WBU Webmaster travels overseas to baptize new convert

Ordained ministers are often asked to baptize a new convert to Christianity. But when that person lives on the other side of the globe, it's a more unusual request.

Such is the recent experience of David Howle, webmaster at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview. Howle just returned from an 10-day visit to Belgium, where he performed the baptism ceremony for Chantal Alexandre Wiame. But how that event came to be goes back several months.

Howle, who speaks fluent French, took over teaching duties at Plainview High School for a second-year French class in September 2001. In an effort to engage them more in the language, Howle began searching the Internet for pen pals for his class members. The best response came in November from Wiame, who teaches a second-year English class in Belgium. The match was perfect.

Over the next few months, the pair corresponded regularly via email as their students corresponded with each other and participated in chat rooms and message boards, learning much about the different cultures. Over time, the two teachers were sharing advice and exchanging stories about their lives.

"It became clear to me that she was struggling with some very difficult issues," Howle recalled. "Her father had died and she was taking care of those duties, and her mother has Alzheimer's disease, so she was caring for her as well. She also has a son who is autistic and a daughter who has overcome anorexia.

"I said, 'I don't know how you can handle this - or how I would handle it - without the support of very good friends and my relationship with God.' She'd never heard that about God being important in someone's life."

Howle said Chantal was curious about his faith and he began to share Bible verses and more information about a relationship with God. Knowing that she really needed a local contact, however, he called Sam Verhaeghe of the Belgium Baptist Union to locate a pastor near her hometown.

Pastor Ernest Nkongolo of Namur made contact with Wiame, and over the course of their conversations, she made a profession of faith to accept Jesus as Lord of her life. She became active in the Baptist church in Namur and wanted to follow through with the ordinance of baptism. She contacted Howle about the possibility of him performing the baptism in Plainview, but he encouraged her to do it in her home church where her family could witness the ceremony.

A member of First Baptist Church, Howle mentioned the situation to pastor Travis Hart, who thought the church might help fund the trip as a ministry opportunity. With that approved, Howle began planning the trip to Belgium, where he hoped to be able to preach and do other ministry projects while in the country as well as baptizing Wiame.

"Within a matter of days, Chantal had talked to the pastors and had put together dates and an agenda for us," he said. "They said if we could be there over two Sundays, they had plenty of things planned for us."

While in Belgium, Howle and his wife Cathy were able to present the Nkongolos with a set of Lord's Supper utensils purchased by their Sunday School class in Plainview. On Sunday, August 25, Howle led a Sunday School lesson and preached in both French and English during the worship service at the Baptist church in Tournai, presenting a biographical sermon narrating the book of Daniel as the character of Meshach. He also led a two-day workshop on personal behavioral patterns and spiritual gifts at the church in Namur later that week.

On Sept. 1, the Howles attended the service at the Namur church, where David would be baptizing Chantal. Despite a few setbacks - the church's hot water heater was not working, so an upstairs neighbor allowed the pastor to fill an inflatable pool from his faucet - the service began, with music and prayer. After Howle's sermon, the baptisms took place, with Chantal going first and a Congolese woman named Solange being baptized afterward. The ladies shared testimonies and Chantal sang "Amazing Grace" with Howle accompanying on guitar.

The congregation shared communion to close out the service before the church gathered for a potluck lunch. The Howles returned to Plainview on Sept. 2.

Howle said the experience in Belgium opened his eyes to the needs of the congregations there, especially in the way of funding.

"There is much more ministry that can be done there," Howle said, mentioning specifically the issue of funding. "Pastor Nkongolo is from the Belgian Congo and has to have a work permit. On it, he can only list one profession, and if he chooses pastor, he cannot work anywhere else. But the Belgian Baptist Union can only afford to pay him for part-time, so his family lives on about $500 a month."

Political tensions in Belgium, Howle said, also create interesting problems for residents. The northern half of the country speaks Dutch, while the southern half speaks French, and the two groups don't have much love for each other. This means several layers of government bodies exist and that makes for lots of bureaucracy.

Howle said Baptist churches in Belgium only number 28 and most are very small, averaging around 50 active members. Though the Belgian Baptist Union is over 100 years old, the country remains something of a mission field for evangelical groups, he said. Resources are not easily available, either.

"The church in Namur, for example, has many children but they don't have resources to use with them," he said. "I think it'd be wonderful to have a summer missions team to go do a week or two of Vacation Bible School with the kids there." Howle said he'd like to remain involved with mission work in Belgium.