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Joseph Anfuso is the founder and president of Forward Edge International (FEI), a relief and development organization based in Vancouver, Washington. Since 1983, Forward Edge International has helped hundreds of North American churches and colleges send more than 11,000 volunteers to many parts of the U.S. and 33 foreign countries. FEI is dedicated to transformational community development through disaster response work, healthcare projects, and programs for vulnerable children.
Born into a prominent political family in New York, Joseph Anfuso grew up in a world of privilege, prestige and high expectations. Disillusioned with the values and pressures of that world, he would set out on a journey of personal discovery that would take him from the streets of London and New York to the dizzying heights of the Himalayan Mountains. What he found at the end of his journey or more accurately, who and what found him would not only change his life, but thousands of other lives as well. The message in this book could change your life, too.
A 1970 graduate of Rutgers College, Joseph served for many years with an international church-planting ministry before founding FEI in 1983. He is the co-author of two books, including "Servant or Dictator" (Regal), the story of Latin America s first evangelical president, Efrain Rios Montt. He is also an amateur singer/songwriter with two CDs of original music, "Bright Blue Rose" and "Meet His Gaze". On February 26, 2010, Joseph and his wife, Karen, celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary. They have three grown children Heather, Ryan and Katelyn and two grandchildren, Audrey Sophia and Evangeline Grace.
On returning to Guatemala, I decided to visit the church-run school where Rios Montt had been principal prior to becoming president. On the day of the coup that put him in power (you have to read the book), Rios had been standing on the roof of the school watching the jets and helicopters flying low above the city. I wondered what it was like for him on that day.
When I arrived at the school, I ascended at once to the rooftop and stepped toward the waist-high wall that girded its perimeter. Looking out over the city, I visualized jets and helicopters, and tried to imagine what Rios might have been thinking as he watched the unfolding drama. Did he know what was happening? Did he know tanks and howitzers were being rolled into place at the National Plaza, and that soon his name would be broadcast over national radio: "Efrain Rios Montt... report at once to the National Palace!"
I was deep in thought, when suddenly I heard what sounded like the clinking of metal. Lowering my gaze, I saw a small group of young people camping in a nearby courtyard. Two members of the group, a boy and girl in their teens or early twenties, were squatting beside an open spigot cleaning some pots and pans. I bet they're a mission team from the States, I surmised. At the time, short-term mission teams were something of a novelty, and I studied the hive of volunteers with rapt attention.
Suddenly, a series of random thoughts jelled into a kind of waking vision. I saw thousands of everyday people leaving the comforts and routine of their lives back home to serve God and others in foreign lands. That's just what we all need, I thought. More opportunities to put our faith into action.
I returned to Eureka convinced that my "vision" in Guatemala was more than a flash-in-the-pan daydream. I still had two manuscripts to write, but the seed of a very different endeavor was now sprouting in my heart.
Eager to share my new vision, I met with one of my good friends at the time, Steve Fish, at a local Chinese restaurant. Between bites of egg rolls and chop suet', I recounted to Steve my experience on the rooftop in Guatemala, my passion to mobilize people for ministry, and my growing conviction that short-term mission teams could be an extraordinarily- effective vehicle for doing that.
"Well ... why don't we just do it?" Steve said, matter-of-factly, as he cracked open a fortune cookie.
It was all the encouragement I needed. Within days, Steve and I were making plans to start a branch of Gospel Outreach that we decided to call "Forward Edge". The name was derived from a sermon by Jim Durkin entitled, "The Forward Edge of Life." As a boy, Jim explained, his mother would cook meals on a wood-burning stove. When she wanted her pots to cool, she moved them to the back edge of the stove. But when she wanted them to heat up, she moved them to the forward edge. "God doesn't want lukewarm followers," Jim insisted. "He wants followers who live, day in and day out, on life's forward edge!"
(Years later, in a discussion with one of our board members at the time, Doug Crane, we would agree on a more current definition of "the forward edge": When God prompts us to do something, and we respond with faith and obedience even without knowing what lies ahead we are stepping onto "the forward edge." It is here, on life's forward edge, that we discover in a deeper way who God is, who we are, and what God can do through us.)
Satisfied that we not only had the right name but the right vehicle, Steve and I decided to send the first Forward Edge short-term team to Italy where a mutual friend, Andy Costa, was planting a church on the outskirts of Florence. The team was scheduled for October, 1983. I still dreamed of taking a GO church-planting team to Nepal someday, but I was content for now to focus whatever time I could spare on the embryonic ministry of Forward Edge.
All was going well, in fact, when sometime between January and March of 1984 I found myself confronted by an unforeseen dilemma. I could not seem to shake the idea that God might be calling me to Nepal. Church planting, after all, was the primary mission of Gospel Outreach, and since I had lived in Nepal prior to becoming a Christ follower, I wondered if God might want me to plant a church there.
I decided to share my dilemma with GO's founder, Jim Durkin. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, Jim had spent 25 years pastoring a small church in Eureka prior to his involvement with GO. With a congregation that never exceeded 50, Jim had been forced to moonlight as a Realtor. I had frequently heard his story about the time two long-haired hippies entered his real estate offices in the summer of 1970.
"Can I help you?" Jim had asked as they stood, wide-eyed and somber, in front of his desk.
His first instinct was to direct them elsewhere. But a verse from the Bible then materialized in his heart: "How does the love of God abide in you if have it in your power to do good and do it not." (1 John 3:17)
Convicted by the Holy Spirit, Jim offered the two men a small, unoccupied storefront that was on his list of available properties. He would eventually take the two men and their small band of followers under his wing, a decision that would not only change his life, but thousands of others as well. By the spring of 1984, more than 75 GO churches had been planted across the United States, Europe and Latin America. After a quarter of a century pastoring a flock that never reached 50, Jim was now shepherd of a ministry that numbered in the tens of thousands. He was, in short, no stranger to faith, obedience and waiting on God.
That's why I came to Jim with my dilemma. As was his custom with those he counseled, he invited me to join him on a walk. Nearly three hundred pounds and locked in a perpetual battle with his weight, Jim considered walks a way of killing two birds with one stone.
"I'm not sure what to do, Jim," I confided, as we strolled passed an empty storefront in downtown Eureka. "I'm excited about the potential of Forward Edge. But I can't stop wondering if God might be calling me to Nepal."
Jim did not respond at first. He wasn't one to speak glibly when asked for advice.
"Why don't we sit for a minute," he finally said, gesturing toward a nearby bench. "There's a four-sentence story I'd like to tell you. I think it might help." A four-sentence story? We sat down, and Jim proceeded to tell me his story:
A man with a single bucket of water is approaching a building engulfed in flames. Next to the building is a row of sleeping firemen. The man must make a choice. Does he throw his water on the building, or on the row of sleeping firemen?
I sat silent for a moment, pondering the meaning of Jim's riddle. Then, like a magnet sucking up chards of tin, my mind amalgamated a myriad of fragmented thoughts. I had always been drawn, it seemed, to "the little guy" to those who struggled with feelings of insignificance. I had also sat for years under biblical teaching that emphasized "every-member ministry" over "one-man shows." And, perhaps more than anything, I longed to see this teaching translated into action. Now, with the help of Jim's story, I began to realize that God had entrusted me with a vehicle Forward Edge that could help thousands of "everyday believers" hear His call on their lives, and respond with faith, obedience, and unflagging devotion.
"Thank you, Jim," I smiled, placing my hand gently on his shoulder. "I think you've helped me solve my dilemma."
IN THE MONTHS AND YEARS THAT followed, I watched with wonder as God blessed the ministry of Forward Edge. By 1987, Forward Edge volunteers were building children's homes in Guatemala; ministering to the homeless in New York City; serving among Native Americans in Montana; and treating the sick in Nicaragua. That year, I would even lead a team back to Nepal where we climbed high into the Himalayan Mountains to distribute Nepali translations of the Gospel of John. God had not called me to long-term missionary work, but through Forward Edge he was using me to bring his message to the ends of the earth.
In 1989, Karen and I received the blessing of Jim and the GO elders to move from Eureka to the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, where Victor, Kathy and my mother now lived. Mom was suffering from Alzhiemers, and Vic and Kathy needed my help caring for her. There was a GO church in Vancouver, Washington, just across the river from Portland, and since Karen and I were friends of the pastor, as well as others in the congregation, this was where we settled.
We would spend our first eighteen months living in a secluded, 700-square-foot cabin just north of the Vancouver city limits. Over the years, God had blessed Karen and me with three children Heather, Ryan, and Katelyn and while the cabin was adequate, it was, to say the least, cramped. Soon, we were able to purchase a two-acre parcel that included a ramshackle barn. With the help of weekend volunteers (many of them veterans of Forward Edge teams), we were able to transform the barn into the new Forward Edge headquarters.
Less than a year after settling in the Northwest, I would take my oldest daughter, Heather, then age 10, on her first Forward Edge mission trip. It was 1990, and the World Cup Soccer Championships or Mondiale was being hosted by Italy. Forward Edge was sending a mission team to Italy to perform evangelistic dramas at some of the Mondiale venues, and I decided to bring Heather along.
After deplaning in Munich, Heather and I traveled by train to Rome where we joined the rest of the Forward Edge team. Following the 10-day outreach, Heather and I spent several days alone together touring Italy. First, we visited my older sister, Diana, who was then living with her husband, Aldo, and their five children in the coastal town of Manfredonia. We then toured Florence and Venice. Years later, Heather would write to me in a Father's Day card: "I will always remember and appreciate that my first visit to Venice was with a man who will always love me."
The trip to Italy with Heather served as a precedent for future trips with my two younger children, Ryan and Kate. Having decided that 10 was a good age to take my kids on their first mission trips and with Heather just 14 months Ryan's senior it wasn't long before Ryan joined me on a trip to Mexico. A missionary friend had invited me to speak at a conference in the city of Leon, and Ry was eager to tag along. My most vivid memory from that trip was a church service in a tiny mountain village. A missionary pilot had flown us to the village, and no sooner had we arrived when Ryan with his blond hair and blue eyes became the center of the villagers' attention. Throughout the entire two-hour church service, in fact, every child present had their backs turned toward me and their eyes fixed on Ryan.
When Kate turned 10, it was her turn to travel with me, and the opportunity then available was the most ambitious one yet: India. Not surprisingly, Karen had some reservations about Kate traveling to India with me, but I felt confident Kate could handle the trip given her strong constitution, adventuresome spirit, and compassionate heart. I also had a special place in my heart for the Indian subcontinent, and wanted Kate to see and experience it for herself
And so, for nearly three weeks, Kate would join me on what would become for her the most memorable and, in some ways, most disturbing experience of her childhood. We visited Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, where 600,000 people lived in less than a square mile (The academy-award-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire, used Dharavi as the location for some of its most heart-wrenching scenes.); toured a "leper town" built with the help of a Christian philanthropist; sat under the stars at a church-run orphanage where each child, one after the other, shared the heartbreaking story of her life; and, to top things off, helped transport two one-year-old orphans from Mumbai to Los Angeles. I will never forget landing at LAX and watching with pride and admiration as Kate dressed Punjabi-style in tight leggings and a knee-length skirt delivered the twins into the arms of their adoptive parents. India had been a long, grueling journey for Kate. But if you asked her today "Would you do it again?" I'm confident her answer would be "Yes."
OVER THE NEXT SIX YEARS, FROM 1990 to 1996, God continued to bless the work of Forward Edge. The number of annual mission teams grew, as did our staff and support base. But along with the growth came mounting concerns about our affiliation with Gospel Outreach. From the beginning, Forward Edge had partnered with a broad cross-section of churches throughout the country Baptist, Presbyterian, Foursquare, and nondenominational. And as time passed, an increasingly smaller percentage of our volunteers came from churches affiliated with GO. With a vision focused solely on extending God's kingdom, Forward Edge no longer seemed to fit within the parameters of a single denomination.
Separating from GO would not be easy. The most daunting challenge was GO's emphasis on what we called "covenant relationships." A person's relationship with GO, we had been taught, was like a marriage a spiritual union that carried with it the unspoken stricture: "till death do us part." The intent behind the teaching was noble enough. So many followers of Jesus, it seemed, had a hard time committing to a local church someplace where they could grow to maturity "in the soil where they were planted." Church hopping was epidemic among Christians, in fact ... a practice that left many believers weak, disconnected, and of little use to God.
In the case of GO, "covenant relationships" had become, in my view at least, something of a minimum-security prison. Under no circumstances, it seemed, would leaving GO be equated by its leaders with "God's perfect will." On the contrary, it was looked upon not only with sadness, but intimidating disfavor. This, then, was the challenge that Karen and I now faced.
For more than six months, we had been lifting this challenge to God in prayer. We sought his will in Scripture; met with friends whose counsel we trusted; and tried our best to weigh the reasons for our growing discontent. We battled confusion, double-mindedness and, perhaps more than anything, fear. What if the GO leaders commandeered the ministry of Forward Edge? They had every legal right to do so. And if they did, what would become of my salary? My home? My reputation? The ministry I had worked so hard to nurture and grow?
It was during this season of soul searching that I heard about a conference in Kansas City. The church sponsoring the conference was reputed to be a place where God "showed up" in unique and powerful ways. Intrigued, and desperate for divine direction, I decided to go. As it turned out, I would spend the week prior to the conference rafting with several friends on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. The trip was exhilarating ... and unexpectedly exhausting. I arrived home, on the eve of my departure for Kansas City, at 1:00 in the morning. My flight was at 6:00am.
I gasped, squinting at my alarm clock: 5:15 am. My flight leaves in less than an hour! I jumped out of bed, threw some clothes into a suitcase and headed for the Portland airport. Four hours later, I was landing in Kansas City.
As SOON AS I RETURNED TO Vancouver, I made arrangements to meet with Jim and the other GO elders in Eureka. Two weeks later, fortified by prayer and trusting God for the outcome, I gathered with them in Jim's downtown office.
"I believe God has been speaking to me," I began. "Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I'll try my best to explain."
For the next 30 minutes, I shared the scriptures, counsel, and personal revelations God had given me over the past few months, including my dream about the house. I then expressed my concerns about Forward Edge's ongoing association with Gospel Outreach.
"I believe God is leading me into a closer, more intimate relationship with him," I concluded. "And this includes trusting him to guide me into his unique plan and purpose for my life."
There was a long pause. Then, as Jim sat silently, each elder expressed their love for me, along with their concerns about Forward Edge becoming disassociated from GO. At last, Jim made a final ruling.
"I believe that you believe God is speaking to you, Joe," he said. "And I've always made a point of not standing in the way of an honest man's convictions. You have my blessing, Joe. May the Lord prosper you ... and the ministry of Forward Edge."
From that day onward, God's favor on me, and on Forward Edge, seemed to multiply. The number of volunteers serving on teams grew from less than 200 in 1989 to more than 500 in 1999. In 2000, we sent teams to Kosovo to help widows who'd lost their husbands in the Balkan War. In 2001, we sent volunteers to New York City to minister to rescue workers at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attack. And in 2005, FEI teams journeyed to Sri Lanka to help build homes for victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Later in 2005, a Portland, Oregon-based foundation, Mission Increase, awarded Forward Edge a million-dollar matching grant to help victims of Hurricane Katrina especially the poor and elderly return to their homes. At this writing, almost 3,000 people have served with FEI in the Gulf Coast, repairing 25 church buildings and more than 300 homes.
My family, too, participated firsthand in the ministry of Forward Edge, and over the years Heather, Ryan and Kate would join me on numerous Forward Edge adventures. In 1991, Ry accompanied me to Romania where we ministered in dreary, state-run orphanages, and in 2001 to New York City where we prayed with firemen at Ground Zero just days after 9/11. Kate served with me on a team to the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona where we conducted a vacation Bible school and painted the homes of widows. She would also spend an entire summer in Central America serving with one of our ministry partners in Belize. While in college, Ryan and Heather joined me on a Forward Edge team to Tibet where we participated in "prayer walks" and distributed tracts to curious monks in remote Tibetan monasteries. And, just months after Hurricane Katrina, Heather and her husband, Hessel, would lead a team of Stanford students to Mississippi where they gutted the homes of families devastated by the storm.
As a father, I had wanted my children to know from a young age that they lived in a world fraught with need. I also wanted to expose them as carefully and responsibly as I could to "life outside the bubble of the church." In the words of Scripture, I wanted them to be "in the world, but not of it." And while Karen and I elected to home educate through the eighth grade, we did not shield our kids from the classics of art, music, movies and literature. Years later, I would receive a birthday card from one of my children that included the following sentiment:
"Thank you, Dad, for introducing me to the things that inspired you travel, books, movies, music. In turn, I was inspired, and developed an appetite to discover that which would inspire me ... I love and respect who you are, who you have been, and who you will continue to be in my life."
It was also important to me as a father to give my children the freedom and support they needed to become the unique individuals God had designed them to be. Given my experience as a twin, I was sensitive to the fact that siblings can tend to compete, so I did my best to recognize and affirm each of my children's unique talents, gifts and personality traits. More than anything, I encouraged them to believe that they like every person were "God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared in advance for them to do" (Eph. 2:10).
So, how did my children turn out? I'm proud to say, extremely well. Heather was valedictorian and homecoming queen of her 1998 graduating class at Prairie High School in Vancouver, Washington and, at the graduation ceremony, she spoke powerfully about her faith in Christ. After turning down a scholarship to Georgetown, she graduated summa cum laude from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington with a degree in English Literature, and was one of only two seniors to speak on graduation weekend. Today, she is the mother of two beautiful children, Audrey Sophia and Evangeline Grace (though she may have more by the time you read this). She is also a gifted writer, an anointed Bible teacher, and an extraordinary mother and wife. You can read her insights on marriage, mothering and contemporary culture on her blog: www.thesmallbeginnings.blogspot.com.
In 2006, Ryan graduated from Portland State University with a degree in English Literature, and at this writing is in his third year at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. He and a classmate won the 2008 "mock trial competition" at Lewis and Clark, and once he passes the bar exam (God willing) he looks forward to advocating for the poor and downtrodden. Always a hard worker, Ryan worked his way through college and law school and, while employed part-time at a local Portland law firm, won his first jury trial in July, 2009 (law students in Oregon can try non-felony cases if they apply for and receive a Temporary Practice Card).
In 2007, Kate graduated magna cum laude from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts with a degree in International Relations. She spent her junior year of college at Oxford University in England, and the following summer served as an intern at the White House. After graduating from Gordon, Kate worked in the West Wing as the Executive Assistant to the Deputy Counsel to the President. Kate's tenure in the White House would make it possible for our family to have a series of surreal experiences. For example, Karen attended the 2007 White House Christmas Party and the 2008 Easter Egg Roll Event; I viewed Washington, D.C.'s 2008 Fourth of July fireworks display from the South Lawn of the White House; and, in November 2008, our entire family met briefly with President Bush behind closed doors in the Oval Office. As we shook hands with the President and exited the Oval Office into the sunlit Rose Garden I distinctly recall asking Karen: Did that really happen?
I cannot adequately express how proud I am of my children. After all the struggles I had as a young man finding my way, I'm grateful that my own children have a clearer sense of who they are and where they might be headed in life. Karen and my constant prayer is that they will "run with perseverance the race marked out for [them]" by their Father in heaven (Hebrews 12:1).
Hurricane Katrina proved to be a watershed moment for the ministry of Forward Edge. In addition to the million dollar matching grant, a large foundation based in Vancouver, Washington, Murdock Charitable Trust, awarded Forward Edge a $300k grant to hire full- time field staff in the Gulf Coast. For the first time in its 22-year history, Forward Edge now had full-time missionaries missionaries who would be free to serve anywhere in the world with Forward Edge once our work in the Gulf Coast was complete. As a consequence, by the fall of 2005, Forward Edge transitioned from a short-term mission agency into a full-blown relief and development organization. We would continue to send short-term volunteers (approximately 1,000 every year), but we would limit the number of destinations, and focus our resources on long-term, sustainable projects with an emphasis on disaster response, health care, and programs for vulnerable children.
Our most ambitious project would unfold in the summer of 2006 when two short-term Forward Edge volunteers, Sam Martin and Dusty Hume, would ask Gloria Sequeira a probing question: "If you could do anything for the girls in La Chureca, what would it be?" "I would get them out of the dump," Gloria responded. "They have no hope or future there. It breaks my heart to see their suffering."
On returning to the States, Sam told me about his conversation with Gloria, and the vision for Villa Esperanza (Village of Hope) was born.
"That's when you came into the picture, Gary." I smiled as we sat in the terminal in Houston waiting for yet another connecting flight to Portland. "Without you and many others the Village would never have been possible."
"I guess you're right," Gary said, with characteristic humility. "I guess I'm one of those sleeping firemen who finally woke up!" We both laughed.
"The story of Forward Edge is very inspiring, Joe," Gary then said. "And I can understand now how you came to be involved. But I'm not sure how your relationship with God relates to Forward Edge. I mean, how does knowing that God loves you relate to all your accomplishments over the years?"
I had to think about Gary's question for a few seconds. For one thing, the words "all your accomplishments" made me uneasy. I was deeply aware that whatever good had come through Forward Edge over the years was the result of God working through the lives of thousands of ordinary people. It had little to do with me. My job had simply been to see where God was working around the world and invite others to join him. If I was faithful and didn't get in the way, he would do the rest.
"I guess I can answer your question like this, Gary," I finally said. "Many years ago I read somewhere about a young seminary student who was born with a birthmark on his face. It was a long, unsightly scar that ran from the top of his forehead to the base of his chin. But in spite of this, the boy was remarkably happy, generous, and free from all self- consciousness. So much so that his roommate finally asked him: 'How did you get like this?'
"'All my life,' the boy explained, 'as far back as I can remember, my dad would tell me how much he loved me. The birthmark, he said, was where the angels had kissed me so that he, my dad, would know I was his son. Every day, in fact, my father would hold me in his arms and tell me how special I was and how much he loved me. After a while, I began to feel sorry for people who weren't born with a birthmark on their face.'
"That's what God has done in my life, Gary. And it's what I believe he wants to do in every person's life. He wants us to know how much he loves us. Not just so we can be ourselves, but so we can be set free to reach outside ourselves to love and serve others. This is the message of Christianity, Gary. And it's a message God wants us to express not only with our tongues, but with our lives."
I noticed an appreciative gleam in Gary's eye as I said this. "Yeah, I think I know what you mean," he said, his green eyes wide and luminous. "I think I know what you mean."