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A Fruit Farmer’s Journey To Becoming A Missional Leader

In the 1970s, Vince Balakian’s family started a fruit farm in Central California. The farm thrived and the business of selling fruit prospered. In the 1990s, a larger packaging facility was added and the enterprise became Fruit Patch, Inc., which quickly grew into a major exporter of tree fruit to markets all over the world. Vince’s primary responsibilities with Fruit Patch were in the areas of packing, cold storage and shipping. He gave himself wholeheartedly to the company, but he knew there was more to life than running a successful business.

“Over the years, we took on more and more farmland and kept expanding our production,” said Vince about Fruit Patch. “It was very prosperous, but also very demanding. My work was virtually seven days a week, and we took very few days off during the year. I still loved farming, but the business side of things was consuming one hundred percent of my time. Eventually, we started to look for a way out.” 

In the mid-2000s, the Balakian family sold Fruit Patch. However, the new owners asked if Vince would stay on to help with some of the operations and to oversee export sales. “I knew it wasn’t my long-term goal,” said Vince, “but I agreed to do it.” 

His new role with Fruit Patch introduced Vince to a life that he had never known: “In 2000, I didn’t even have a passport. I had never traveled, other than flying to Hawaii for a vacation. I really never needed to go anywhere. I was chained down to a packing house and a farm.” 

For the next few years, Vince travelled all over the world with Fruit Patch on export-marketing trips, promoting their products and dealing with international buyers. In the process, he discovered something that surprised him: “I found out that I actually enjoyed traveling, and that I was good at it. I mean, I enjoyed building relationships with people from all over the world. I learned to appreciate their food and their culture. It was fascinating.”

Back then, Vince listened carefully to something that his mother told him. She didn’t like the idea of him traveling so much, but somehow she believed it was for a purpose. She said sternly, “Vince, make sure you do something with this someday.” 

Those words stuck in Vince’s mind, and came back to him later when he and Fruit Patch decided to part ways, as the transition to the new team was complete. It was a major turning point in Vince’s life: “I remember that day so clearly. I didn’t see it then, but God had all of this planned.”

Not long after that, Vince received a call from Mark Thompson at Multiply in Fresno. (He and Mark were related through marriage—their wives were first cousins.) “Mark invited me out for lunch,” Vince recalled, “and he asked me a simple question, ‘What are you gonna do now?’” 

At the time, Vince didn’t have an answer for Mark. In fact, he was dumbfounded by the question. “I was forty-five years old,” Vince said, “and really, I had no idea. I assumed I would keep farming, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

However, God had a plan and, although Vince continued to farm on a smaller scale, he began to understand what else God had for him. “You know, it’s not easy when you’re in the middle of it. Sometimes we can’t see the path through the forest, but when I look back now on everything I experienced with Fruit Patch, it makes sense that God had me go through that, because that’s given me the ability to do so many other things now.” 

A few months later, Vince went back to Mark and told him that he had a vision for taking people on international trips. “I had all kinds of ideas,” Vince recalled, “and I had the resources to support them. But I didn’t have a vehicle to do it. Mark, on the other hand, had the vehicle and he needed someone like me to help make it happen.” 

Through his local church, Reedley MB, Vince started getting involved with mobilizing short-term mission teams. “We started with some teams to Thailand, vision trips, taking pastors from churches so they could experience what God was doing in Thailand, and learn and be inspired and then bring that back to their churches.”

Vince had a big vision. He saw lots of teams, not just from Reedley but from other churches too, and not just teams of young people but all ages, and all levels of experience and skill. “I wanted to see teams going out all the time for specific tasks, meeting specific needs.” 

One of Vince’s favorite examples came from a team that was sent to Chiang Mai, Thailand. “They wanted people to teach sewing and hairdressing. You might think that’s obscure, but the missionaries there worked with young women from a detention facility that really wanted to learn a practical skill. We had a couple of great older women who had cut hair their whole lives and they said, ‘Sure, we’ll go.’ So we sent two retired hairdressers and six other ladies and they had a great time serving together and teaching. And they met a very real need.” 

Vince has been passionate about the rich learning that participants experience on these trips, especially from interaction with other teammates. “I love seeing teams with all different ages, from teenagers to retirees, the young and old, serving together and learning from one another.” 

He has also seen the long-term effect on participants and their relationships with God: “Our teams come back changed and focused on impacting others. As people get to know the nationals that they work with and the missionaries, they start making changes in their own lives. They view life differently. These trips have exposed them to what God has for them, and now they’re pursuing God’s calling upon their lives.” 

It’s been the same for Vince himself. “I had a tendency to put God in a box, a small box,” he admitted, “and as long as what I experienced fit into that box, everything was okay. But I’ve seen things in other places done differently that have challenged my understanding of God. I’ve learned to accept that God is bigger, and that he doesn’t always fit into my box.” 

When asked about partnership in mission, Vince recalled an experience in Thailand when one of his teammates, as they were leaving, was very upset and said that she felt bad about taking so much more than she had given. The next day, one of the missionaries apologized to Vince, saying that they as hosts had taken way more from the team than they had given. Both sides felt like they received more than they gave. “That’s partnership,” said Vince. “It’s a reciprocal relationship. Both sides are giving and receiving on equal ground.” 

Another defining experience for Vince came in Lithuania a few years ago when he was there with another team. His host’s van broke down and the team was stuck out in the snow on the side of the highway. Vince turned to the host and asked, “What do you need?” He was expecting them to say that they needed monetary help, or something practical, like a new van. Instead, the host said plainly, “We need a church in North America to partner with us.” That stuck with Vince, and he’s been committed to church partnerships ever since. 

In the midst of it all, Vince acknowledged his own shortcomings. “My challenge is to trust God more,” he confessed. “My whole life I’ve been the kind of person to make things happen on my own. I tend not to bring God into something unless I really need him. I’m learning to rely on him more and to bring him in at the beginning.” 

For Vince, the journey continues. As he works to pass the family farm on to the next generation, he is trusting God that his new calling as a partner in mission will also have long-term impact: “I believe in what I’m doing. I believe that these short-term teams are making a difference in the lives of people around the world, and in the lives of the team members themselves, and I believe that churches are growing through these dynamic mission partnerships."

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