Mobilizing a Decade of Harvest
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In 1995, Debbie McGoldrick waited patiently, Bible before her, outside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Atlanta, Georgia. Through a small window, she spotted a mass of curly red hair. Debbie smiled. She’s at the hospital for her weekly visit to see a red-headed baby named Caroline and her mother, Jan Schuler.
Debbie’s commitment to Caroline and to the Schuler family was born out of her love for her neighborhood, which all started with hearing a clear call from God. In the decades since, God knit together two neighboring homes into a “family,” and that family, by faith, is mobilizing people around the world to reach their own neighbors for Christ — with Caroline taking the lead in global outreach.
Thirty years ago, when Debbie was a new mom, it occurred to her that God had called her to minister to the people physically around her: her neighbors. She didn’t know where to start, but Jesus answered simply, Pray.
She began prayer-walking and soon learned she wasn’t the only neighbor interested in seeing ministry begin. Soon, she was leading a small Bible study of women. That was the start of Debbie’s ministry, now named Neighbor Bible Studies 2GO (NBS2GO).
The ministry’s tagline affirms that “God desires to use who you are, His Word, and where you live, work, or connect to make an impact for eternity!” NBS2GO, now a ministry of Cru®, provides resources to help anyone do outreach, begin a Bible study or just get to know neighbors around them. It has spread to 44 known nations.
Debbie says she can tell hundreds of stories of how the Lord has answered those first neighborhood prayers, but among her favorites is the story of the Schulers.
In 1992, a daunted Debbie, with her small children in tow, stares up the short walkway to her neighbor’s door. This neighbor just lost her 6-year-old daughter in a car crash, and Debbie didn’t know what to say. But she knew she had to say something. She sensed God say, Go now. So knocking timidly, she meets Jan Schuler, the grieving mother and, unbeknownst to either, a new dear friend.
“Those eight steps up to [their] house were the longest flight of steps I’d ever climbed,” Debbie says. “But that was one of the best steps of obedience I’d ever made.”
That day, Debbie did not need to say anything. Her toddler son noticed Jan’s son of the same age, and when the door opened, ran right in. This broke the ice. Debbie offered any help Jan needed.
The women set up a weekly date where the kids could play, and they could connect. Jan was struggling with how to talk to God, so Debbie arranged to read a book on prayer together.
“When you’re in a tragic time of your life and your faith is very fragile, you ask ‘Where is God?’” Jan remembers. “To have Debbie come along and say, ‘God is in control’ — in the darkest night, believe that,” Jan says, changed her life.
Eventually, Jan attended Debbie’s Bible study, though she rarely spoke and often cried. The women in the study became fast friends and all grew together. When they found Jan was pregnant with another baby girl, they celebrated.
But in the last month of Jan’s pregnancy, Jan and her husband, Tom, learned there were complications. Doctors explained the baby had a 25% chance of surviving delivery, she wouldn’t be born breathing, and she likely had a heart defect. The Bible study met to pray and trusted God for a miracle.
On a Friday, the day the Bible study met, the time came for the baby to make her way into the world. Caroline was born with respiratory issues and smaller in stature than expected; she was a little person.
Tom says the first two months of Caroline’s life, when she was on life support, were trying. But, because her birthdate was 2/10, they’d claimed Ephesians 2:10 for her life: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. They knew God created Caroline for a purpose, and they believed He would sustain her.
The day she came home, every neighbor had yellow balloons on their mailboxes. Car windows read “Welcome Home, Caroline!” Children’s cheers erupted as they drove in.
Debbie remembers, “God was entering her into the world, into the neighborhood,” the community where she would grow up, “with — her middle name — grace! Caroline Grace.”
Debbie and Jan became fast friends, so Debbie was immediately a major influence in Caroline’s life. Growing up around the Bible studies, Caroline was always surrounded by faith.
“When I was too young for formal discipleship, [Debbie] was speaking truth into me,” says Caroline, now a Bible college student and a Cru part-time staff member, who will join full-time staff in June 2020. “In middle school, ice cream dates and chats turned into prayer. I went from playing at her house to … well, now I’m at her house more than anywhere else.”
At 3½ feet tall with a bone and joint condition, Caroline stands out to most people. While sometimes this has been challenging for her, and her condition has caused physical pain, she says her disability is a blessing.
“There have been lots of opportunities for trust. I was seeing [God’s] hand of faithfulness before I could do anything about it, and it added more fire to my heart,” Caroline says. “And I’ve seen God use it — just me being different. People listen to what you say. I want to be diligent with that platform for His glory.”
Caroline developed a passion for overseas missions in her teens and worked for a time as a Spanish translator but always felt the Lord leading her to something more.
In 2014, Debbie told Jan and Caroline that, seeing all the Lord had done through the many neighborhood Bible studies that blossomed from hers, she believed He had so much more in store.
“I feel like this is going to explode overseas,” Debbie said. She’d already seen the model adapted during a mission trip she took to Honduras, where a volunteer translated one study and 10 Bible study groups that began the following week. Shortly afterward, another person wanted to translate studies into Polish and another into Macedonian.
Caroline twists a ring she wears on her right hand. The inside of the ring is engraved and says “God’s workmanship.” It reminds her of her life verse, Ephesians 2:10.
“As my heart for missions grew, I thought, ‘This is what God’s calling me to,’” Caroline says, speaking of the ministry she’d grown up in. “This is where my heart is.”
Now she knew: God was calling her to join the staff of NBS2GO as the ministry’s translation coordinator.
On a Saturday morning, Caroline meets a fellow Cru staff member, Linda, and a new friend, Abby*, to begin an Arabic translation of a Bible study. They work, primarily, on getting the template to read right to left. After that, Abby can type in Arabic on her phone.
Caroline doesn’t speak Arabic, but she has facilitated translations of Bible studies into 30 languages in the last few years. She has high standards for these translations: A translator must be a Christian and a native speaker, and an additional two Christian native speakers check the work once it is done.
Both she and Debbie want the simple guide produced by their ministry to be in a heart language — not slang, but not overly formal — so that native speakers can understand it. They ask these volunteers to first translate a five-question study, along with a short leader guide and the opening paragraph to a study.
NBS2GO has 11 Bible studies for anyone to use, not including other resources, on their website, and each represented language has at least one study translated. But what moves Caroline and Debbie is not just the grand scale on which they see the Lord moving for the ministry. It is the individual lives they see changing every day.
In a large, sunny house filled with couches and folding chairs, several dozen women cram into every available space, drinking coffee and laughing together. While this group used to consist of only eight women, after 20 years, there are more than 50 on the roster.
Jan Schuler gets everyone’s attention, passing around a journal in which people can write their prayer requests. They will study the Book of John for 45 minutes and then take time to pray over requests together.
For most in the group, it’s hard to believe this weekly ritual almost didn’t happen, because Jan, seven years after joining Debbie’s study, did not want to begin her own.
The Schulers moved to a new home when Caroline was 3 — a great place for a new Bible study. But, while Jan had led groups in Debbie’s before, she felt ill-equipped to start one. Still, Debbie prompted her: “I don’t think the Lord brought you to Willow Springs [neighborhood] for a basement and more closet space!”
Jan began praying and felt God lead her to place a notice in the neighborhood newsletter. But still resisting the call, she placed it right before a vacation and then they all left. She felt if God really wanted her to start a study He’d give her a clear sign. She was shocked when she came home to several messages from neighborhood women who wanted to see a study begin.
In the 20 years since that study began, Jan, Debbie and Caroline have seen God work in dozens of community members’ lives. Jan reflects on the difficult times in her own life and says she’s able to better love and empathize with others in her study because of them. She mentions that in just the last year, they’ve had one member lose a granddaughter to cancer, another lose a daughter to an overdose, and another a son to alcoholism.
They’ve seen whole families change. Husbands of Bible study members are ministering to neighbors because of the Word of God in their lives. The group regularly participates in outreach to at-risk elementary school students and the homeless.
But the most significant ministry seems to be how the Bible study members love one another.
Andra Harris-Martin has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. After she became a Christian years ago, her biological family cut her off; she suffered further loneliness after adopting a teenager who didn’t speak English.
But she comes to the group and feels she is around family.
“If I have something bad happen, I know my sisters are going to be there for me,” Andra says.
“That’s one thing I’ve [learned],” she says. “What a sister is. Growing up, it meant you’re always on guard, you’re going to be criticized. But here, I’m accepted and loved. They’ve got my back.”
Caroline says she believes the powerful change in the Bible study participants can be partly attributed to the physical closeness of the community. People live life together “day in and day out.”
She also knows, in our culture today, meeting neighbors may not come very naturally. Both parties may find the prospect of meeting those who live near you intimidating. She encourages anyone interested in reaching neighbors that, whatever culture they’re from, “people are hungry for relationship” and they need people in their lives.
The tools created by the NBS2GO team are designed to be transferable to anyone who wants to step into the lives of those around them. Debbie says the ministry is “take what you need”; this is where the “to-go” reference comes from. She wants the website to be a “smorgasbord” of resources where people can choose what will be most helpful to them. Not only does the website have simple Bible studies, but it also has ideas for praying for neighbors and forming friendships.
The one tip Debbie endorses for everyone is, “If God puts it on your heart, the best place to start is prayer.” In fact, the model that NBS2GO uses to start any group is to first, pray; then, connect informally; and finally, lead a study.
Debbie also mentions that the first studies are simple, beginning with one passage and asking five questions about it; she says this often gives even the shyest participant the realization they can lead.
Caroline says, “Taking all the steps can look daunting. Just do one at a time. God will give us what we need.”
Trees tower above a park downhill from several neighborhood homes. The sky is bright, the air 70 degrees, and classic rock resounds from the guitarists on a bandstand.
A pair of children run barefoot in the grass and two elderly gentlemen chat under a large, plastic tent. This is the annual pig-roast picnic to bring the Willow Springs community together.
Many neighbors are well-acquainted with the Schulers. One of them, Sandra, was a part of Debbie’s Bible study 24 years ago when Caroline was born.
“I can’t believe you’re getting ready to graduate college!” Sandra says to Caroline. “I was part of the parade when you came home from the hospital.”
Another couple asks Caroline about meeting with their young daughter who has a disability.
While Caroline will always be a part of this neighborhood community, she senses God calling her to take another step of faith. Earlier this year, Caroline moved into an apartment complex and has been intentionally meeting her neighbors.
“As soon as I moved out of my parents’ house, it was on my mind,” Caroline says. She is thinking of starting a Bible study. “I’ve been equipped. I almost feel like it’d be a waste of all God has put in my life not to use it in my neighborhood.”
Even with all of Caroline’s experience, she is nervous about getting to know new people and leading a group. But like Debbie and her mom, she will start with prayer and faith.
OK, Lord, You’ve called me. I’ve seen it in action. It’s time, Caroline prays. What would You have me do?
*Name changed for security.
Most neighborhood Bible studies start with someone prayer-walking their neighborhood. Would you like some ideas for prayer-walking your neighborhood? If so, visit NBS2GO.com to learn how to get started.
How has God inspired you to connect with your neighbors?Share your story
Rebecca Kelsall is a journalist with Cru®. She graduated in 2013 with a B.A. in multimedia journalism. She is proudly Hispanic American, a dog-mom, and interested in culture and psychology.Contact Me
Tom is a photographer with Cru®. He loves seeing beautiful sights out of airplane windows and enjoys meeting new friends all over the world. His wife, Karen, travels with him whenever possible, which makes every trip even better. Tom has been photographing for more than 40 years.Contact Me
Read more from the March 2020 issue
Mobilizing a Decade of Harvest
Join a worldwide movement to mobilize millions of believers to share their faith in May 2020.
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