For several years, Melissa Dorsch had let dangle two hopes: returning to her teenage home of Burkina Faso, and not going back alone.
"I was so excited to take French students with me to a place where you can lay out the full gospel message four to five times a day," Melissa relates, her azure eyes flashing. "Here in France, you work so hard to get a student to even think about the possibility of God existing."
Organizing this 10-day African mission trip makes up just a part of Melissa's daily efforts. Living in Rennes, France, a two-hour train ride west of Paris, the staff member with Agape France (as Cru is called there) spends her days trying to help French students see their need for Jesus.
Today, Melissa meets one of the Christians she mentors, third-year student Joanna Buick, at the Université de Rennes. After praying together, they enter a spacious courtyard, proposing to do a survey with someone that might lead to conversation about God.
Ultimately, Melissa seeks to stir the embers of questions that may already smolder in the student's mind or, more likely, ignite brand-new ones. She asks survey questions like, "Describe your life in five words." And then, "Who is God in three words?"
Likely, Melissa and the student will exchange cell phone numbers or names to find each other on Facebook. Just last spring, two Rennes students, Briag and Luc, placed their faith in Christ after interactions like this one.
But more commonly, Melissa's work means stirring the pot, adding some salt and waiting for bubbles. French cuisine takes time. She'll wait. And thanks to her background and gifting, Melissa seems uniquely suited to do the cooking.
When Melissa was only 3, her parents, Tom and Marcy Dorsch, staff members with Cru, left Iowa in hopes of winning African students to Christ.
After serving nine years in Central African Republic, where the official language is French, Melissa's family was forced by a coup to flee from their home. Their pickup truck was seized at gunpoint. They left so quickly that a full chocolate meringue pie was left sitting on the counter.
Melissa vividly recollects the sound of ricocheting gunfire from the day when she, her parents and three siblings were airlifted by U.S. Marines out of the country.
After a year of furlough in Kansas, and some emotional healing, the Dorsches relocated to another French-speaking country, Burkina Faso. ("We never considered not going back", recalls Tom.) After graduating from Kansas State University, Melissa moved to France.
"The fact that Melissa could already speak French enormously helped her integration here," notes one of the students she mentors, Anne Didier, daughter of Francis Didier, leader of Agapé France. "Sometimes I even forget that she's a foreigner."
Her influence isn't limited to only students: Melissa seems equally comfortable handing a flirtatious homeless man a cup of coffee as she does baking cookies at Christmas to give to all her neighbors. According to Francis, Melissa embodies exactly what France needs: "We need people who incarnate the gospel and not just preach it."
A recent survey supports Francis' charge. In the February 6, 2011 edition of the French daily newspaper, Le Parisien, 36 percent of the population (including Muslims) say they believe in God, while another third say that they emphatically don't.
The final third are ambivalent, but 63 percent of them would like to ask questions about God with someone they trust.
One person who trusts Melissa is café owner Hélène Capoen. For two years, Agapé has used Hélèn's downtown café for a monthly student discussion night. As she slices up an almond tart, Hélèn says she opposes dogmatic religion, but is open to spirituality and loves the discussion nights -even posting fliers for it around the café and offering cookies to the students.
These warm interactions help to challenge and dust off Hélène's crusty references to Christianity -the Crus of the Middle Ages and post-Reformation religious wars that she and her countrymen learned about in school. While these events date back centuries, they can still tarnish the people's receptivity to God.
"French people have been marked deeply by the abuses in the church" agrees Francis. "But I am convinced that if people can see a true believer -loving and caring -it attracts them and raises questions."
Hélène seems to agree: "When my baby was born last year, Melissa bought him an adorable outfit. She always looking to do little things for me."
Melissa gleaned the ability to care well for people from her parents. This year alone, her dad sent her nine hand-written letters. In August 2009, Tom penned, "My prayer for you these days is to have joy and inner rest in the midst of busy, long, full and activity-crowded days." In another he affirmed, "Am I proud of you? Much, much more than I verbalize."
That same encouraging spirit can overflow to unify splintered parts. In April 2008, Melissa was the first new Agapé team member to join in five years. Before she arrived, some dissension simmered among the team, all married with kids. "Melissa brought youth and energy," says Lisa Kellum, Agapé staff member and Melissa's mentor.
"It gave us a fresh start. She also comes from a solid home, which makes her a healthy teammate."
Her childhood home life -full of music, nightly family devotions, backyard baseball and required reading times -laid that solid foundation, even against Africa's shaky political landscape and fluctuating friendships. "My best friends were the children of diplomats whose term would end every two years," Melissa explains. "You had to learn to adapt."
Having experienced life as a "third-culture kid," Melissa has become an invaluable comrade to the 15 children and teenagers living in Rennes with their Agapé staff parents.
Upon her arrival, Melissa integrated herself into each of the five staff families -two American, two French and one a blend.
These established friendships, coupled with her cultural understanding, put at ease two Burkina Faso trip teammates -her mentor Lisa's sons, Nathan and Gabriel Kellum, 18 and 16 years old -who say that they felt more confident to participate with Melissa at the helm.
Her innate ability to draw people together helped form the team of 14 for the Burkina trip. But the team’s make-up, consisting of five American staff members, four staff kids, a Czech intern, three South American students and a local professional, reveals a national challenge for the campus ministry. No French university students planned to go.
"I've noticed that once people turn 16 here, they stop doing other activities besides school and studying," observes the leader of Agapé France's campus ministry, Joe Schlie. "For students, the thought of leaving for a week and not studying, even during a break, seems impossible. Also the trips seem costly, and there aren’t many in the church to support them."
After months of raising financial support, obtaining visas, receiving vaccinations and even preparing special clothing for the 115-degree temperatures, the group was set to depart on April 25. But eight days out, political tensions in Burkina started to boil, prompting protests, lootings and violence.
When the decision was made, by prayer and group consensus, to cancel the trip due to the risk, tears filled Melissa's eyes: "It was such a letdown."
Comfort from the blow came in two waves. First, Rennes teammate Hubert Stalin encouraged Melissa to receive it as a loss and something to be grieved.
She took to filling her journal with questions and prayers, and leaned heavily on the psalm that she had memorized for this trip: "The Lord will keep you from all harm -He will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore" (Psalm 121: 7,8; NIV).
Two days later, an American ministry partner offered to fly Melissa to the United States to surprise her family and spend Easter with them. As usual, Melissa drew strength from her parents, and returned to Rennes to continue reaching out to French students.
"When it comes down to it, I have to decide every day if I am going to be obedient to what God has called me to do," Melissa says. "And even if I don't feel like going on campus, after every single time, I am encouraged by how God is at work."
Currently, Melissa's team has rescheduled the trip to Burkina, and one French student has signed on to go. The dream may yet be realized.
Action Point :
In what ways can God use your background and gifting for a ministry in your home, neighborhood or work place? Also, consider consistently praying that God would open the eyes of two million French students to see their need for a Savior.