It had not been easy to find an apartment in Antwerp which would serve for five years as a base of operations for the mission to Belgium. The agent had failed to keep his word, and so an extra round-trip, driving through the night, from the UK had been required to sign for a replacement. Finally, the day came when my wife, Rosemary, and I arrived to take up residence late one Friday afternoon in the spring of 1989. With dismay we discovered that the gas and electricity would require us to call out the engineer before we could have light and warmth. With a sigh we resigned ourselves to ‘camping out’ in the gloomy chill of the apartment until we could arrange for this on the Monday – and it really was camping out as the apartment was totally unfurnished.
The doorbell intercom awakened us early on Monday morning. I scrambled out from a sleeping bag on the floor and was surprised to receive a telegram. The message it contained was terse: ‘Problem. Mission over. Return home.’ Hardly the most encouraging start! We took counsel, strengthened our hand in God, and began to pray more earnestly for the future direction of the work.
After one month Brian Tugwell arrived to lend us a hand. By then the accommodation boasted basic furnishings, we had progressed further with the language learning, and even begun to produce homespun newsletters to introduce ourselves to our new neighbours. Within a month or two, assisted by a team of enthusiastic young volunteers from the UK churches, we set ourselves the task of some street-preaching. We sang choruses, handed out invitations, and used visual aids. Many leaflets were taken, some conversations were held, but the thing that sticks in the memory is how good the coffee tasted afterwards as a soother of nerves!
These were exciting days in which, through much human weakness, we saw God’s hand at work. Lives were touched, often among very needy people as one by one the Lord opened hearts to receive His Word. We rejoiced in the knowledge of souls saved, but longed to be able to gather the scattered contacts whom we visited in their homes in different parts of the city. Street-work with groups of young helpers and mass literature distribution in the market-places and from door-to-door would set the pattern of the work for the next five years. Steadily three-quarters of a million translated tracts were painstakingly folded on the makeshift table in the apartment, and handed out – along with invitations to events either hosted at the apartment or occasionally at city centre hotel venues.
One day a letter arrived at the apartment from a couple requesting a meeting with us. We invited them to attend our next hotel-based outreach and, having thus made contact, we began to visit them each week in their home. A tract handed out in one of the market areas (before the police and stallholders had moved us on) had been passed to them by their daughter. This couple put us in touch with others and this soon led to a cell group meeting each Sunday for Bible study.
In a staunchly Roman Catholic country – one of the least evangelized in the world (according to the statistics at that time) – where reading the Bible had been forbidden until 1962 (so the local missions told us) progress was frustratingly slow. As the small nucleus of contacts were helped to interact around the Word in their native tongue, hopes of a church being planted began to grow. However, some of the most promising contacts fell away or else were hindered from fulfilling their discipleship desires due to difficulties in their life circumstances. This was even more frustrating.
In 1993 it was decided to pull back to check if the group could stand on their own, while supported to meet for Bible study in the lead contacts’ home each week. Bible correspondence study courses passed across the English Channel each week by fax, and slowly the group, by God’s grace, gathered strength. After the joy of baptisms in 1991, 1994 and 1997, the Church of God in Antwerp was planted in July 1997. The number of disciples grew further, but not by as much as we longed for, and then sadly, there were some losses. Recently, there has been joy in restoring to the Fellowship there the sister whose salvation through listening to a Search For Truth radio broadcast around 1980 had triggered the work there.
Today the work of reaching out continues, sometimes by newspaper adverts and tract distribution, but mainly by centring on the families of those in the church as well as by continuing radio and internet coverage. Each year the family camp, run by the Antwerp church since its planting, draws some of these families and has also been a refreshing time of fellowship for Church of God visitors from as far away as Canada, Nigeria and Australia.