Opera singer from Brazil sparks Vienna house church
Maria didn't set out to start a new Persian church. She was just obeying God. But that Bible study has now grown to over 100 people -- a mixture of former Muslims from Iran and Afghanistan, former Buddhists from Vietnam and former atheists from Austria.
"The girl started coming to her Bible study and bringing friends. She got saved and started sharing her faith with others, and it was just spontaneous," said.
"Maria's always had the desire to serve the Lord," said Roger Hartsill*, an IMB worker who is helping Maria. "[She] decided to do something in her home … and we've pitched in to help her," said Diana Hartsill*, Roger's wife. "It's been exciting just to see what God is doing through her there."
From opera singer to church planter
Maria came to Vienna from Brazil more than a decade ago. She had completed a seminary degree as well as a music degree in Brazil and was offered a scholarship to study opera in Vienna. After finishing her studies, Maria settled in Vienna, married an Austrian and embarked on a career, but her lifelong call to missions never dissipated.
In 2014, she started a Bible study in her home. By the end of that year, two Iranians, two Vietnamese and one Austrian had become Christians and been baptized. Twelve new converts, most of whom were Iranian immigrants, were added to their number by spring of 2015. The Bible study became a church.
Maria has now quit her job to be a missionary full-time. Her husband works to support the family.
As the work began to reach mostly Muslim men, Roger Hartsill recounted that Maria wisely sought out male pastors, including himself, "as the body has been in transition from an outreach group in her home, to a house church, and then to a recognized church within the Austrian Baptist Convention."
From Latin America to Europe and beyond
Hartsill, who is mentoring Maria from his home in Germany, is in a unique position to help. He and Diana began their ministry with IMB in South America, then moved to Europe for the express purpose of mobilizing South American believers who have emigrated to Europe.
The Hartsills want to help Latinos in Europe spread the Gospel wherever they go. In some cases, Roger and Diana help Latinos find pathways to go beyond Europe to unreached peoples in other parts of the world. But they also see a tremendous opportunity to mobilize Latinos to specifically reach out to other immigrants and refugees in Europe.
"We have discovered that oftentimes a believing immigrant in Europe from elsewhere can more easily connect with the refugee or immigrant than the nationals can," Hartsill said.
From zero to 94
Since the Hartsills have started working with Maria, God has continued to bless the church plant. In November 2015, 22 former Muslims -- all Iranians and Afghans -- were baptized. In April 2016, another 18 Iranians and Afghans were baptized as well as a local Austrian doctor who has become a strong supporter of the new church. Nineteen more baptisms were celebrated on May 28, 2016, including Vietnamese, Afghans and Iranians. In August 2016, 18 former Muslims followed Christ in believer's baptism. In December 2016, 16 were baptized, and in March 2017, 11 more.
"This new work started from zero and has seen 94 adult baptisms in less than two years," Hartsill said. "Nearly all of the new converts are immigrants from Iran, Afghanistan or Vietnam -- places where missionaries cannot freely enter. The growth is the result of these new believers sharing their newfound faith with others from their people groups."
Hartsill visits several times a year to help with baptisms, discuss logistical problems, and wrestle through issues that come from having Muslim-, Buddhist- and Catholic-background believers in a burgeoning church family.
"My role is primarily as a coach," Hartsill said. "We have identified an Iranian man who feels called to ministry and whom we hope will assume the role of pastor for this church in the near future. His immigrant status is still pending, but he is already teaching new converts in the church's discipleship training."
The growing church is looking for space to expand. The Vietnamese are meeting on their own for language ease. They are not growing as quickly but still see God adding to their number.
From enemies to disciples
Among the challenges facing the church is that the teaching and discipleship must be done through translators or in a second language.
New believers come from strong Islamic, Buddhist and atheistic backgrounds have many misconceptions about Christianity and have a long discipleship road.
Their religious backgrounds also put many at risk. Often, the new Christians can never return to their families or home countries because of their conversions. They fear for the safety of loved ones who still live in their homelands.
And there is always the risk of an attack on Christians or on the church, even in Europe.
Recently the church was infiltrated by an enemy of the Gospel who poisoned Maria's food during a fellowship meal. She was hospitalized but has since recovered. The persecution hasn't stopped Maria from forging ahead, convinced that it's worth the risk to watch God bring former enemies of Christ together
"I was in the Vienna church for baptism, and afterwards everybody was just hanging out," Hartsill recounted. "This guy came up and said he was from Iran, 'You know Iranians and Americans have not always gotten along, but I want to get a picture with you because you're my brother in Christ now.'
"An Afghan guy heard this and said, 'Well, Afghans don't always get along with either of you. In fact, if you, me and this guy were in our home countries, we'd probably be looking at each other down a gun barrel. He's Sunni and I'm Shi'ite, but we're brothers in Christ.'
"A Vietnamese guy was playing violin for worship but stopped to join us, 'Well, Vietnam has had problems with the U.S. too. ...' So we got this picture -- we're all brothers in Christ," Hartsill said. "These men who were once angry don't have to fight anymore because they've found peace in Jesus."
As the gospel continues to spread among immigrants in Vienna, the Hartsills ask for prayer for the work God is doing there:
-- Pray for protection, for health, wisdom, fullness of the Holy Spirit and continued boldness in word and deed.
-- Pray for Roger as he works alongside Maria, helping to teach and answer the many questions from new converts from Islam, Buddhism and atheism.
-- Pray for the new believers and a few mature believers who have joined the new church and are being trained to provide future leadership.
-- Pray for God's protection over this work, and that it will expand and continue to grow into a movement.
-- Pray that God will provide language learning for the immigrants so they can complete the immigration process, work and earn a living.