By Lonnie Wilkey
FRANKLIN — Though it’s been more than three decades since William Burton went on his first Tennessee Baptist partnership trip, he is still seeing “fruit” from seeds that were sown in Venezuela.
Burton, leader of the New Churches Team of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, was a college student at Carson-Newman University when a speaker came to Mill Springs Baptist Church in Jefferson City where he was a member and shared about the partnership Tennessee Baptists had then with Baptists in Venezuela.
After that visit, Mill Springs members took up money to send Burton on his first missions trip. He still remembers the sacrifices some of those people made, especially an 80-year-old man named Herbert Crook who had worked hard all his life. Burton recalled that Crook pulled out a $100 bill and handed it to him. “That was a lot of money in 1987,” Burton said, adding that Crook will never know how much that gift impacted his life.
Those gifts from him and others at Mill Springs were “one of the greatest investments in my life,” Burton acknowledged.
While in Venezuela in 1987, Burton met and became good friends with a young man named Gerrardo. A few years later, after completing degrees from Carson-Newman and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., Burton returned to Venezuela as a Southern Baptist missionary with the International Mission Board.
Gerrardo learned that his friend would be serving in the same city where his mother and other family members live. None of them had a relationship with Christ.
Burton recalls that though he had an address, it was not like finding homes in the United States.
He doubted that he would ever run into Gerrardo’s family. Yet one afternoon while he was knocking on doors in Maracaibo, he found his friend’s mother, aunt and four cousins, including a young boy named Manuel.
“I had the privilege of leading the entire family to Christ,” Burton shared. Not only that, a church was established under a mango tree at their home. That church grew and now has a building of its own in Maracaibo, he said.
Burton completed his work as a missionary in Venezuela and returned to Tennessee where he served as a pastor before joining the staff of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board in June of 2013.
“Life goes on,” he noted.
Then one day “out of nowhere,” Burton receives a Facebook message from Manuel, one of Gerrardo’s cousins that he baptized about 20 years earlier.
He (Manuel) let me know that his ex-wife Alexandra and two children were moving to Tennessee. Six months later, Burton was contacted by Alexandra who knew a couple in Esperanza Church in Spring Hill where Burton also serves as pastor. “When I saw her little boy, I knew it was Manuel’s family. He looked just like his daddy.”
Burton has since led Alexandra and her children to Christ, another generation from a family he met 20 years ago in another country. God is still reaping a harvest from seeds planted during the Tennessee partnership in Venezuela more than three decades ago, Burton affirmed.
As Burton looks back on his life, he sees how God used a small Tennessee Baptist church “to radically change my life.” Noting that he had planned to become a music minister, he sees how God used his experiences in Venezuela to lead him to become a church planter.
“For me, everything I do today is because of that trip,” he said.
What’s more, with the political turmoil in Venezuela today, many Venezuelan professionals are immigrating to the United States and a good number of those are settling in Tennessee, Burton said.
Many of them were not believers in Venezuela but as they move to Tennessee, some of them remember the Baptists who came to their country when they were children and they are seeking out Baptist churches, Burton said.
Burton alone has baptized more than 40 Venezuelans over the last few years at Esperanza Church.
“God worked everything out. Tennessee Baptists sowed the seeds. God knew this was going to happen.” B&R