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Three Decades in Portugal

Jonathan and Joanna Pharazyn-Gutierrez are full-time global workers with Multiply in Lisbon, Portugal. They recently sat down with their newly retired coworkers, Otto and Marjorie Ekk, who have been serving in Portugal since 1988. In the photo above, Otto is holding Jonathan and Joanna’s firstborn child, Valin. 

Jonathan: How did you originally discern God’s call?to go to Portugal?

Otto: We had already worked for three years in Brazil and then finished our seminary training when we applied with MB Mission to go into cross-cultural ministries. After a lengthy interview, the leadership asked us whether we would consider going to Portugal to be involved in pioneer church planting. We were shocked.

Marjorie: We had never thought about pioneer church planting, and we had never thought about Portugal. I didn’t even know where it was on the map. But the leadership said to us, “You pray about it for the next month and see what God will tell you.”

Otto: That was a very powerful thing. We were young at the time, and immature. We thought we knew what we wanted. But we heard the voice of God through the leadership. Their confidence in us was humbling.

Marjorie: Otto felt called within a week. It took me longer, but I know exactly where I was standing when God gave me the peace that both of us were called. Our calling was a combination of the invitation of MB Mission leadership, and also having people around us at home to pray about it with us, and then God confirming it to both of us separately that, yes, we were called to this.

Joanna: What a beautiful picture of discernment in community. What about when you arrived in Portugal, what were your greatest challenges with cross-cultural ministry?
Marjorie: I would say the language. I had three young children when we arrived, so I was tired after a full day of language training. And, of course, there are so many things within a culture that you’re never taught in school. You only learn and experience these things by trial and error. But the thing that helped me most was finding places that we could go to get fresh air, like just sitting at the edge of the ocean. Those places became very special. The children would play in the sand and watch ships come into the harbor, and we would just sit there and relax. Those are things that really fed the soul. You need to find those places and activities that help you to recharge.

Otto: I would agree with Marjorie. You only learn the real nuances of the culture as you goof up. You learn to pick yourself up, and dust yourself off. That’s the only way to become an incarnation of the Gospel and to understand how to live out your faith in a very practical way.

Joanna: Did your roles as missionaries change?over the years?

Otto: Well, in the last few years, we have not been involved in direct leadership of the churches, except in a few very small ways. The leadership is in the hands of nationals, and it’s just a blessing now for us to watch that grow and develop. But when we first arrived in Portugal, we were told that it would take about twenty-eight years to see an indigenous, autonomous church emerge. At first, we said, “That’s crazy. We’ll get it done quicker.” But doing church planting from zero was a major lesson for us. It took time to go through the process of meeting people, sharing the Gospel, discipleship, conversions, baptisms, forming a small community of believers, and developing the church. You know, we would have never chosen this, but it was an experience we will never trade.

Marjorie: We had many bumps along the road. Some of the pillar leaders in the church, we walked with them for eight years before they agreed to be baptized. They were ready, and then they weren’t. They were going through this, and then that. The bottom line of your role as a missionary is to walk with people, and you only see the fruit much later in the journey.
Otto: That’s the question I’ve asked myself again and again, “Who do I want to walk alongside?” For me, it was new believers who were still making mistakes but really wanted to follow Jesus. That’s been a major encouragement to me, and I think it’s key for any new missionary to find people who truly want to walk with Jesus and walk with them. We need to embrace each other and walk together, so we’re learning together. I think that’s very key in discipleship, not to ever say, “I’m going to teach you,” but rather to say, “Let’s learn together.”
Jonathan: What has been the most satisfying part of your ministry over the years?
Marjorie: People who have made decisions and actually stick with it and grow and become firm in the church. I remember one lady in particular, during a very difficult time in the church, she met us after the service and she said, “This is my church. Nobody’s going to get me out of my church.” When you see that commitment to the Word of God, and to meeting together in fellowship and supporting the leadership, that makes it all worthwhile.
Joanna: What would be your best advice?for new missionaries?

Marjorie: Come with a servant’s heart and come with your ears wide open to listen to the community of believers around you, to the missionaries that are already there, and make your decisions with them. As you come with a heart to serve and with two ears to listen, God will open up opportunities for you.

Otto: I agree with Marjorie, and the other thing is to come with an attitude to learn. We need to embrace culture learning in order to understand the people. We also need to have a long-term commitment. It took about twelve years for our neighbors to realize that we were committed long term. When we would go to visit the States, they would say we weren’t coming back. But we kept coming back, and they began to welcome us home.

Marjorie: I would also say, “Don’t be afraid to be a tourist.” Especially at the beginning, go to the famous places and learn to love the country. It will connect you with people because everybody wants you to love their country. And when you can say, you’ve been here, there, and everywhere, and you’ve found these beautiful places, you immediately have a connection with people.

Otto: Yes, make that country proud. Make that culture proud of who they are. It will help you get into people’s hearts and lives. If you start with being critical of a culture, you’ll lose people. We realized that we weren’t there to change the culture, we were there to give people a taste of Jesus.

Jonathan: What will you most miss about living in Portugal?

Marjorie: The people. The beautiful places. We’re going to miss everything. We know it’s time to leave, but I have nothing but wonderful, sweet, precious thoughts and memories of my time in Portugal. Now it’s time to invest in our children and grandchildren back in the States. We’ve missed many years of their lives,and we just know it’s time. But we do look forward to when we can come back for a visit.

Otto: We will miss the challenges of living out the Gospel in a very practical way in a place like Portugal. It was a very stimulating environment for us to be creative in our ministry in order to connect with people. I was constantly being pushed to look at Jesus, who came into this world to live with us as human beings for thirty years before his ministry started. He was making tables and chairs with his father. He was just working with the people, getting to know them, getting into their lives, into their hearts. We all have that same task.

Marjorie: And don’t forget that there is still a great need for missionaries in Portugal. There’s a need for people to come behind us, to go and start a life there. If that is for you, God will call you and affirm it in you. 

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