Thursday, April 19, 2012
For Nathalie Sweeting, when God says “jump,” she jumps. She doesn’t always know what God has in mind, but she knows to obey.
That’s how two years ago she found herself standing in a vacant lot on one of the Caribbean islands that make up the Turks and Caicos, armed with a Bible and a megaphone, preaching to the cracked concrete and overgrown bushes.
It’s Sweeting’s unfailing obedience to God’s sometimes inexplicable directions that made it possible for the Church of the Nazarene to officially enter Turks and Caicos earlier this year, making it the 158th world area in which the denomination is at work.
Sweeting had been heavily involved in the Nazarene church on her home island in the Bahamas for almost 20 years. She had served as the youth leader, the district NYI president, and worked as the administrative assistant in the district office. God had called her to be involved in the church, rather than continuing as a chef in the resort business, so she had put away her apron and cooking utensils and took up local church leadership.
That’s why it didn’t make sense to her when the resort that employed her husband Jeremiah decided to move him to work at a resort in the Turks and Caicos in 2008.
Throughout their first year in the Turks and Caicos, Sweeting cried every day, brokenhearted over giving up her home island, her newly remodeled house there, her five grown children and her church. She sought comfort and guidance through fasting, studying the Bible and praying every day.
She says the Lord began to whisper to her heart: “This is not about your husband’s job. I want you to start the work in this new place.”
Sweeting knew she must obey, but wasn’t sure how to start. After thinking it over, she decided to do what she knew: youth ministry. She and Jeremiah visited a nearby basketball court where several teen boys were shooting hoops and asked if they would like to start a basketball team. Excited, the boys agreed and invited their friends to a meeting the next day.
At the meeting, Sweeting explained her plan: anyone who wanted to play on the team would have to attend a church youth meeting once a week.
Quickly, other community teams came together to play against the teens, and a league formed – a total of 10 teams with 15 players each. Sweeting leads her church youth team, and also serves as chaplain for the whole league.
Out of this work, a number of youth have believed in Christ and are the core of the church plant that meets at the Sweetings’ house on Sundays.
Seeds of the church
Two of the young men to take leadership are Andy and Renál. Andy, who is 18, had been to church before, but was turned off by the lifestyle of its leaders. So he wasn’t interested in following Christ.
One day Sweeting told him, “The Lord says, if you are ashamed of me here on earth, I can be ashamed of you in heaven.” The following Sunday, Andy said he was ready to follow Christ.
Andy accompanies Sweeting whenever she goes somewhere to preach or to pray over someone who is sick. She believes God is calling Andy into ministry.
Next, Sweeting says God gave her a new challenge: visit an abandoned property about a mile away. When she reached the cracked concrete lot, overtaken with weeds, she sat down to read her Bible and pray. The next Sunday, the Spirit led her back and again she read her Bible and prayed.
The following Thursday, she heard a new command from God: Go to that empty property and preach.
“Boy, I got so upset, why am I going to preach a sermon?” she said. “There are only bushes there.”
Sweeting prepared a sermon anyway, and arrived on Sunday with a megaphone and her Bible. There wasn’t another person in sight, so she preached to the weeds and bushes. To her surprise, people emerged from the bushes and nearby pathways and soon a small group gathered.
What she didn’t realize is that there were many immigrants from Haiti living in a kind of ghetto nearby – many without proper immigration documents; some of these immigrants were sleeping in the very bushes where God directed Nathalie to preach.
Making it work
About 25 people have given their lives to Christ since Sweeting began her ministry, and 30 actively attend the house church; many of the attendees are Haitian.
The couple moved to a home much closer to the immigrant community and the empty lot, which Sweeting says God has promised to give the fledgling congregation.
Obtaining that lot, which a developer recently purchased, as well as finding chairs, music and sound equipment, a tent and a van are important prayer requests for the small church.
“I have to make a lot of trips on Sundays to help bring our people to church,” she says. They also clear away her family’s living room furniture so there is room for everyone to sit on the floor.
Unbeknownst to Sweeting, during those first few years God was leading her to plant a church, mission leaders in the Mesoamerica Region were praying about how to start the work of the Church in the Turks and Caicos.
Alphonso Porter, the field strategy coordinator, had put the islands at the top of a list of 10 nations on his field that he believed the denomination could enter in the next 10 years. He'd begun talking to other leaders about this early plans and started writing proposals.
At the same time, during an NYI Council meeting one day, Joel Tooley, a missionary serving with Youth Mobilization in the Mesoamerica Region, happened to request prayer for God to make a way to start a church in the Turks and Caicos. Ruth Lawrence, who serves on the council, replied, “I believe that the Turks and Caicos is where we have a Nazarene lady from the Bahamas whose husband moved there for work.”
“We’d been trying to figure out how to get something started there for a while,” Tooley said later. “One of the ideas was just to buy a plane ticket, show up and try to get a meeting with the mayor or something.”
Hearing there was already a Nazarene couple living there, Tooley called Sweeting with Skype. She began to describe how God was gathering youth to Himself and they were meeting for Bible study in the couples’ house.
As he listened and she talked, both Tooley and Sweeting were struck by the powerful sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence. They stopped right there to pray and praise God for how He was clearly already at work.
Early in 2012, the denomination's General Board approved plans for the Church of the Nazarene to officially enter the Turks and Caicos. A few weeks later, Bernie Slinglerland, the region’s evangelism coordinator, and Tooley arrived to visit the Sweetings and observe first-hand the ministry milestones that had already taken place.
During that visit, they encountered the believers who are part of this pioneer work; visited the ghetto where many immigrants are living; participated in a public school assembly where Slingerland made a profound presentation of the Gospel; toured a local children’s home and met various community leaders. Tooley was even asked to conduct a baby dedication ceremony for a new, young family who had just begun attending the church.
This month, Rev. John Wildgoose, III, the newly elected superintendent of the Bahamas District, of which the Turks and Caicos is now a part, visited the island for the first time. During this visit, more than 10 people participated in a membership class and two were baptized.
Sweeting has begun the process of registering the Church of the Nazarene with the Turks and Caicos government.
Tooley said to Sweeting as they were dreaming about ministry strategy, “We must remember that every person we meet on this island has been created for a purpose – their purpose is to serve Christ. In these pioneer moments, we must establish a lifestyle for this young church that is committed to the message of holiness and the lifestyle of mission; holiness and mission are synonymous in the Church of the Nazarene.”
Talk about it
- Have you ever moved far away from your home and experienced a great deal of pain and grief in such a big change? How did you deal with that?
- What did Nathalie Sweeting do to get through that difficult first year?
- Sweeting says that eventually God revealed His purpose in moving her family: to begin a new church. How would you feel if you learned God was giving you such a task?
- To get started, Sweeting did what she knew best: work with youth through basketball. What strengths, experiences or passions do you have that could be used to minister to others?
- When God asked Sweeting to go and preach to an empty lot, she did it, even though it made no sense and she felt foolish. What would you have done in her place?
- Has God ever directed you to do something that made no sense to you at the time? If you obeyed, what was the outcome?
- The new church meeting at the couple's home is made up of many immigrants. Is there a community in your town or neighborhood who may feel out of place and are struggling to integrate? How could your church reach out to such people?
- How can you pray for Jeremiah and Nathalie Sweeting, the new believers and the church that is growing in the Turks and Caicos?