Nurturing theological connections in the Americas

GUATEMALA CITY (BP) -- As a youth pastor, Billy Hurst went on a two-week mission trip to Haiti. Because his wife Debbie taught school, she had to remain in the U.S. In their separation, she feared for her husband's well-being in a foreign country.

"So I spent a lot of time in the Word and just praying for his safety," Debbie said. "And while I was having my quiet times, the Lord very clearly revealed to me that I needed to prepare myself because He was calling me to the foreign mission field."

She wrote a two-page letter to Billy explaining how God had been talking to her about going to the mission field at some point in their married life.

"I wrote it out," she said with a laugh, "because I knew he wouldn't believe me."

When Billy returned to First Baptist Church in Clover, S.C., he was surprised by his wife's news, but not for the reason she expected. While Billy was on mission in Haiti, God had extended to him the same call to cross-cultural missions.

"What a surprise to be reunited after two weeks and learn that God had spoken to both of us concerning this matter," Billy said.

Since then, the Hursts have served in Mexico, Costa Rica and, for the last two years, Guatemala. Billy is a professor and director of the master's program at the Guatemala Baptist Theological Seminary in Guatemala City while Debbie teaches at a local grade school.

Their vision in all they have done has been to see a new generation of pastor-theologians in Latin America reach the nations by teaching truth and transforming lives.

In the couple's first step toward the mission field, Billy pursued a master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, graduating in 1997 (and currently working toward his Ph.D.).

"A strong burden was put on my heart while in seminary for missions," he said. "It was not until I got to seminary that I began to realize the meaning of Romans 1:18-21, which says that people are without excuse in terms of knowing God. I had always assumed that people who had never heard of God would go to heaven.

"At that point, God began to burden my heart concerning those who have not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel message proclaimed."

A year before graduating, Billy participated in a mission trip to Guatemala. Though he signed up at the invitation of a friend who later dropped out, Billy nevertheless experienced a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit while worshipping at a local church, sensing God telling him that Guatemala eventually would be his permanent place of service.

Billy said he wept that day out of fear over leaving his comfortable surroundings in the States, Billy said. But he also "wept for joy knowing that God was using the Holy Spirit to guide me and my wife into future ministry."

The Hursts first went to Guatemala in 1998 and served there two years, followed by placements in Costa Rica and Mexico. Then, in 2014, the Lord brought them back to Guatemala.

The couple is now part of the International Mission Board's theological education connector team for the American peoples affinity group (that is, the people of Latin America). The team's mission is to connect the needs of Baptist seminaries and partner institutions in the Americas to resources within the Southern Baptist Convention.

"As 'theological educators,' the men and women who constitute this team have as their primary calling the task of training and equipping a new generation of Baptist national leaders for Great Commission deployment," Billy said. "This is done formally in academic and local church settings and informally as they interact with students and the seminary community."

And, as "connectors," Billy continued, team members are tasked with connecting the Americas' theological education needs with "unprecedented opportunities for service and resources found within the SBC -- including Baptist seminaries, Baptist universities, and volunteers from Baptist churches and associations."

In addition, team members strive to be actively involved in local church life, from evangelism and missions to small-group multiplication as a component of church planting.

The Hursts work specifically with the Baptist seminary in Guatemala where Billy teaches classes on missions, evangelism and discipleship as well as other classes as needed on the main campus or one of its extensions. Thanks in part to its partnership with Southwestern's Global Theological Innovation, the Guatemala seminary has extensions in the interior of the country as well as in neighboring Honduras and Belize.

Billy also leads a Friday morning staff devotional on the seminary campus and a Tuesday evening discipleship group for young men. On Sundays, he visits various churches throughout the country in order to promote the seminary and encourage his students.

Debbie, meanwhile, has been involved in children's ministry throughout the couple's missionary career. When their own two children were young, for example, she invited children from the community to their home for birthdays and holidays, and their parents often would tag along out of curiosity. Questions typically were asked why the Hursts were in the country, opening the door for them to explain that they are ministers of the Gospel, which often led to the formation of Bible studies.

"Doing the children's ministry gave us the connection with our neighborhood in Costa Rica that allowed us to start a church there by God's grace," Billy said. "Her ministry and love for the women in Guatemala helped us as we developed a church here as well."

In his work with the seminary and its students, Billy said the most rewarding parts of his ministry are watching students walk across the stage at graduation and seeing their passion for the lost, obedience to the Word and their spiritual growth.

"God continues to raise up students with a passion for His Word," Billy said. "Mardo, a second-year student, came to the seminary with little Bible knowledge but with a desire to learn and be obedient to the Word. Over time, he has matured in his faith and grown in wisdom. His passion for the lost serves as an example to all on campus."

In the years since Billy and Debbie Hurst received the call to cross-cultural missions independently of one another, their vision has remained steady: Many have come to know the Lord and have been trained to share the message of Christ; the truth is being taught and, little by little, the world is being touched.

Alex Sibley is the senior writer/copy editor for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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