For those of you who have not heard, here is our story:
January 31, 2001
I don’t know what we were thinking when we set sail from Sacramento, CA. It took us four and a half years to make our trimaran “Rhea of Hope” ready to sail. So this was not a spur of the moment thing. We looked forward to the adventure and challenge of it all; but other than that, we had no idea what God had in store for us. In fact, we hadn’t even considered what God had intended for our lives. We just had this nagging feeling that we were supposed to be doing something for people in Central America. What the heck was THAT all about? We had no clue.
As a young adult I remember being disappointed and disillusioned in my denominational church, and so I became anti-organized-religion. Mike had very little formal religious training and had been anti-organized for as long as he could remember. So you can understand why we thought of our “mission” as secular, although somewhat humanitarian in nature.
We took supplies, clothes, etc. to share with those we met along the way who were in need. We could send home for more as needed. We wonder now what we were thinking. Who did we think we were? Wow, the needs were so overwhelming! We were deeply saddened by the conditions in which some of our fellow human beings were forced to live. We couldn’t even hope to make any difference! It was God’s wake-up call #1 … or maybe #653. Who knows?
We spent quite a bit of time, after being caught in the outskirts of hurricane Christina, waiting out the rest of hurricane season in Mexico. Getting to know some of the people was a real joy, but it made leaving them behind very difficult.
Pressing on to Central America, we encountered the infamous “Papagayos” in the Gulf of Nicoya. We struggled mightily to make it into Costa Rica against great gusts, high sustained winds, and very high seas, but to no avail. We were being blown farther and farther out to sea. That was about the time God entered our thoughts and prayers, I would have to say. No matter how hard we tried, we were powerless against the storm. (It was kind of that same feeling against the sadness and poverty we had seen in Mexico).
Mike had been steering for days. It took such great physical strength to keep the boat right that I could not relieve him at the helm. There was no eating or drinking; the seas were too rough for that. Finally, a break. Mike was able to set the autopilot and maintain a course, going with the storm. I considered that to be a great gift, for I wanted him to come down below with me. I asked him to lie down next to me and we held each other for a long moment. I quietly thanked God that Mike and I would be together when our boat would finally flip and it would be over. Silently, I said goodbye to our family and friends. I was wondering if Mike was doing the same.
From exhaustion, we slipped into a deep sleep and awoke two hours later. Much to our amazement, we were still alive. Rhea of Hope was still holding her course! God spared us and we felt He must want us to continue on. To say it was a humbling experience doesn’t even come close to describing God’s wake-up call #2.
We saw many beautiful sights and met some wonderful people on our way to the Panama Canal. We would have to say that out of everyone we met, Brian and Joann Soland, some fellow cruisers (on their boat Renu), were most interesting. We met them on the Pacific side of the canal while awaiting our transits. There was something very special about them – the kind of “something” we could not explain, but knew we wanted. With preparations for canal transit there was little time for socializing. We would see them on the Atlantic side.
Both transits were tragedies. Their boat was crushed between two tugs, which caused major damage and they had to “limp” to the other side for repairs. Our boat was tossed by a ship’s screws churning up a huge wave in the first lock. The wave caused such stress on our lines that the winch holding my line was jerked out of the mast and struck me on the side of my head. After hitting my head and knocking me off my feet, the winch flew to the deck and nearly cut off the toes of our good friend who was tending the other line. I didn’t know what hit me, neither was I aware that Jim was hurt also. The canal authorities happened to witness this via the cameras and called an ambulance. Mike was instructed to continue on to the next lock so the EMTs could evacuate the injured parties.
The EMTs who took care of me were Michael and Angel; and that reminded me of when our canal advisor boarded the boat that morning and introduced himself as Gabriel “like the angel”. Too weird! I thought for sure this was the end of MY story. But at the hospital through all the x-rays, cat scan, and neurological exams, the Spanish word for miracle was used over and over by the doctors and nurses. We don’t even have to say this was call #3.
It would take about as long for me to recuperate in Colon (the Atlantic side of the canal) as it would for Brian and Joann to have their boat repaired. We became fast friends and spent lots of time together…more than enough time for us to discover that what they had was Jesus Christ in their hearts. They were walking with the Lord! For us that was more than a little scary. But they were also real people who were easy to talk with. We talked long hours about our ideals and their vision (which was pastor renewal ministry and missions combined). It was soon time for us to leave Panama so we continued our separate journeys, intending to meet up again sometime in the future. Although we were unaware of it, a seed had been planted.
Having run out of cash, we were forced to make our way back to the United States and go to work. We had not only run out of money but had mounted up quite a debt on our credit cards. We ended up in St. Petersburg, Florida, at Maximo marina. Having no money, no telephone, and no car, we started over with the intention of paying off our bills, saving up, and going again. We soon learned through the cruiser grape vine that our friends Brian and Joann had to be rescued off their boat. They were forced to leave Renu behind tossing in the stormy sea.
What was going on? We felt so discouraged, not only about our situation but our friends’ as well. Where was the sense in all this bad stuff? Mike and I were so depressed, feeling lost, abandoned, monetarily and spiritually bankrupt. Why did we end up here in St. Petersburg? There’s nothing here for us.
We both found work and began an attempt to dig out of the pit. The depression continued to hang on us like a wet blanket. We were so far from home and this place seemed so cold and unfriendly. Mike was working on boats and I was working in an office. One of the boat owners, Charles, invited us to go to church with him. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, and Mike was just as quick to say no. So I went to Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park that Sunday with Charles. I fell in love with everything I heard and saw that day! I could not wait to get back there the next week.
I went by myself that Sunday and I remember being so touched I began weeping uncontrollably during worship. And the message seemed to be just exactly for me. At the end of the service I started to respond to the altar call and then a wave of fear overwhelmed me. I love my husband so much and I knew that there would be a huge wedge between us if I accepted the Lord and he didn’t. At this time I was unsure that we could survive such a drastic difference. My faith and trust in the Lord God Almighty was weak. I sat back down.
The congregation was dismissed and I started to walk out and was stopped by a lovely woman named Deirdre. She said she had noticed me get up and then sit back down during the call. She asked me not to leave without asking Jesus into my heart. I could sense that it was a matter of life and death. I shared with her my fears and she really spoke to my heart and calmed me. She prayed with me and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior that day.
A matter of life and death! How was I to reach out to Mike? I knew it was important for him to make his own decision, and I prayed for God to soften his heart. Well, God reached out to Mike as He had been doing with both of us all along.We were so hardened that we never paid attention to His calling – until, that is, we were broken and desperate. Only two weeks went by before Mike asked if it was okay if he came to church with me!
We felt right at home at Calvary! A couple of weeks later, Pastor Danny was teaching a lesson “exactly for Mike”. He even thought maybe Danny was looking right at him a time or two. Afterward we were drawn to the altar arm in arm. A matter of life and death! We have no words to describe our salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Our thirst for the knowledge of God’s Word was and remains insatiable. Our hunger for a relationship with Jesus Christ, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit, was and is to this day unbelievable! There were so many wonderful opportunities for us to fellowship with mature Christians at Calvary Chapel. Feeling more alive than ever before and happy beyond belief, that nagging feeling about the people in Central America was tugging at us more than ever. I was taking Spanish lessons at the church and we were taking a missions course taught by Vivian Laird and Larry Gray. God blessed us through Vivian and Calvary North and made it possible for us to go on a short-term mission trip to Honduras. We learned so much but there was more to come. One night we had guest speakers, Mark and Loretta Copple. Former missionaries to Russia, they were about to open a new Calvary Chapel in South St. Petersburg.
We lived in South St. Petersburg, and felt drawn to the pioneer fellowship in our own neighborhood. It was a small, nurturing family with a big heart for missions. The Lord put it on our hearts to become involved in prison ministry with brothers and sisters from both Calvary Chapels. We felt called by God that maybe we could be a blessing to the prisoners. We had no idea that WE would be so blessed by the ministry. The very first time we went, we were hooked! We became the new additions of the prison ministry family of Barnabas. Dave and Marcia Dodge and Don and Wendy Morris began to nurture and raise us in the ministry.
Pastor Mark fed us through God’s word and continued to encourage us regarding missions. With everything else in our lives, Central America was still very much on our hearts. God blessed us again through Mark and Calvary Chapel South St. Petersburg and Calvary Chapel Sarasota by sending Mike out on a hurricane relief supply ship to Honduras. What an opportunity to see the majesty of God’s hand on everything that happened during the mission! That’s another story!
We have never stopped praying about missions, although (truth be told), I sometimes changed my prayer and asked not to be sent out. We have stayed here so long now that for selfish reasons it is more difficult to leave. We thank our Lord for each and every person He has brought into our lives. We thank the Lord for being so faithful even when we hadn’t been obedient and for being so patient with us while we dragged our feet at times. We thank Him for our debts being paid off. We praise Him and thank Him for bringing us to Calvary Chapel. Most of all, we praise and thank Him for calling us when we weren’t even seeking Him.
Recently, our friends Brian and Joann emailed us from Guatemala and asked us when we could come down to the Jungle on the Rio Dulce and start missions work. They have already begun and are awaiting reinforcements. They said, “There is a place for your boat. Come and let’s build a missionary center and help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ here on the river.”
We flew down to assess the needs and to meet with our friends. There is no doubt that much is needed on the river. Many places are not reachable by road and our shallow draft boat should be perfect for going up the smaller rivers that feed into the Rio Dulce. The indigenous people have been persecuted, tortured, and annihilated for their land. Many of the men in each tribe have been killed; widows, their children, and orphans are left to fend for themselves. It is truly heart-wrenching.
The Lord our God has undeniably opened wide the door. We have just to step through in faith and do what He has called us to do in humbleness for His glory. He is calling workers for the harvest. The jungle is a dark and scary place because they have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ. We pray that God’s will be done in our lives and that we will have the ultimate privilege of serving Him with every fiber of our being. We continue to pray for His guidance and direction and to stay in His will, not our own.
Because of Him
Mike and Karen Rhea