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In Vermont, they see beyond fall colors

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2008 Week of Prayer, March 2-9, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $61 million to help support 5,000-plus North American missionaries. 2008 Week of Prayer missionaries are Daniel and Marta Caceres, Dewey and Kathie Aiken, Melanie Lawler, Jon and Mindy Jamison, David and Shirley Proffitt, Jon and Linda Hodge, Brad Lartigue, and Chris and Monica Woodall.

WASHINGTON, Vt. (BP)–When Dewey and Kathie Aiken survey the landscape of Vermont, they see much more than the red and yellow leaves of autumn, the traditional maple syrup production in March and historic churches with white steeples piercing the blue skies of summer.

Instead, the couple is gripped by the urgency of reaching the tiny New England state’s 623,000 people with the Gospel. It’s estimated that only 2 percent of the population are committed believers in Christ.

“Vermont is a beautiful state and it’s full of beautiful people,” Kathie says. “But we know that beneath the facade there is a lostness. Something is missing in people’s lives. I see the sadness in so many of their faces.”

“There’s an urgency to go and get the Gospel out here,” Dewey says. “When I think about how so many people in this state do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior, it breaks my heart.”

The Aikens are two of the 5,000-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and Southern Baptist churches’ gifts through the Cooperative Program.

The husband-wife Mission Service Corps missionaries are one of eight North American Mission Board couples highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 2-9. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Seize Your Divine Moment.” The 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $61 million.

Hailing from Brevard, N.C., Dewey, 56, and Kathie, 54, were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary 10 years ago when they vacationed in Vermont and fell in love with the Green Mountain State.

Already active in missions and disaster relief back in North Carolina, the Aikens returned home and, after several years, retired from their successful first careers -– Kathie as a registered nurse and Dewey as a purchasing manager for Duke Energy.

“When we came up here on our anniversary, we saw the need here in New England,” Kathie recounts. “We had careers that we were finishing up, and we knew it was time for a change. Our children were married, our family was changing, and it was a time in our lives when we could serve Christ in another area in a different way. And we were ready.”

Their passion for Vermont, meanwhile, continued to grow. “We wanted to come here. We desired Vermont,” Kathie says.

“We just felt like God was calling us to Vermont to share the Gospel here,” Dewey says. “I looked at Romans 10:14 which asks: ‘[H]ow will they know unless somebody comes and tells them?’ That’s why we’re here. We’re here to tell the people of Vermont about Jesus.”

Since the Aikens did not leave their North Carolina drawl behind, they joke about how they use it to witness to Vermonters.

“Folks up here grin when we talk, but they’re polite about it,” Kathie says. “Our accent is actually a witnessing tool. Say we’re in a restaurant and we strike up a conversation. When they say, ‘You’re not from around here,’ we make them guess where we’re from. That opens up doors and we can tell them why we’re here.”

Coming from a strong Southern Baptist state like North Carolina, the Aikens initially faced some culture shock after arriving in Vermont, a state known for its liberal political and secular bent. Vermonters also are buffeted by New Age thinking and even Wiccan practices.

“God prepared our hearts and gave us a vision of what it was going to be like, even before we got here,” Kathie says. “We came up here with the mindset that nothing is going to shock us.”

A hindrance to their ministry, the Aikens say, is the fact that many in Vermont — with its strong Catholic influence — have “just enough religion” in their pasts to think they’re going to heaven. They may think they are Christians because they were baptized as infants or their families attended church or were members of a certain faith.

“It hurts your heart, and actually sometimes makes me somewhat angry at the way people up here have been deceived into thinking that everything is OK,” Kathie says.

Kathie gets frustrated at times because she sees children and young people who don’t understand the Bible and, in fact, have never heard the Bible read, even in a church.

So whether ministering to young people or conducting a Bible study for a group of 80-year-olds, Kathie tries to keep it simple — a strategy that helped in leading an 82-year-old woman to Christ.

Rather than ask a person if he or she is a Christian -– since two-thirds of most Vermonters consider themselves Christians –- Kathie instead asks, “Was there ever a time in your life when you asked Christ to be your personal Savior?” Or “Do you have a personal relationship with Christ?”

While Vermont is dotted with beautiful old churches built in the 1800s and before, many have closed their doors. People in some churches just quit coming; some churches died spiritually or financially; and others closed because entire families finally died out. Sadly, many of these churches have been converted into town halls, libraries, antique shops and senior centers.

But Washington Baptist Church is open for ministry. Located in the village of Washington (pop. 1,000), the Southern Baptist congregation has 90 members, including the Aikens.

Right off Washington’s village square is the Calef House & Retreat Center, a 7,400-square-foot Victorian mansion built by the wealthy Ira Calef in the mid-1800s. Today, it’s managed and maintained by the Aikens for God’s work.

Purchased from the local Catholic parish in the late 1990s by Washington Baptist Church and operated by the Green Mountain Baptist Association, the house was completely renovated by Southern Baptist volunteers who came from across the country.

“The church had a vision of changing the facility into a parsonage for the pastor and his family, a mission apartment for us and a retreat center,” Kathie explains.

Some 300 Southern Baptist “guests” — as many as 21 at a time — stayed at the Calef House from April to November 2007, most of whom were on mission trips to Vermont from throughout the United States.

When he’s not helping Kathie run the Calef House, Dewey works as state disaster relief coordinator for Vermont under the auspices of the Baptist Convention of New England.

Using his relationship to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, he also manages a partnership of volunteers among the two state conventions and the Green Mountain Baptist Association, the local association serving 33 churches in Vermont and two in New Hampshire ranging from eight to 400 members.

“We’ve had a lot of mission construction teams to come in and help us do construction on our church buildings,” Dewey said. “The Calef House is an economical place where they can come, get a good night’s sleep, good food and a fresh shower. We’ve had about 80 teams come to Vermont this year, 50 just from North Carolina. God is using these teams to evangelize the state.

“One of the main ways teams coming to Vermont have helped us is in the increase of salvations we’ve seen. More churches have been started and the number of ministries has increased. They have assisted our churches in our work and encouraged our pastors.”

The Aikens also serve the Green Mountain association and its director of missions in equipping and encouraging the association’s churches and pastors. They also work as “church strengtheners” for Washington Baptist, which involves the training, mentoring and encouragement of new Christians.

What do the Aikens feel like they’ve accomplished during their five years of service in Vermont?

“I want to know that the people of Washington, Vt., had an opportunity to know Jesus Christ as Savior,” Kathie says. “I want our churches in this state to grow and to reach people for Jesus. I want to teach and mentor young Christians and help them grow. I want to continue to be able to accommodate our mission teams at the Calef House. I want us to be able to encourage our pastors and their wives.”

Dewey wants Southern Baptists to understand that “New England is an area that needs the Gospel. And we need workers.

“I pray that Southern Baptists will continue to give, not only of their time but of their financial resources,” he adds. “We still have so many towns and villages in Vermont that do not have a Gospel-preaching church at all.”

Southern Baptists’ giving to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering “supports our director of missions, our church planters and our new church plants,” Dewey says. “It’s all about a compassion to win people to Jesus Christ and spreading the Gospel here in Vermont.”

“We’ve never had a satisfaction or a joy like we have here today,” Kathie says. “We are exactly where we’re supposed to be.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.

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