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Missionary’s witness impacting world through United Nations community

NEW YORK (BP)–Maria Teresa “Tess” Castaneda, an employee of the United Nations in Manhattan, had plenty of cause to grieve last year. She suffered the death of her father and more recently the loss of her possessions in an apartment fire.

But in December 1999 she accepted Christ after hearing the gospel at a special event for the U.N. Secretariat staff sponsored by Christian Ministries to the United Nations Community. And now she can only praise God for his mercy; not only her father before his death, but also several family members in the Philippines, came to Christ as a result.

“I know I have lost my home, but I still have a peace and joy that I never had when I had my material possessions,” she said after a recent meeting of a Bible study group at the ministry that has become a key part of her spiritual family.

Stories like Tess’ are part of what motivates North American missionary Ken Welborn as he directs the Christian Ministries to the United Nations Community outreach. Through special events and personal visits, Welborn is helping present an evangelistic witness to the United Nations workers — and through them, the world.

“We have a truly wonderful opportunity here to minister to 189 countries in one localized area,” Welborn said. “Leaders from every nation, people, tongue and tribe are represented here at the United Nations. Because of our accreditation here we have an opportunity to meet in their offices to talk to them and develop relationships. And these relationships can have an impact not just here in New York, but around the world.”

Welborn and his wife, Karen, are among the featured missionaries during this month’s 2001 Week of Prayer for North American Missions.

While Welborn’s ministry among the world’s top leaders is unusual among Southern Baptists, so was his path to vocational ministry. As a young management consultant in California, Welborn found himself asked to become an executive, and later partner, in Harmony Foods — a manufacturer of trail mix, confections and other snack foods sold in bulk to supermarkets.

“My measure of success was the American dream of position, power and prestige,” he said.

But despite his earthly success, he said he still felt the classic “God-shaped void” within that drew him first to seek out Christ. He had grown up in a Christian home, and the truths he learned as a child took root in his life.

“The Lord showed me that there was more to life than making candy and making money, and I became a Christian. After two and a half years, I really felt I was being called into ministry. We sold our business, and we went to seminary where God trained us, taught us and used us.

“People say, How could you give that up?” he added, “But the truth is that I gave up very little. God gave up everything for me, and if he is calling me to follow him, then that is really where my heart was and still is.”

After graduating from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Welborn served as minister of outreach and education at a church in south Texas for three and a half years. Then he was asked by the North American Mission Board to lead the ministry to the United Nations.

“I certainly didn’t plan to come to New York City, but the call from God was very clear,” he said. “After coming here I realized that this was the ministry that he truly had for me all along.”

And while Welborn travels to midtown Manhattan each day, Karen manages their home in suburban Connecticut — including homeschooling their six children. She also helps entertain diplomats and otherwise supports Ken’s ministry.

“It is truly our ministry together. I really feel like we are in this hand in hand,” Karen said. “He is one of God’s called spokesmen over there [at the U.N. headquarters], and I’m here holding down the fort and supporting the home base.”

Welborn has developed a two-pronged focus for Christian Ministries to the United Nations Community, which has existed since 1972. The Thursday Bible study and other efforts for the community of faith that has developed is primarily designed to reach the 10,000 employees of the United Nations Secretariat — the office high-rise adjacent to the building where the United Nations meets in Manhattan.

The other group the ministry seeks to impact is the diplomats themselves, who work out of missions surrounding the United Nations and generally are not accessible through traditional means. But through several special events each year — including one banquet featuring Billy Graham — Welborn is able to make contacts that allow him to gain an audience with them. In the two years he has been in New York, Welborn said, “God has opened doors to ambassadors and diplomats from about 80 different countries.

“We follow up by taking them tapes of the events or a Bible or something else that we might provide as a result of their participation,” he said. “That begins the acquaintance, and then from that point we have access to develop the relationship. From there God continues to open those doors for us to minister.”

As he meets and visits with the diplomats, Welborn said he always tries to see how he — and Southern Baptists — might be able to minister.

On one occasion, he learned of a need for insulin in an Eastern European country. It took a few months, but he eventually was able to make contact with a pharmaceutical ministry that in turn was able to supply a large quantity of insulin for the country. In the process, Welborn built a relationship with the diplomat that led to discussions about Christ.

In another case, one of the respondents at the Billy Graham dinner from Eastern Europe became intensely interested in what Welborn had to say about Christ on a follow-up visit.

“I had a great conversation with him, and he just sat there mesmerized,” Welborn said. “As I finished, I said, ‘You’re not talking. Does this make sense to you?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I understand, I’ve just never heard it that way before. In my country … Christianity was not allowed and we could not even speak of it.'”

Welborn met with the man weekly for months to talk more about Christianity, and although he hasn’t yet made a public decision, the groundwork has been laid.

In meeting with a diplomat from the Far East, Welborn was asked whether God would really want Abraham to kill his son Isaac. “God just really opened up the door for me to explain the significance of that,” he said.

In another instance, a Middle Eastern diplomat asked, “Do you really believe that God would choose Israel over any other people group?” Welborn was able to tell him how he “had the accent on the wrong syllable. The focus is on God, not on Israel. He made them into a strong nation to show his power and his greatness.” From that exchange, a bridge was built to share the gospel.

Ministry opportunities also have arisen as Welborn has noticed needs in other countries that Southern Baptists might be able to help meet. He learned of a program through the U.N.-affiliated World Health Organization to help eradicate millions of cases of curable blindness in Africa. After several conversations with WHO officials in New York and Africa, Welborn was asked if Southern Baptists would like to help address the blindness cases within Zimbabwe.

“God was quick to confirm his hand in all of this,” Welborn said. “As I called the International Mission Board to advise them of this opening in Zimbabwe, I was excited to hear that we had just sent a new missionary to Zimbabwe about a year ago who just happened to be an ophthalmologist. We serve a glorious God!”

Teams of ophthalmologists now are being organized to work with the effort.

Another need Welborn has become aware of more recently is the growing number of children of AIDS victims in Africa.

“With over 10 million AIDS orphans in the year 2000, projected to be over 40 million by 2010, this is the greatest ministry opportunity that I see in the world today,” Welborn said. “The focus through the U.N., World Health and the nations themselves are the primary AIDS victims, and these children are often forgotten and left behind in the wake.”

Welborn now hopes to be able to work with the IMB in helping address the ministry need. It is that sort of cooperation that he believes can allow Christian Ministries to the United Nations Community to carve out a unique and effective ministry niche.

“One of the things the Lord has shown me is we have this great global network of Southern Baptists who are all over the world,” he said. “We can not only minister to the diplomats and their families, but to their nations. And when that little light of an opportunity came on, God began to open doors right and left.”

(For more information on the Welborns and other missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, visit the www.anniearmstrong.com Web site.)
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: A WORLD OF MINISTRY, WORD FOR THE WORLD and AMBASSADOR FOR CHRIST.

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  • James Dotson