Only One House For Me? Fall Issue 2008

To the untrained eye, the beach near Batticaloa looks like a tropical paradise. The sun shines hot, but not too hot. It’s humid, but bearably so, not unlike the picturesque resorts in Cancun and Jamaica we dream about while caught in the throes of the Great Canadian Winter.                                   

The water is a warm turquoise that most Canadians have only imagined dipping their feet into. (The Atlantic Ocean’s near-zero temperatures and untouched ruggedness are a far, far cry from this.) Palm trees sway gently in a warm breeze…barely mindful of the disaster that befell them just a few short years ago.

The sand is littered with seaweed, shells, and other collector’s memorabilia. The occasional sandal washes up on shore, and these are the prizes that the young children, their brown skin glistening with moisture, scramble to collect. Not because they’ve lost them, but because they might be a source of income—these worn, colourful plastic sandals that were ripped from the feet of tsunami victims at the end of 2004. In many cases, these sandals are all that is left of the thousands of lives that were lost that day.

Wade Fitzpatrick of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan’s First Free Methodist Church is sober as he tells me this story. “It was difficult standing on the beach where the waves came in, imagining the terror of that moment,” he says. “I picked up a flip flop off that beach where people died. I brought one home to remind myself that when I’m having a bad day…I’m not.” He smiles wryly.

He made the trip to Sri Lanka from the Canadian Prairies with Alan Guenther, a member of First Free Methodist Church’s missions committee, Dan Sheffield of the FMCiC’s National Leadership Team, Bishop Keith Elford, and Benedict Gomez and Sritharan Jeyarajah, both pastors who were born in Sri Lanka.

They went to worship with the church in Sri Lanka, to encourage the leadership, and to witness the construction of ten houses that will be given to the neediest of those who are without homes even four years after they were destroyed.

Ten houses that will be rays of hope for the ten families—mostly widows—who will move in.

Ten houses, to which Moose Jaw’s not-very-wealthy-or-extraordinary congregation of perhaps 150 has donated upwards of $45,000—nearly half of the construction costs.

It wasn’t the product of a year of fundraising or a mass campaign. It wasn’t even something that Fitzpatrick had thought of a year ago. Rather, it began as a brand-new missions committee’s pilot project just before Christmas of 2007. They eventually wanted to partner with a church somewhere, but this was just “a small project to get our feet wet,” according to Heather Harpell, who led the missions committee at the time. Their original goal was to raise $6,000 CAD—enough for one house.

It began simply. The committee printed Christmas cards featuring a photo of one of the houses being built for tsunami survivors, and church-goers were asked to donate. Dan Sheffield was scheduled to visit First Free Methodist Church in January to discuss options for the global partnership the committee hoped to begin(though with whom, they had no idea). Harpell smiled as she told the gathered committee in November, “We’d love to be able to hand Dan a cheque for $6,000 when he comes!”

As the weeks passed, Harpell and the rest of the committee were excited and encouraged by the church’s generosity. More than $5,000 in just a few weeks—they’d been afraid to expect that kind of generosity. And then, one week in January, everything changed.

Fitzpatrick had been working through a series on the book of James, and he had prepared a sermon for the following Sunday as usual. But when he went to bed that night, he heard a voice: “Only one house for Me?”

“It really startled me,” says Fitzpatrick. He spent much of the night lying awake, thinking about his own extraordinary wealth and the wealth around him—kitchens with stoves, refrigerators and freezers full of food, electric heat and lights, nice cars, garages, closets full to bursting with clothes, savings accounts…

He couldn’t forget the voice: “Only one house for Me?”

Sunday morning brought a far different message than he had planned. Toward the end of the service, after all the songs had been sung, after the regular offering had been given, and just when everyone thought the service was about over, Fitzpatrick began to share his story of what the Lord had said to him that Wednesday.

It wasn’t patronizing or reproachful, just truthful and sincere. Putting a small basket on the table in front of him, Fitzpatrick said to his congregation in Moose Jaw, “I think we can build more than one house for God, and [my wife] Marilyn and I are going to give the first thousand.” As the congregation looked on, wide-eyed, he pulled a cheque out of his pocket and dropped it in the basket. Then he sat back…and the floodgates opened.

Harpell and other members of the Missions Committee wept openly as dozens of members of the congregation responded to the simplest of invitations, dropping bill after bill, cheque after cheque, pledge after pledge into the basket at the front, which was overflowing within a matter of minutes. Even visitors who had never been to First Free Methodist Church before seemed to realize that God was saying something, and they, too, contributed. “It was overwhelming,” says Harpell.

At the service’s end, the committee all but ran to the back office where the offering was being counted. In just a few minutes, the church had raised almost $14,000—over and above the $5000 they already had in hand. Contributions and pledges continued to pour in for a week and a half from others in the church, from the teens, and from people Fitzpatrick didn’t even know. When all was said and done, Sunday’s total had more than doubled.

So when Sheffield suggested that the church “follow their money” to the FMCiC’s housing project in Sri Lanka, it seemed only natural. “We were looking for a field to get connected to,” says Fitzpatrick, “and every time we turned around, Sri Lanka came up. And when you have a response of $45,000, you’re tempted to think that that may be a God-thing.”

So in August 2008, Fitzpatrick, along with Guenther, Sheffield, Bishop Elford, and the two Sri Lankan pastors, journeyed to Sri Lanka to see what God had been doing.

They expected to encourage the Sri Lankan pastors, participate in the dedication of a new Free Methodist ministry centre in the city of Colombo, and visit the housing development on the eastern coast. What they didn’t expect was a brand-new, thriving church that was meeting near the housing development. One of the Sri Lankan pastors who had travelled with Fitzpatrick’s group, Pastor Jey, had hired a local Bible college student to live in the development as its caretaker.

But even more was going on—according to Fitzpatrick, the young man has the gift of evangelism. A vibrant congregation of 60 was meeting inside (and outside) an equipment shed, and during Fitzpatrick’s visit alone, they baptized eight people in a lagoon off of the Indian Ocean.

Fitzpatrick was inspired by what the Lord had done at the housing development and in churches around Sri Lanka. “The churches we connected with were full of poor people, and they have a natural spirituality—it isn’t cluttered like ours is. They don’t have enough stuff to get cluttered. They just have God. And they’re happy,” he says.

“God is deeply in love with the hurting and needy of the world….and he wants us to help.”

The Sri Lanka project has inspired a renewed commitment to missions within the members of First Free Methodist Church. The board has put the church-owned house up for sale, and they’ve committed to using 20 percent of the proceeds (upwards of $40,000) for missions—another “God-thing” waiting to happen, as far as they’re concerned.

And it all began with a committee who started with a small project to “get their feet wet.”

Amy E. Robertson is the copywriter and editor for Briercrest College and Seminary