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Women missionaries (4): What’s mission life like?

May 2016

Elinor Magowan, who is women’s pastoral worker at UFM Worldwide, talks to Heledd Job. Heledd is a UFM missionary working in student ministry in Kosice, Slovakia, in association with IFES.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in North Wales and stayed there until I went to study at the university down in Aberystwyth. Brought up in a Christian home, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe the facts of the gospel. Jesus was always a real and important person for me, but I think I started to trust him as my Saviour when I was about 12.

I grew up reading missionary biographies and, after meeting one of my heroes, Helen Roseveare (missionary doctor in the Congo), when I was about 14, I said to God that, if he wanted me to serve him as a missionary one day, then I was willing to go.

As a student, this passion for cross-cultural mission deepened, as I saw that the Bible from start to finish — and, actually, all of history — is about God seeking to save a people from every nation, and bringing them to know and worship him. If that is what God is passionate about, then it seemed that my life needs to be about that too.

So, since leaving university, I’ve been involved in student mission in some way. For the past five years, I’ve been working with IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) in Slovakia, helping students to tell their friends about Jesus. My sending church is the Welsh Evangelical Church in Bangor, North Wales.

How does student work differ in Slovakia from the UK? 

There are many things that are the same. The vision is the same, and much of what I do is the same: opening the Bible with students; helping them to see that the gospel is true and worth sharing with others. But things are less established in Slovakia. Instead of supporting existing groups, I help students start groups from scratch, and take their first steps in reaching out to the rest of the university with the gospel.

I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed, in terms of the culture, is a lack of hope in the way students tend to think about themselves and their country. Of course, you see that in the UK too, but maybe the historical and cultural context here makes this lack of hope more intense. So I feel that the biggest thing I do here is to encourage students to see that because of Jesus there is hope.

What are the joys you have encountered in life and ministry?

The greatest joy is seeing students grasp the truths of grace for the first time, or in a deeper way. I remember sitting with a student studying John 4, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman. I prayed at the beginning that God would open our eyes to see new things about himself. We then read the passage.

The student kept sighing and I didn’t really know what that meant. So, in the end, I asked her if she was okay. She said, ‘Heledd, you must have prayed really good, because I’m seeing things here I’ve never seen before’. For the next half an hour, I listened to her sharing excitedly what God was showing her about himself from the passage.

There’s another student who started coming to the group here about three years ago. When he came, he knew nearly nothing about the Bible. A couple of months ago, I sat listening to him tell the group about what God had been teaching him from the book of Jonah.

He basically said: ‘God loves people in this university and they need to hear about it, and we’re the ones who need to go and tell them’. Seeing lives transformed makes this work a privilege.

As a single woman are there particular challenges you face?

There are advantages in being single. Language learning tends to come quicker for a single person, because the incentive of wanting someone to talk to forces it on you! I have more freedom to travel and be involved in things across Europe, and the relationships I’ve built with people through that are a real blessing to me.

Of course there are challenges too. I don’t think these are exclusive to single women, but being a single woman maybe means I find these things challenging in a different kind of way.

There can be a lack of stability and a lack of a sense of home. Living in a culture where family is incredibly important and the main place where deep relationships happen, while being single and a foreigner, can sometimes leave me a bit isolated.

I’m grateful for the relationships God has given me and he really does provide. But there are still times when I struggle with feeling lonely — from something as simple as coming back at the end of a conference to an empty flat; to when I have big life decisions to make; or when ministry is just tiring and it would be nice to have someone else sharing that with me.

What is helpful to you, as you seek to serve the Lord long-term overseas? What kind of support have you valued from others? 

Before I went to Slovakia, I said to a couple of friends that I needed them to keep being my friend and treat me as ‘Heledd their friend’ and not ‘Heledd the missionary’.

They have and that’s been a really big help. We skype: we do talk about what’s going on in the ministry, but we also talk about lots of other ‘normal’ things. They don’t assume just because I’m a missionary that I don’t struggle with things every Christian struggles with.

So they ask me hard questions, and challenge and encourage me when I need it. They share their struggles and lives, and the lives of their kids with me. We regularly skype, and I know I can go and spend a few days with them and experience a bit of ‘home’.

There are many others who pray for me and tell me they are praying, and that is a real help. At times that have been particularly challenging, or when I’ve been thinking about big decisions, I’ve also valued others who’ve taken time to pray with me, who’ve been willing to speak truth and help me have a right perspective on things. That’s made me feel less alone at those times.

What are key lessons you have learnt, or are learning, through your service for the Lord overseas?

I recently studied Hebrews 11 with my team mates here and felt verses 8-16 particularly encapsulated some of the things I’ve experienced, or been thinking about, over the last five years.

Every Christian is a foreigner on earth and, for all of us, our true home (heaven) is something to come. We get glimpses of it here, but living as a Christian means living with a longing for something we will only fully experience in the future.

Living overseas makes that truth more real to me and has deepened my longing for that home. That’s sometimes painful, but it also makes me love and long for Jesus more. That is a great thing.

Another key lesson is that God really can be trusted. Being a bit of a melancholic Welsh person, I expected struggle when I came to live and serve here. That expectation has been fulfilled, and there have been some extra struggles I didn’t expect.

But it’s also been okay, and there are so many joys in serving here. That’s not because I’m stronger than I thought I was — in fact, I’d say, I’ve seen the opposite to be true. But it’s because God is strong, because he is good, and because he really can be trusted.