Jill, a Brit and OMer, and Val, an American with Pioneers, attribute their long friendship to God’s grace and provision. They have carried out their ministries in Hungary side-by-side as roommates–over the years sharing seven different homes.
“Two things have been powerful in our relationship,” Val says. “First, that it’s been centred on God. We seek Him first. Secondly, we’re able to listen to each other and process differences well. That’s a special friend who can do that.”
“They joke about Americans and Brits being two continents divided by the same language,” Jill adds. “We experienced that a lot, but we’ve learnt appreciation for a different culture and that to be roommates, to be what God has given to us, doesn’t mean you have to agree on everything, and we don’t. But you accept the other person for who they are, the way God has made them.”
In the early 2000s, Jill was leading OM Hungary’s hospitality ministry, while Val was starting up and translating material for Awana. The two would lead children’s camps together in Romania, or Jill might bring Val breakfast after a long night of translation work. Later, the friends led children’s programming for several church plants around Hungary.
When the refugee crisis in Hungary unfolded in 2015, Jill and Val again served together as Christian organisations including OM, Pioneers, East Europe Mission and the Baptist Aid joined forces to meet the needs of the displaced people pouring into the country.
“Sometimes we worked side-by-side, other times maybe I was giving out coffee and Jill was giving out backpacks, but we were ministering to the same group of people,” Val says of the refugee outreaches. “To me that’s when it’s more powerful, when you cross mission lines.”
The summer of 2016 was a particularly busy time for Val. She was preparing for and leading an upcoming youth English camp outreach along with other ministries when unforeseen circumstances began to unravel her usual support system.
A Pioneers team member went to be with her sister after a death in the family. The location for the English camp was undergoing renovation, forcing the team to delay the camp by two weeks, by which time other team members who had already purchased plane tickets for furlough would be out of the country.
“I really believe it was a combination of multiple things coming together to create the perfect storm in my life,” Val says. “There was no one physically there to help me. I can be a perfectionist, and I thought it all depended on me. Camp is a key tool that God’s given us, so I was putting a lot of energy into it.”
Though subtle at first, Val says, the weight of responsibility combined with strong spiritual attacks to create a heaviness she couldn’t shake. She stopped sleeping well–stopped sleeping almost at all. In a haze of tiredness, she says she started believing almost every lie imaginable.
“For example, Satan would say: ‘Who are you? You can’t do it. You’re not a good missionary,’” she says. “He would show me the past sins that I had committed over again, even as a child, and then hold that over my head. And then I would say in my mind: ‘But God’s forgiven those.’ And then the lie would be–just like it was to Adam and Eve–‘Has He really forgiven you?’ It just spins down, and I didn’t sleep for months. I believe the physical part of the attack was not being able to sleep, and then the more I didn’t sleep, the worse I got. It was like torture.”
The descent continued for Val after the camp, following her home to the U.S.A. on furlough.
“It led to me having a really dark night of the soul and not being able to fight for myself like I normally do,” she says. “Normally I would fight very strongly with Scripture and prayer, but I was emotionally and physically exhausted to the point where I just couldn’t.”
Deeply concerned, Jill and members of the OM team in Hungary prayed fervently for Val. Though separated by the Atlantic, Jill persisted in Skyping regularly with her friend, even when Val began to pull away in despair, thinking she would not be able to return to ministry.
“Val would be very negative about herself,” Jill says. “She wouldn’t be able to speak. We’d talk on Skype and she’d say: ‘This is just too much.’ I kept encouraging her and saying: ‘God’s not told me you’re not coming back. Don’t worry, you’ll be back.’”
“It was so overwhelming–just to speak about it was hard,” Val says. “But Jill understood. I think she just invited me to speak as much as I could, and then there were days when I just couldn’t talk at all, couldn’t say anything. And I think she understood.”
As Val struggled with her battle, Jill wrestled with the fight on her side.
“I think the biggest thing for me was my own personal loneliness and through that, having to cling to God,” Jill says. “I was in limbo a lot of the time. It was a lesson in dependence on God.”
The heavy days stretched into months of deep darkness, even seeing Val end up in the hospital. But the prayers of her loved ones did not stop.
“I learnt about the power of prayer and people surrounding you when you can’t pray for yourself,” Val says. “People like Jill were still praying for me and speaking hope and encouragement into my life, even though I couldn’t sense that at the time. Having people do that for you is powerful.
“My home church in particular really surrounded me. And I don’t know why, but I wasn’t expecting that. But for some reason–I guess it was believing the lies of Satan–I thought they would reject me or judge me. And yet they surrounded me with love.”
One turning point was when the pastor’s wife at Val’s home church in the U.S.A. had Val hold a small chain. She prayed that God would break the chains keeping Val in spiritual bondage. It was prayers like these and support from friends, family and counselling who didn’t pressure but instead sought to listen that Val was able to look up from her valley and take her first steps of ascent.
She wrote Psalm 33:12 on her pillow: Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders.
Val also stresses the importance of seeking medical help.
“I think a lot of people are told that you know, anxiety, depression – Christians don’t do that, they don’t experience that,” she says. “That’s another lie from Satan. If you read the Bible, you know that Elijah, Job, and others said things like: ‘take my life, I want to die.’ They were pretty depressed, pretty discouraged. It happens. But I think the fear of being honest and coming forward played into it going much further and longer for me than it needed to. If that means medical help, medication, I think it’s OK. Because I think God gives Christians some other tools to help them along.”
Jill continued to pray from abroad, gently listening and encouraging whenever she could. She also visited Val in the U.S.A. at the end of her own furlough.
“I think the best thing someone can do when you have anyone in a situation like that is just be there for that person and show them you love them in spite of where they are,” Jill says. “You accept where they are. You know there’s nothing that you can say to fix it, but you just show that you’re still there for them.”
Late 2017 marked a full year that Val had been away.
“That’s the longest I’ve ever been away from Hungary,” she says. “I would dream in Hungarian.” Now that her darkness was lifting, did Val dare hope she might be able to return to her ministry?
“I had been praying and some days fasting, and God spoke to me through Jeremiah 15:19-20,” Val says.
“I think He was saying: ‘If you come to Me for strength, if you come to Me for the way forward, I’ll return you, you’ll be able to serve Me again,’” Val continues. “That was key because to me when God says it, it’s final. It doesn’t matter if others say no, I was content that God was saying yes.
“It came together, and my member care team, pastor and counsellor shared that they were working together to get me back.”
Finally, on January 17, 2018, Jill drove to the Budapest airport to pick Val up.
“The day was finally here and I went to get my best friend back from the airport!” Jill says. “I felt excitement for her that she was coming back, because it was a day that she felt like for a long, long time was not going to happen. To actually have the day where she’s flying back into the country to come back home–that was a real God thing.”
Val shared that excitement, though it was tempered slightly with apprehension about sharing her experience with others. But she says she felt peace seeing how God went ahead of her in her return. The Lord gave her some appropriate times to share deeply about her experience, while other times a more general answer was better. She was able to work with a psychiatrist and get the medication she needed in Hungary. Her simple needs were met.
As Easter approached, Jill and Val had the opportunity to serve together again through OM’s children’s puppet ministry, travelling to schools and churches to perform a Gospel-centred show.
“For me one of my gifts is evangelism, and being able to share the Gospel, even through puppets, was huge because that’s my heartbeat,” she says. “And I’ve been writing Bible curriculum. I’m passionate about that.”
Jill says seeing Val enjoy the puppet ministry was confirmation that she was back where she belonged. “That was fun to in a way go back to the beginning of something we did together when getting to know each other–serving alongside each other in children’s ministry,” she says.
After one performance at a home for youth with special needs, Val saw the reality of the Lord’s promise to restore her to His service.
“There was a lady right on the front row who began to weep at the end of the show when we were singing,” she recalls. “I could tell that there was a spiritualness that had really touched her. At the same time a teammate of mine said that he was praying exactly when we did that session. He had written me and said the time and everything, so I know that he was praying for our ministry and for someone to be touched by it at the time. So when he wrote back, I thought, OK, God answered that prayer. Those are the things that are exciting to me: evidences that God’s at work.”