had to leave the country.

Eugenio: We stayed and planted the first church among the upper middle class in El Poblado, Medellín. Suddenly I had the responsibility of overseeing the churches, the pastors, the projects, and the properties. We also opened the “Logos Family Center” where we offered counseling to people affected by violence and kidnappings in Medellín. I visited our new Covenant churches in Monteria, Barranquilla, Bogotá, and Medellín, giving training in family issues and pastoral care. Facing the struggles and needs and demands of the ministry was challenging.

Pia: Our commitment as short-termers was for two years, but because of all of these responsibilities, we stayed two more years. And then the Covenant said, “You can’t be short-termers forever.” They said, “Why don’t you come to Chicago to North Park Seminary and finish your studies?” I had a master’s degree in Christian formation, and Eugenio had a master’s in theological studies but he didn’t have a master of divinity degree, so again we sold everything, we took our two children, and we moved to Chicago. That’s where we learned the expression “wind chill factor”! (Laughter.)

Was it difficult for you to leave your family’s Catholic tradition to join a Protestant church?

Pia: My parents were very strict about us being Catholic. For them it was very hard when I told them I was going to an evangelical church. I was in college, and they thought, “Oh, it’s just a college thing.” But when we decided to get married in an evangelical church, my father told me that he was not going to walk me down the aisle. He could not walk his own daughter in a church that was not a Catholic church. So he said, “I will come to the celebration, but I will not come to church.” It was hard, but I respected his decision. So one of my uncles offered to do it.

However, the night before, my father said, “I’ll come to the rehearsal.” It was in an Anglican church building because most of the evangelical churches in Colombia at that time had just really ugly little places. So we rented this church for our wedding. During the rehearsal, my father was sitting in the back when I was walking down the aisle with my uncle. And he came. And he looked. And he called me and he said, “I can walk you down the aisle in this church.” I guess to him it didn’t look that different from a Catholic church. So God worked in him through that.

My dad passed away in 1993 a few years after our wedding, but he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ at the hospital before he died, so I know I will see him again. And my family now is so proud of us that we are missionaries, that we represent our country.

Many of the Latin American countries that you work with share a common language, but their cultures may be different in other ways. What are some of the key differences, and how will you address those nuances?

Eugenio: There are many similarities among Latin American countries— they share a language, idioms, concept of family, communication styles, and approach to time. Yet some countries have a more developed economic status or a longer history of dictatorships. Each country is its own unique place. Some of our Covenant churches were planted by Covenant missionaries; some were adopted from other denominations. Our challenge is to love them each and bring all of them into a Covenant identity and opportunity.

The area you are serving is so extensive—where will you be located?

Eugenio: Actually, we will live in the United States for now, in Chicago. We’ll use technology and social media to stay connected with our missionaries, and we will also be able to spend extended time with them when we visit them.

Pia: Another good thing is the access to resources that we have here. We were going to Chile recently, and we said, “What can we bring them in terms of resources?” So we went to Covenant Communications and also to Christian Formation (now part of Make and Deepen Disciples) and said, “What do we have right now on hand that we can bring?” So we brought booklets of Covenant Affirmations with us. Having resources available right here is so helpful. When you’re farther away, you don’t always think of that. Also we appreciate being close to the seminary where we can continue our growth and be encouraged by professors. I have already taught a couple of times in classes about art and spirituality. So having those resources, not only for us, but for them, is important.

Being based in the U.S. will also put you closer to your daughter and son.

Pia: Yes, and that’s important to us. People ask me about what sacrifices you make as a missionary. Our children became part of our ministry, but they also suffered in our ministry. For eighteen years they missed having any cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts nearby. Their friends would say, “I am going to see my grandpa, my grandma,” but our kids didn’t grow up with that concept. So my daughter has said to me, “If I have children, I want them to have a grandma.” Both of our children live here in Chicago. Our daughter is married and she lives in the area. And our son just graduated from North Park University. So being in Chicago for now makes sense.

In a way, we have always obeyed God’s leading. But I feel like God is telling us, “Well, listen to your heart too. What are your needs in terms of family?”

The drawback is really the weather! Really, the weather is horrible! But I have learned that you have to decide between weather and community. We are choosing community, despite the fact that I cannot stand the cold. But God has provided for us in so many ways—he will show me how to survive in the winter! (Laughter.)

Pia, you were among the earliest graduates of the Center for Spiritual Direction at North Park Theological Seminary. How has that focus on spiritual direction shaped you?

Pia: Oh, it completely shaped and gave new direction to my inner self-care. First, it helped me reconcile my Catholic background with my evangelical learning. After I became an evangelical, I put aside a lot of my Catholic resources, experiences, and upbringing. I kind of left them in a box. With the spiritual direction, I was able to go back to that box and take out some of the things that I love. For example, meditation and going to a church building where there is beauty and art, and enjoying how that person communicated and expressed himself with God through colors and experiencing that. That was part of me, but I had left it for so many years because when I became an evangelical I thought, “No images, no crosses.” So first, that reconciliation was really healing for me.

Then, because our Hispanic churches in the United States and in Latin America are often loud in terms of the worship (at least for me), I wanted to use the other side of ourselves in worship, which is quiet time and silence. Just listen to God in the silence.

Also it was through spiritual direction that I discovered that I could connect my artistic desire to express myself. Painting has become an important part of my spiritual self-expression. Spiritual direction is allowing somebody to tell their story. We all have a story. We tell our stories so that we connect—with God, with ourselves, and with others. Art for me became a way of connecting with people, of making sure they are expressing themselves so that they can connect with what is inside them and with God.

You are becoming regional coordinators at a time when there is a huge humanitarian crisis, with thousands of unaccompanied children from Central American countries crossing the Mexican border into the United States. How do you see these events affecting the work of our Latin American missionaries?

Eugenio: It is a challenge. More than 52,000 children have tried to cross the Mexican border to get into the United States since last October, and the numbers are growing every day. “La bestia,” or “the beast,” is a cargo train that brings thousands of children both with adults and without them, to the Mexican border. They come from different countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Most of these children are sent from their native countries because of extreme poverty, violence, human trafficking, drug cartels, and abusive homes. It is either die in their own homeland or die trying to escape from the dangers of the journey. I believe our call to missions requires us to extend mercy and compassion in these complicated situations.

Pia: Refugees are people who have no choice, and many of these people have no choice. We do have a choice and that is to serve them. They are desperate people. If people in the United States are against helping them, I have to wonder what are they afraid of? I would encourage Covenanters to read our resolution on immigration that we just approved at the Annual Meeting.

What is the Covenant Church doing to help address this crisis?

Eugenio: Bringing healing and awareness to the injustice of human trafficking is one area that we’ve targeted. We’re reaching out to families where people have been abused or trafficked. We were in Mexico recently to attend a missionary retreat where the main topic was human trafficking. Last spring North Park Seminary brought a number of students to Colombia to raise awareness of this issue and to work together with our missionaries, along with representatives from the United States, Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia to address these issues through different social projects.

Pia: We are also working in the areas of economic development. Our ministries in Mexico and other Latin American countries are seeking to give people more economic opportunities by giving them microfinance loans. When the situation is so complicated, we can fall into despair about doing anything, but a small seed can do a lot. I think we are called to get involved. If we develop ways to serve people in these countries, that is one way of solving at least a bit of the problem.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a call to ministry or to missions?

Pia: When Curt Peterson called us to this position, we asked him, “What would be your guidance for us? What words do you have for us?” He said, “Well, there are four things—four L’s. First, you need to listen and learn. Then you lead, because after you’ve listened and you’ve learned, you can lead more effectively. And finally, you let go and trust God to do the work.” Those words stayed with me, the four “L’s.” That was very wise—because you can apply that to everything in life.

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