Fresh out of university, Carolyn Elizabeth joined OM to work with refugees in Greece during the height of the refugee crisis.
Fresh out of university, Carolyn Elizabeth was 21 when she first felt a pull towards reaching the nations. “When I finished my undergraduate studies, God put it on my heart to spend some more time deepening my relationship with Him and to do that through missions,” she said, adding that she was still quite young in her faith at that time, having experienced God for herself only when she was 19.
After contacting several mission agencies, OM was the first to get back to her with a personal email. Hearing the different testimonies from mission workers across the globe, as well as witnessing the family-like atmosphere, touched her heart. A coffee chat with an OM in Singapore staff, Jiamin Choo-Fong, also greatly impacted her.
“Both of us had lost our fathers in our teenage or young adult years,” shared Carolyn. “It was one of the first deep conversations I had with someone else who had a similar experience, and we talked about the role that our relationship with God had played through that loss and how He had used that to develop our Christian journey. For me, that was an affirmation from God as He seemed to be saying, “I’ve used her, and now I’m going to use you as well.’”
Carolyn decided to delay pursuing a master’s degree and spent six months in a Bible college before joining OM. However, once her term in Southeast Asia was up, she felt a call towards Greece. “To go to Greece meant putting my plan to do my master’s degree on hold, which I had been saving up for,” she elaborated. “But if God calls me, what better thing could I be doing than what God wants me to do?”
The right place at the right time
You might remember the heart-wrenching photo of a young Syrian boy whose body was found on a beach after a failed attempt to reach Greece. Billed as the year of Europe’s refugee crisis, some 1.3 million people sought asylum in Europe in 2015, fleeing the escalating conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands lost their lives trying to make that journey. Against this backdrop, 24-year-old Carolyn went to work with the OM team in Athens.
For 20 months, Carolyn not only had the chance to interact with refugees and offer necessities, but a big part of her role included working with local churches and international volunteers who wanted to help. From being involved in cultural awareness and health and safety training to running children’s activities and language classes, Carolyn “ended up wearing many different hats.”
Arriving in July 2015, she recalled how the refugee numbers peaked in the second half of that year. Greece was the first stop for most migrants before gradually relocating to other countries in the European Union. As one of the few people who had experience working with refugees, Carolyn could not help but marvel at how God had brought her there at the right place, at the right time.
Working with displaced peoples
The first time she worked with displaced people, Carolyn had been part of an OM team supporting villagers whose lives were disrupted by a volcanic eruption in Southeast Asia.
They were generations of wealthy farmers who had benefitted from the rich soil around the volcano, but they lost everything overnight when they had to evacuate. “… the entire village suddenly had to live in one building. … They also had to relearn skills, so that they could find jobs in the city and rent houses. … All these things were very foreign to them and their culture.”
While their struggles were certainly different from those escaping war-torn regions, Carolyn’s first stint in missions pushed her from being primarily self-focused to being others-focused, as she became aware of what God was doing in the lives of people globally.
Living out God’s love
Reflecting on her experience in Greece, Carolyn shared that while there, she discovered what it meant to live out the gospel. Referring to the words of Jesus on feeding and clothing those in need, Carolyn quoted Matthew 25:40, “… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (NIV).
She explained, “Because we are doing work with a spiritual purpose, we believe that that carries over into the physical actions we take.”
But Carolyn was also honest about the limitations she faced on the ground. “Sometimes, you want to give someone a meal or give someone this or that, but you can’t. All you can really do is pray for them, and you have to learn that that’s enough,” she said.
In fact, early on in her journey, Carolyn found herself overwhelmed by the immense needs of the refugees and the brokenness she encountered. She even wondered, “How can I as one person, one organisation or anyone in the world solve this?”
But Carolyn eventually learnt to focus on one day and one interaction at a time, to be there for that one person and hear his or her story. She realised that just the simple act of listening was helpful.
While Carolyn thought that God’s message of hope for a better future would be the greatest comfort to the refugees who came to know Jesus, we observed that what seemed to resonate more was the identity they had as children of God. Having lost their homes, families, jobs and culture — everything that had given them an identity — they were overjoyed to have a new identity as Jesus followers.
“The biggest lesson that I learnt is that God is so much more than what you think He is, or what we’ve experienced Him to be.”
Go and be His Gospel
At 29, after working with OM full-time for five years and part-time for three, Carolyn has just completed her Master of Business Administration and is working full-time for an international financial and fiduciary services firm in Canada.
For those thinking about exploring missions, Carolyn has two tips to share.
“First, start small. There are many opportunities for short-term work or local involvement in missions. Consider exploring a one-day or one-week event. There’s no pressure for you to go abroad or compare yourself with other missionaries. Just start where you are because that is where God has already placed you.
“Next, don’t overthink it. You don’t have to go to Bible school for three years before signing up. While it is important to seek wisdom and counsel from leaders, pray about it yourself and don’t make it more complicated than it is.
“Go and be His Gospel in the world and live it out. There’s no one who can’t be a missionary.”