It was a time to reminisce and give thanks but also to look forward, as more than 2,000 volunteers, supporters, and friends met to celebrate Maranatha Volunteers International‘s 50th anniversary in Sacramento, California, United States, September 19-21, 2019.
The supporting ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which coordinates and sponsors church and school building projects and water well drilling around the world, made the most of its annual convention to review its history in what leaders called “God’s leading through the years.”
“One thing has not changed in five decades,” said Maranatha president Don Noble. “God is faithful, and He has been faithful to Maranatha. We have seen His hand time after time.”
Results of Maranatha initiatives are many and easy to see. In the five decades since John Freeman organized the first mission trip for family and friends to the Bahamas, Maranatha has carried out its vision with distinction, leaders and volunteers said.
The ministry numbers are impressive. Since 1969, Maranatha has enlisted more than 85,000 volunteers as part of 2,170 missionary teams in 88 countries. In those projects, Maranatha has erected 11,229 new structures and drilled more than 1,000 water wells. In total, it has built 9,079 churches and 3,110 classrooms, for a total square footage of 13,123,731 (roughly 1,219,235 square meters).
But numbers don’t tell the whole story, as Maranatha is not merely about buildings but about transforming individual lives and the church community as a whole.
“It has been proven time after time,” Noble said, “that after Maranatha starts working in a country, the church as a whole grows.”
Maranatha’s presence also revitalizes local church members, said Samuel Makori, president of the Adventist Church in East Kenya.
“I have seen that thanks to Maranatha, individuals and churches move out of their comfort zones and go to help in rural areas. [Maranatha’s service] is a motivation for our members,” he said.
Maranatha’s service, however, is not without its own set of challenges. Maranatha was launched in an era when supporting ministries of the Adventist Church — those funded by private donations and not by allocations of the church organization — were few. In recent decades, the number of those ministries has grown. Maranatha faces the question, How can it stand out among the many support options church members have?
“I think the needs are many, and there are opportunities to serve for everyone,” said executive vice-president Kenneth Weiss. “As regards Maranatha, the ministry’s management is very transparent; it is an option where you see results, and you see them fast.” Through carefully coordinated efforts, Maranatha volunteers usually storm a place and build a church sanctuary or classrooms in just a few days.
On the other hand, Maranatha “pioneers,” or those who helped the ministry grow during its first decade, are dying off, ministry leaders acknowledged, and Maranatha needs to reach new generations to keep its pool of supporters healthy and active.
“In the next couple of decades, the challenge will be to engage Millennials to support a ministry like this,” Weiss conceded. “At the same time, when Maranatha started, it was mostly supported by young people on the one hand, and retired people on the other,” he explained. “Now things are more balanced, as many middle-aged families are getting involved and investing in this ministry.”
Part of this trend may result from the success of Maranatha’s family projects, which engage whole families in short stints of construction volunteering around the world. At the same time, other initiatives such as Ultimate Workout, geared exclusively to teenagers, have parents involved in supporting the ministry.
“Family projects are very popular,” Weiss said. “When we open registration for a specific project, it usually fills very quickly. And people who already participated once are the best advertisers because they see that Maranatha changes theirs and other people’s lives.”
At the annual convention in Sacramento, participants had a taste of the powerful transformation that Maranatha facilitates in both young and old. Besides Friday morning seminars on leadership, inheritance management, and other topics, and inspiring moments of praise and worship throughout the weekend, volunteers shared moving testimonies about their involvement with Maranatha. From the bereaved family struggling to get over the death of a child to the teenager fighting an eating disorder to the couple going back to church after years away, Maranatha fosters service as a way of finding meaning, fulfillment, and spiritual renewal in serving others.
Several church leaders also brought their greetings and testimonies to the convention, stressing how Maranatha helped develop the Adventist Church by providing inviting sanctuaries, comfortable classrooms, and essential water wells where needed.
One leader who stressed this point was Daniel Fontaine, former president of the church in Cuba.
“Maranatha has been a blessing to Cuba,” said Fontaine, who shared how the ministry transformed the face of the church in that country after it began work there in 1994. “To go to Cuba,” he said, “you need to show faith and trust in God. The beginnings of Maranatha in Cuba were challenging.”
Fontaine explained that at one time, Maranatha was about to leave Cuba because of the challenges.
“Leaders said, ‘If in one year you don’t solve these issues, we’ll leave,’” Fontaine said. “But it’s been 25 years, and Maranatha support has transformed the church and helped membership to skyrocket.”
The current Adventist Church president in Cuba, Aldo Pérez, agreed.
“Maranatha is like a physician that has come to alleviate our growing pains in Cuba,” he said. “There is no doubt God is using Maranatha for His glory. And the fruits of [Maranatha’s] service will be only seen in eternity.”
Despite Maranatha’s impressive accomplishments, there’s still much to do, said Kyle Fiess, Maranatha’s vice president of projects. Fiess shared details of Maranatha’s work in Zambia, a country where, according to the latest statistics, one in twelve people is a Seventh-day Adventist.
“In 2018, church leaders asked Maranatha for help in northern Zambia, a region where there are more than 3,000 congregations without a place to worship,” Fiess said. “Now that Maranatha is there, by the end of the year, we will have built 80 churches. It’s just a drop in the bucket,” Fiess acknowledged.
In light of current challenges, the key is to get involved, said Maranatha Côte d’Ivoire president Gilberto Araujo. Maranatha is planning its first project in that country for February 2020, and Araujo said he is excited about the possibilities.
“We want to see what the Lord can do together with you there,” Araujo said as he invited people to register for the Côte d’Ivoire project. “We don’t want to hear stories; we want to become stories together with you,” he said.