John De Vries began his mission work in India with an ambitious but unusual goal: make an impact by staying out of the way.
“The goal was not missions as we think of it,” he says. “It’s Indian people reaching Indian people.”
Today, De Vries says God has blessed this vision beyond what he could have imagined.
He states with humble amazement how the organization he founded, Mission India, has grown from one office in a rented house to 70 regional offices on the subcontinent, each with dozens of staffers, all of them natives of India. In 2018, Mission India recorded nearly 3 million commitments to Christ from churches using its materials and helped plant over 11,000 worshipping groups.
De Vries, who stepped down as the organization’s president in 2002 but has remained active as a writer and fundraiser, gives credit to his staff and to God. “I haven’t done anything other than have a vision,” he says.
His vision of minimizing the footprint of white missionaries was ahead of its time. De Vries said it came from reading reams of literature about missions, and from intuition.
“Just think of the difference between your neighbor coming over to talk about religion with you, rather than someone from a different country. There are immediate roadblocks to overcome,” he says. “This idea has become much more accepted today. People have realized that missions can be done best by local members of the nations you want to reach.”
De Vries credits his studies at Calvin Theological Seminary, not for giving him all the knowledge he needed, but for helping to form him as a seeker of wisdom.
“It made me a lifelong student, more than anything else,” says De Vries, who graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1961. “Then when I got out of seminary, I had a desire to self-educate. I continued to read and learn as much as I could about missions.”
India initially seemed an unlikely place for his work to take root. After working there briefly for the World Home Bible League in the early 1970s, De Vries says when he left, he prayed the “Jonah Prayer.” “I said, ‘God, I will serve you anywhere, but please don’t send me there again.’”
As with Jonah, De Vries says, God had bigger plans. Now De Vries speaks both of his love for India and of his disbelief that it is often ignored by the west.
“I’ve fallen in love with India,” he says. “I love the country with my whole heart. It’s a fascinating place. But for being the second largest nation on earth, it’s still one of the last countries people think about.”
De Vries says he is still processing what it means to be named a distinguished alumnus of Calvin Seminary.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” he says. “But I don’t deserve it.”
John DeVries' health declined and he entered hospice care, where he died in October 2020 at age 83. Calvin Seminary awarded Rev. DeVries the Distinguished Alumni Award posthumously during the May 2021, commencement ceremony.
Emmanuel Saba Bileya came to Calvin Theological Seminary in 2012. A pastor in the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria, Bileya was pursuing a Master of Theology degree in Worship, studying worship practices such as the use of the Lectionary of weekly Scripture readings in preaching and worship.
In a letter to President Medenblik upon his arrival, Bileya expressed his appreciation for scholarship funds that enabled him to study at Calvin Seminary. He said he would like to demonstrate his gratitude by washing all the windows of the seminary building. And he did, one by one, cleaning the dozens of windows around the building, donating his work and his time.
The memory of Bileya’s generous gratitude, his eagerness to study worship, and his heart for building the church in Nigeria and around the world shaped the memories and the grief of the Calvin Seminary community after learning in June 2020 that Emmanuel and his wife Juliana were murdered in Nigeria. The couple were working on their farm in the state of Taraba when they were ambushed and shot by militiamen. They leave behind eight children and a congregation they cultivated.
In the weeks before his death, Bileya wrote to some of his former professors urgently pleading for prayers for peace amid tribal conflict in his region.
“It is war,” he wrote. “The Tiv tribe is in a serious war with my people, the Jukun/Itchen tribe. So far more than 10 of our villages have been completely destroyed and people killed. The Jukun/Itchen tribe has retaliated by destroying Tiv tribe’s villages and killing their people as well. ... Many people have fled the town for safety, including my family, but I have remained in Mararraba praying and hoping for God’s restoration of peace and protection of the town and church.”
While Nigeria has suffered decades of inter-religious violence between Muslims and Christians, Bileya wrote that both of the tribes engulfed in this conflict were majority Christian, many of whose churches were planted by the same North American missionaries, and that the conflict stemmed from a farmland dispute. He wrote that the local government, beset by the challenges of religious conflict and managing the COVID-19 pandemic, was incapable of keeping the peace.
“Sometimes I feel like leaving Nigeria to work somewhere else that is more peaceful. I am tired of the insurgencies, communal clashes, armed robbery, kidnappings, poor economic that renders us live hand to mouth, and other serious vices. God the Sovereign is our only hope.”
In a Facebook post, John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Professor of Worship at Calvin Seminary, recalled Bileya as a student and a colleague.
“He loved books, and was eager to organize shipments of books he could use with his students and colleagues in ministry,” Witvliet wrote. ”He was also very interested in analyzing the similarities and differences in ministry contexts in various places around the world, insisting that he needed to learn from as many different contexts as possible in order to discern what faithful ministry should look like in his context.”
Witvliet supervised Bileya’s thesis, which was entitled “The Liturgical Use of Spiritual Gifts: Discerning Next Steps in Contextual Nigerian Practice.” He completed his degree in 2014. Bileya also studied at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida.
In a letter to the Calvin Seminary community, President Medenblik recalled Bileya’s presence in the community and in particular his gesture of washing the building’s windows. “I will not look at those windows the same way from now on,” Medenblik wrote.
“The news of Emmanuel and his wife Julianna's killing stunned and saddened me beyond words,” wrote Albert Strydhorst, program manager for the Timothy Leadership Training program and adjunct professor of missiology at Calvin Seminary. “I will always remember Emmanuel's hope for peace and reconciliation between those in conflict. I'll remember his heart for church-planting and theological education in Nigeria. For several years in the late 1990's and 2000's I worked with him in these areas, especially as he coordinated Timothy Leadership Training in the CRC-N. I'll remember the energy and talent he brought to leading praise and worship with a remarkable beat, inspired and sharpened by his participation in the Calvin Symposium on Worship. And the love and concern he expressed for his wife and children during those months of separation during his CTS studies. And finally, his work as a pastor with his congregation in Mararraba--staying and praying and hoping for God's restoration of peace.”
When commencement at Calvin Seminary transitioned to an online ceremony in May 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it prevented the chance to celebrate two distinguished alumni in person. For one of them, Stanley Jim, the deadly virus threatened his church and community more severely than almost any other area in the United States.
In early May, the Navajo Nation, located in portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, reported a per-capita rate of infection that was exceeded only by New York and Louisiana, and suffered hundreds of deaths. Poverty and lack of infrastructure made the area especially vulnerable.
“It’s gone down dramatically, but it had spiked pretty high,” says Jim, pastor of Window Rock Christian Reformed Church on reservation land in Arizona. “We had lockdowns for a lot of weekends from Friday evening to Monday mornings, until the numbers began to go down.”
Jim is one of many pastors whose churches have had to make drastic adjustments in their worship and ministry, though few faced the threat of the virus at such a scale.
“We gather outside for drive-up services, in vehicles parked six feet apart,” Jim says. “We’re also doing Zoom ministry for all of our services, Bible studies, and council meetings. That’s working for us until we can come back together.”
The pandemic has been the greatest challenge for Jim since he came to Window Rock in 2016, after 17 years working for Christian Reformed Home Missions (now part of Resonate Global Mission). There, he was the driving force behind the Red Mesa Indigenous Leadership Development Program, which cultivates native pastors and leaders in Navajo and Zuni churches. He also helped move native churches to self-sufficiency and phase out subsidies from Home Missions.
Then, Jim says, his calling was to return to pastoring a church.
“My passion was really being a pastor,” says Jim, who served First Navajo Christian Reformed Church in Tohatchi, New Mexico, after his ordination in 1996. “I wanted to get back to that.”
Today, whether driving up to worship at Window Rock or tuning in online from multiple states, worshipers hear Jim preach in both Navajo and English.
“People are drawn to that. The elderly are drawn to it, and the young people have learned some of the Navajo language that way,” Jim says. “I often hear from them that the message is clearer to understand when you hear it in both languages.”
Jim says studying at Calvin Seminary helped to prepare him to reach across cultures.
“It helped me to articulate Jesus’ ministry in our context,” he says. “Now the doctrines that I preach here, they’re in our context, in the language that we speak. I’m able to connect Jesus’ work and God’s whole mission with the culture that I’m in. I’m able to speak with the medicine men from a point of view that I’m not condemning them, but bridging that gap in love. That’s what God did with us: sent Jesus into this world—he is the bridge to helping us understand who God is.”
And the path to building bridges, Jim says, is building relationships.
“As I go out on the streets, I see people down and out, drug addicts and alcoholics. I have conversations with them, listen to them, get to know them, and some lives are changed,” Jim says. “People come to me, non-churchgoers, and they tell me, ‘You are our pastor.’ They come to me asking for prayers.”
While Jim said he learned a lot from the predominantly white Christian Reformed Church, he says this emphasis on building relationships is something he wants to offer back to the white church.
“Western thought and the Western mind is all about results, results, results,” he says. “Early on I began to realize that I was always working for some kind of result—how many people did you contact, how many came to the Lord?
“Native culture isn’t about results, it’s about relationships. When Jesus ministered here, his work was about building relationships. One of the things I think Western culture needs to learn is that it’s not so much about results. We as Christians should be more relational.”