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Missionaries offer more than blue bear to encourage Flemish

“Is something bothering you? Talk about it. Warme William listens.” To address rising numbers of suicides, the government in the Flanders region of Belgium created Warme William, a giant blue bear. IMB Photo

GHENT, Belgium (BP) — A big blue bear sits on a park bench, arm extended to the side as if inviting people to come and talk. A sign on the bench does just that, invites passersby to sit and talk because “Warme William listens.”

While people chat with the inanimate bear, an IMB missionary parks a bicycle pushing a small cart and starts a battery-powered espresso machine.

Residents of the city of Ghent, Belgium, line up for free coffee. IMB missionaries Don and Pam Lynch set up shop in parks to offer coffee and conversations. IMB Photo

The missionary is also ready to listen. The big difference is that the missionary can actually hear, build a relationship and most important, introduce a loving Savior.

The bear can’t do anything.

The government working alongside a local organization in the Flanders region of Belgium uses the program called “Warme William” to address alarming and rising levels of depression and suicide among teenagers and young adults. Sadly, without belief in a personal Lord, people resort to talking to the bear. While it might be helpful to verbalize issues and personal pain, Warme William doesn’t listen, as the sign claims, and he certainly offers no solution to their problems.

International Mission Board missionaries Don and Pam Lynch live and serve in Belgium. The couple said COVID-19 exacerbated the isolation many Flemish feel. People had a reason to stay inside. Lockdown after lockdown continued, and people were allowed to have only one non-family member in their safe circle who could visit.

Depression is also tied to a lack of hope for the future, common in a country with few evangelical believers. 

“When 99.5 percent don’t know the Lord, then they have no hope for the future and there’s no consequences for anything,” Don said.

“If you have no hope for the future, you don’t have anything to look forward to. Life is either a great adventure or a slow death.” 

Though the Flemish do not accept friendships easily, the Lynches explain, and strongly guard privacy, Don and Pam know how important it is to try to connect with the people.

They provide a listening ear by offering free coffee in parks and public places. They ride their “coffee bike,” complete with a coffee bean grinder and espresso machine. While they grind the coffee beans and prep the coffee, they engage in conversation.

The first question that’s often asked is, “Why are you doing this?”

They answer, “We’re believers, and according to the Bible, we need to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul, and love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Don said they thought most people would get their coffee and move on, but people like to stay and are grateful for the opportunity to talk.

One man asked them, “So, you’re just out here showing love to people?”

After the Lynches answered in the affirmative, he said, “That is so good in a world where that doesn’t happen.”

People don’t often like to talk about what is troubling them, but if people do share that they are having a difficult time, Don and Pam ask if they would like prayer. They’ve had many opportunities to pray for people.

Pam said they sometimes feel like they are battling the clock and racing to reach people before it’s too late. They understand the urgency in presenting people with the Gospel.

Though deep connections usually come with time in Belgium, not everyone is shunning new relationships. One of the Lynches’ young neighbors started coming over to sit on their couch and talk when he was 14. He’s now 20. Sometimes he’ll stay for three to four hours.

To him, the Lynches are much better than a Warme William. They are caring, compassionate and available to listen. They share truth from Scripture, godly counsel and prayer support. Don and Pam pray that God will provide more opportunities to have deep Gospel conversations with people and long-term friendships.

This summer, their coffee cart will once again stay active during the Ghent Festival, a 10-day music festival that draws thousands of people from across Europe. Volunteer teams from the U.S. and nationals come to partner with them.

Summer months often mean spirits are higher, and the Lynches have been able to have many meaningful conversations during the festival, and several people have committed their lives to Christ.

In the months leading up to the festival, join the Lynches in praying for deep conversations and open hearts. Pray for the Lynches as they devote time to building relationships. Pray for the Flemish to find hope, meaning and purpose in Christ.

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  • Tessa Sanchez