by Debbonnaire Kovacs
In 1998, when he began pastoring in Malaysia, Lawrence Francis probably couldn’t have imagined doing ministry in the US, let alone in the cab of a big farm tractor. Francis came to the States in 2006, and when he was called to his present four-church district in Nebraska (Beaver City, Broken Bow, Holdrege, and Kearney), he set himself a goal of visiting every home within two years.
“But things are different today than they used to be. These are mostly farmers and ranchers, and they are so busy, they never had time to visit with me. It just wasn’t working.” Francis didn’t set out to invent a new kind of friendship evangelism. When one of his ranchers said, “I have to be in the field,” he simply asked if he could come, too. The man seemed surprised, but Pastor Francis said he didn’t know anything about ranching and would like to learn. He wouldn’t slow the rancher down or get in his way.
For the next two hours, he shared a cab with the rancher. “We talked about all kinds of things. I learned all about combines and plowing and harvesting, and I got to know the man, too. I had a great time! But here’s the surprising thing: to this day, two years later, this man still tells me ‘You don’t know how meaningful, how important that meeting was.’” Francis thinks there was something bothering the rancher—something the pastor didn’t know (“and I don’t need to know”)—and the mere fact of human connection helped. The rancher, Francis reports, has moved from the periphery of the church to the center of the activity.
That was just the beginning. Francis has ridden in tractors, gone fishing, learned about livestock, even shot a gun and served in a restaurant. His outreach is not restricted to his members. He sometimes goes, for instance, to a local mall and sits with men in the waiting area while their wives shop. Most of the time the conversation is simple: “Are you from around here? What do you do?” Sometimes he likes to wear a shirt with an Adventist insignia on it, and they ask questions about that. And sometimes, when they learn he’s a pastor, they begin to share more sensitive things with him. He remembers one man telling him that his son had just died. Francis listened, showed his compassion, even shared Bible passages about the resurrection. When the man’s wife came back and he asked if he could pray with them, they said yes. “I may never meet them again. I just want to connect with people.”
When he first came to the area and was interviewed for his present position, he was taken to a local Thai restaurant. He likes that food and liked the restaurant, so he kept coming, and of course he made friends with the owners. Over time, they shared their financial difficulties with him, and the fact that they needed more help, but couldn’t afford it, so they kept all the work within the family. After that, Pastor Francis would go at peak times to eat, and if he saw them getting over-busy, he’d get up and start taking orders, serving food, and bussing tables. They were amazed and grateful, and the friendship was cemented. After hours, when the family ate together, he would sometimes stay and eat with them, and they would always invite him to pray, although they are Buddhist. The family continued to go more deeply into debt and he agreed, regretfully, with their recent decision to close the restaurant. Now, the woman cooks from home and delivers to other restaurants. They no longer live in Pastor Francis’ district, but the friendship continues and is still strong.
One of his most moving stories involves an actual saved life. The pastor was at a nursing home, visiting one of his members. He noticed a family in the waiting room and felt urged to make contact with them. “How are you doing?” he asked them, and it came out that one of the men was distraught because his wife was dying. Francis knelt by the man to talk to him and listen to him. “It was 25 minutes—my knees were sore! But there wasn’t a chair nearby, and I couldn’t leave him,” says Francis.
Finally the man looked at Francis and asked, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Francis says, “These are all white people in my area, and here I am, looking like an Indian guy, coming from Malaysia!” He explained that he was a pastor, in the home to visit people.
“You visit people?” the other man exclaimed. “Would you visit my wife if I take her home?”
“Of course,” Pastor Francis assured him.
Through this, he came to know the man’s sister, and she told him she was extremely worried over her brother, because he insisted that when his wife died, he was going to shoot himself. So Francis would ask the man about what interested him, in an attempt to temporarily take his mind off his crisis, and also in the hopes of reminding him of better things about his life.
“I ended up going out and cutting wood with him. He taught me to use his chain saw. He thought it was amusing that a pastor would be interested in such things.” Lawrence Francis is interested in all kinds of things, but mostly he’s interested in people. He knew that helping this man retrieve his self-confidence would help him in other ways. Another interest the man had was guns. He was showing off his guns and said, “This one is still loaded.”
“Well, I didn’t want him to have a loaded gun in the house! So I said, ‘Hey, it’s been a long time since I shot a gun; let’s go out and you can show me how to shoot it.’” In fact, Francis had only once shot a gun, some years before, and of course the man had other guns and other ammunition; emptying this one gun would not prevent suicide by itself. But going out in the back yard and shooting may also have helped him relieve his feelings a little and regain some perspective.
When the wife died, Francis was asked to do the funeral. The head elder of their Methodist church liked his sermon so much that she invited Francis to join their church’s Bible study group. So he did, and he likes it so much he’s been an active member of the group ever since. In fact, the leader of that group was recently baptized as an Adventist, but still considers himself a Methodist and attends both churches. He has gotten his church to have a Saturday evening service. At this service, the pastor “practices her message on the 15-18 people who come, and then preaches that same message on Sunday morning,” says Francis.
Shortly after his new friend’s wife had died, Francis had to go to Malaysia to be with his own sick mother. She died a month later, but he was gone three months in all, and although he has kept contact, he hasn’t been able to see the man in person yet since he came back home a few months ago and began to try to catch up with his four churches. However, the man “is still alive and is finding meaning in living,” to Pastor Francis’ relief and joy.
Just the day before this writing, another member of that church asked him to visit her in the hospital. She wants him to do her funeral, too, when the time comes. “I’m not here to make Methodists—or anyone else—into Adventists,” Pastor Francis says. And it seems they know it. No one appears to feel threatened—indeed, the other pastor may be grateful for a colleague’s helping hand.
“When you are yourself, without ulterior motives, you make an impression on them,” says Francis. “I’m not here to flatter or change them—I just want to connect. They’re not ‘targets’ or ‘interests’ or ‘converts.’ They’re simply my friends.”