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God’s Degree of Separation

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Olivia Vitale

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My story begins twenty-one years ago but for now I am going to focus on the past few years of my life. The second semester of my junior year in college (fall 2007), I decided to take 21 credit hours and commit to a leadership position at the church (The Rock) I attend in Columbia, Missouri on Mizzou’s campus. I was eager for the semester to start because I was looking forward to the classes I was taking, making new friends and becoming closer with current friends but more importantly, furthering my relationship with my boyfriend, who I started dating at the beginning of winter break. We met at The Rock and got to know each other during the summer of 2007 in Estes Parks, Colorado. I will touch on this later. For his purpose in my story, I am not going to mention his name. Instead, I would like to focus on how this relationship changed my semester, my heart and more importantly my walk with God. The semester started off great, but soon became stressful and life consuming. I began pouring all of my time into my schoolwork and nothing else. As the pressures of school started to build up, I decided after a lot of prayer and consideration that I would step down from my leadership position at The Rock. I was helping co-lead one of five large groups my church had on Mizzou’s campus. Between school and demands at The Rock, I was having a hard time balancing everything. In addition, I was finding myself getting physically sick from the stress to the point I was missing school and activities at The Rock on a pretty frequent basis. My relationship with my boyfriend was suffering too. Because I was missing The Rock and school so often, the only person I really was spending any time with was my boyfriend. This quickly became a dangerous place to be in because although I was living with a wonderful friend, Beth, and spending a lot of time with another classmate, Jessica, I was not spending any time with the Lord or in my church community. My boyfriend quickly became a place of refuge for me and I began using him, instead of my church, as my sense of community and counsel. As a result, we began arguing a lot and our relationship started going downhill. What you must understand though is that I placed such an emphasis on this relationship and was convinced Two of my best friends! From Left to Right: Jessica Johnson, Beth Ring and myself at Beth’s engagement party 2


that he was the man God intended for me to marry. We talked about going and doing mission work together, raising kids, etc., so our relationship not working out came as a huge upset for me. As the semester went on, I continued to get sick and miss more class. After many tests, doctors determined it was simply stress. To me, this came as no surprise. A busy semester, a few failing relationships and feeling disconnected from God was a perfect recipe for stress. Prior to the semester starting, I found out that I had been accepted to work as a day camp counselor at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado for the summer of 2008. I had worked at the same place during the summer of 2007. During that first summer I had in Colorado, I met a lot of amazing people, including my boyfriend, who had a huge impact on my life and my relationship with the Lord. I was so excited about returning, but began questioning if that was really where God wanted me. When the end of the school year arrived, I went ahead and went through with the preparations for closing the end of the semester and moving out of my apartment for the summer. My roommate, Beth, and I made plans to get two sublessors for the summer. I said my goodbyes to all of my friends,

Taking a break during a hike in Estes Park, CO.

including Beth, who was returning to St. Louis for the summer and following school year. Something still did not feel right about everything though. After talking to Beth and Jessica, I made the decision to end everything with my boyfriend. The next step was to tell him. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” ~ Proverbs 3:5-6 ~ May 14, 2008- Two days before I was supposed to move my things out of my apartment, I changed my mind about going to Colorado. My mother had arrived in Columbia for the day to help me start moving my things to a friend’s house to store for the summer. When my mother 3


arrived, I explained that I was definitely not going to go to Colorado and had to go on campus for a little while to break the news with my pastor and then meet with my boyfriend for the breakup. She was extremely supportive and began to pack up all of my things because regardless of whether I was going or not, I still had to move everything out, so the sublessors could move in. Hours later, I returned to my apartment after telling my pastor I was not going to Colorado and telling my boyfriend I could not continue a relationship with him. My pastor was in charge of the Leadership Training Program in Estes Park. After meeting with him, I had to call my boss in Colorado to let her know I would not be returning to Estes Park for the summer to work as a counselor. Because I decided to live in Columbia for the summer, I also had to attempt to find a place to live. Forty phone calls later, after a great deal of stress, I had a place to live. My other pastor at The Rock and his wife offered their home to me because they were also going to Colorado for the summer. I was definitely overcome by mixed emotions. I was sad to have lost a friend through a messy relationship, as well as a summer in the Rockies and an opportunity to work as a day camp counselor. However, I was excited at the possibilities of living in Columbia, MO and was totally relying on God to provide, since he ultimately was the one who called me to not go away for the summer. I did not have a job but set out to find one as soon as the summer began. After calling numerous churches and to inquire about summer nannying positions, I decided to

friends Chloe and Ethan Peterson, two of the kids I babysat for during the summer.

put fliers on people’s mailboxes with some of my credentials. To my surprise, I ended up being blessed with three Christian families to babysit for throughout the summer. The Lord was providing. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.� ~ Jeremiah 29:11 ~

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In addition, a friend who also decided not to go to Colorado started to train with me to run a marathon. I was convinced that the summer was going to be great. God provided and blessed me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. After the summer was over, I began my senior year. I was really looking forward to the year because I was entering the final phase of my college experience, student teaching. There were a lot of terrific things that came from the summer but perhaps the most important was that I found my identity in Christ again and truly felt free to be me. Because I had placed a heavy emphasis on dealing with personal issues that were going on at the time, I had pushed future plans to the back of my mind. It was not until a couple of weeks into the semester that I felt God asking me to consider doing missions again. I remember journaling at a spot right outside of Columbia by the Mississippi River, which I visited frequently during the summer.

September 12, 2008 -- “God, I am continuing to pray about this year and the upcoming year. Lord, I want to be your vessel I want to help further your kingdom. I desire for people to know about you. People that don’t already know about you. God, I pray that you would reveal to me what it is you have in store for my life, specifically post-grad plans…God, I have this desire to teach abroad. I have a heart for Africa, the poor and children…God, I want to do bold, courageous, beautiful, amazing, wonderful things for your kingdom.”

My heart for missions developed as a result of two mission trips I took with The Rock to Choluteca, Honduras. The first trip I took during spring break 2007 of my sophomore year in college. The second trip I took in January 2008, right before my stressful semester. While in Honduras, my team and I did a variety of different activities: building houses, sharing the gospel with children through puppet ministry, participating in prison ministry, evangelism, working at a malnutrition center for children, helping with the beginning of an AIDS comprehensive center (a.k.a. Casa Hogar Vida), distributing more than 3,000 Holding one of my favorite little boys. I met Alejandro in Honduras and decided to sponsor him.

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pairs of shoes, distributing hundreds of bed sheets to hospitals, visiting with the sick and dying in a hospital located near Choluteca and loving on a lot of children. God did a lot in my heart while I was there and I really grew in compassion for the dying and the destitute. So, not too long after I journaled at the river, I met with another close friend and mentor, Mazvita, with every intention of sharing how God started to place missions on my heart again. I remember telling her, “Mazvita, I feel like God might be asking me to consider doing missions by myself.” Her response was something along the lines of, “Well, that is neat and definitely something to continue praying about. Do you have any idea of somewhere you would like to go?” My reply at the time was, “Well, Africa sounds like a neat place, but I am just really using this time to ask God to give me a connection to a people and a place if this is what he wants me to do after I graduate.” About a week later, I was on line and ran across a woman’s Mazvita and I at a close friend’s wedding.

blog, who was from St. Louis and had started an orphanage and primary school in Burkina Faso, West Africa. The woman’s name

was Ruth Cox and as I read her blog, I discovered that a team from Columbia, MO had done mission work in her area. In my head, I was thinking “Well, what a coincidence.” A couple of days passed and I could not get this woman and this place off of my mind. I decided to e-mail Ruth’s organization, Sheltering Wings. At the same time, I also e-mailed my church in St. Louis, Windsor Crossing, because I knew they are affiliated with missionaries all around the world. “Show me the right path, O LORD: point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.” ~ Psalm 25:4-5 ~ A few more days passed and I had not heard a response from either place. I logged on to Facebook, a social networking website that is very popular among college students, and saw that I had a friend request from Jenni Fox. Jenni Fox was my friend Mazvita’s roommate. In order for me to have access to Jenni’s profile, I first had to confirm her friendship on Facebook. In the

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process of doing this, I saw that Jenni had sent me a message. Her message said, “Hey, I heard you are interested in doing missions. I would love to share

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with you a little bit about my experiences in Burkina Faso.” Flabbergasted, I immediately looked at her pictures on Facebook and discovered that she had

Jenni Fox holding some of the babies at the orphanage, during her time in Burkina Faso

spent time working with Ruth Cox at the orphanage. Also through Facebook, I discovered that another girl, Rachel Bannister, with whom I volunteered at Granny’s House (a local inner-city organization in Columbia) had also spent time with Jenni and Ruth in Burkina Faso. I noticed that Ruth had a Facebook profile, which was accessible through Jenni’s profile. Facebook has a neat feature where you can look at someone’s profile and along the side it tells you if you have any mutual friends. While I was not “friends” with Ruth on Facebook, I found out that we had two mutual friends, Charlotte and Elizabeth Meany. I was shocked because Charlotte Meany was my Girl Scout leader in elementary school. Elizabeth, Charlotte’s daughter, and I had gone to school with each other from kindergarten through high school, but did not really keep in touch throughout college. All of these “coincidences” prompted me to call Mazvita. When Mazvita answered, I asked her if she had mentioned anything to Jenni about me wanting to pursue missions. She quickly replied with, “What are you talking about?” Clearly, I knew she had no clue what was going on here. After talking for a bit, she said, “Olivia, you realize that Jenni’s father is the head of Sheltering Wings in the U.S.? That is who you e-mailed.” I could not believe it! She then went on to ask if I remembered a girl that she had run into when we were at lunch and explained that she was Ami Galaske. Ami had also spent time in Burkina Faso while Jenni was there. I was shocked. The day, I had told Mazvita I was only considering missions, we just happened to bump into Ami, who ended up sitting only a couple of tables away from us. A few days after my call to Mazvita, I received a response from Jeff Fox (Jenni’s father) in regards to the e-mail I had sent Sheltering Wings. I replied back and decided to call my father at work to tell him my decision to go to Burkina Faso. My Dad, who QuickTime™ and a decompressor are needed to see this picture.

seemed a little taken back by everything, told me that if this was what I wanted do after I graduate, I should look into it a

My Dad and I at my brother’s marching band competition in Columbia, MO.

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little more. While my parents have always been supportive of what I want to do with my life, going to a third world country was definitely harder for them to grasp. However, my Dad was behind me and very supportive. After feeling good about my conversation with my Dad, I decided to call my Mom the next day and fill her in. Knowing my Mom is a woman and more emotional than my Dad, I was a little hesitant to tell her about everything. After talking on the phone with her about other things, I finally mustered the courage to bring up the story of Burkina Faso. I said, “Hey Mom, did Dad tell you about Africa?” She responded sarcastically by saying, “Yeah, he had to

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drive me to the hospital because I started to have a heart attack.” While it really hurt to hear that on the phone, I realized that bad humor was my Mom’s way of handling

My Mom and I at my brother’s band competition.

the situation. At that point, I decided to stick with telling my Dad more details, in the hopes that God would work on my Mom’s heart and use my Dad to console my Mom. About a week later, I received an e-mail from Dick Crist, the Director of Missions at Windsor Crossing (my church in St. Louis). In the original e-mail I sent to the church, I had asked if they knew of anyone in Africa who was involved with education and missions. Dick replied, “There are numerous people at Windsor who participate in mission trips to a variety of countries. I would love to visit with you about these but based on your primary interest of teaching in a third world country I would highly encourage you to contact Lynn Peters. Lynn is a missionary in Burkina Faso. She is originally from Columbia, MO and has attended Windsor for a number of years and still visits when she is back in the States. Lynn is an exceptional person with such a strong passion for the children and the quest for education in Burkina Faso.” After reading the e-mail, I immediately sent an e-mail to Lynn, telling her who I was and about my interest. I then called my Dad to tell him that I had heard about yet another person in Burkina Faso. To my surprise, my Dad did not act so blown away. Nonchalantly, he said, “I know who Lynn Peters is, Olivia.” Shocked, I said, “What?!?! How do you know her?” He

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explained that once I first told him about Burkina Faso, he decided to send an e-mail out around his law firm to see if anyone had ever heard of the country. He received a response from one of the other lawyers at the firm, Dan Peters. Dan Peters is Lynn Peter’s brother! Dan, his wife and three kids live in my neighborhood and I babysat their children a few times. My Dad had also taken the initiative to contact a woman who was working with the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. He found her blog on the internet through Google, a popular search engine. I was so astounded by my Dad and the effort he put into researching something I am so passionate about. It meant a lot and made me feel so loved and encouraged. “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.” ~ Psalm 136:1 ~ At this point, my next step was to contact Lynn Peters and begin corresponding with her about Burkina Faso. I also had to tell her about the connection between her brother and my Dad. Through a series of e-mails, I learned a lot about Lynn and how she felt called to serve in Africa. She shared with me that she has started a child sponsorship program where roughly 100 children are sponsored on a monthly basis to meet their basic needs of food, medicine and education. She also has started two primary schools, each containing three classrooms of about twenty-five students. At the moment, she is working on determining where the most interest lies in opening a third school. She is doing this by holding Pre-K programs under shelters in various villages. Through our correspondence, I also found out that her cousin is a youth pastor at a church in Columbia and his daughter is… Ami Galaske (who is the friend of Mazvita’s I had met the day we went to lunch together). After discussing with Lynn the best way for me to go to Africa, I decided to apply with a U.S. based mission agency called Serving in Missions (SIM). Aside from figuring out my future plans of going to Africa, I was eager to share my story with the students and staff at New Franklin Elementary School where I was completing my senior year. My first semester of senior year, I rotated through every grade level spending a week in each teacher’s classroom. When I was in fourth and fifth grade, I incorporated my plans of pursuing mission work into the lessons I taught. I shared with students a lot about Burkina Faso, such as the clothing, traditions, living conditions, school environments and geography. The

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students seemed so hungry for information on this culture, which was so different from the rural environment in which they live. During my time in fifth grade, the students, including myself, learned how to pronounce the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou (Wa-ga-doo-goo). The weekend following the completion of my rotation in fifth grade, I went home to help my Mom with her hot chocolate business. My Mom makes the best hot chocolate in town and sells it at craft fairs in the St. Louis area. On the way to the fair, my mother and I discussed a lot of things. One big thing we discussed was how I wanted to get more plugged into Windsor Crossing and join a young adults group there before I went to Africa. While at the fair that day, I started to not feel so well and was debating on going home. However, God had My Mom and I selling hot a sense of humor and decided to bring someone chocolate at a craft fair. special to the table to sample some of my Mom’s hot chocolate. My Mom gives out samples of her hot chocolate and brownies to draw people in to her booth. A woman and her daughter came up to the table and instantly, I was drawn to her daughter, who appeared to be in elementary school. I love interacting with children. Close family and friends know that whenever there are kids around, I am not too far away. I found out the little girl was in third grade. I told her that I had spent a couple of weeks in third grade, student teaching, and loved it. Once her Mom overheard me talk about student teaching, she asked me where I was student teaching and where I wanted to teach after I graduate. I told her I was hoping to go to Africa for a year and she said, “I have a friend that is in Africa doing mission work.” When I asked her where her friend was in Africa, she replied, “I can’t remember the exact name, but I believe it begins with Wa.” Instantly, I knew she was referring to Ouagadougou (Wa-ga-doo-goo). When I quickly responded, “Ouagadougou? That is in Burkina Faso.” The woman seemed shocked. She answered, “Yes, her name is Lynn Peters.” I

Hanging out with a bunch of new friends I met in Honduras.

could not believe it and neither could my mother.

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We talked for a while longer and I found out the woman, Stacy Preusser, had met Lynn years earlier through an international Bible study organization called Bible Study Fellowship (BSF). Stacy explained that BSF is an intense Bible study program and a great way to meet young adults who are really solid Christians and strong in their faith. I was flabbergasted by the whole conversation. In my mind, I was praising God for introducing me to a complete stranger who shared a mutual friend and my excitement for Africa. I was thankful that God allowed me to feel well enough to stay the day at the fair. Towards the end of the fair that day, I went through my Mom’s cashbox to collect checks and put them in an envelope for her to deposit. I noticed a check that had gotten stuck on the front side of the cashbox. It was roughly the same color as the cashbox and I thought my Mom had maybe set it aside. I looked at the name on the front of the check and it said Dan and Lisa Donahue. Dan Donahue used to work at my Dad’s law firm and his family had not been to the fair that day. Confused, my Mom wondered how their check was still in her cashbox. We looked at the date and to my mother’s disbelief it said December 2007. My Mom was mortified when she saw that it had never gotten deposited. That had never happened before. I encouraged my Mom to contact Lisa Donahue and at least tell her that it had not been deposited. The following night I drove back to school. Once I arrived in Columbia, I checked my e-mail and found out that my Mom had contacted Lisa Donahue. To my surprise, Africa was mentioned in their conversation. One thing led to another and my mother discovered that Lisa had gone to high school with Lynn Peters. Lisa, Lynn and their boyfriends all went to prom together. I could not believe it. “As soon as I pray, you answer me; you encourage me by giving me strength.” ~ Psalm 138: 3 ~ A few weekends later, I returned home and went to Windsor Crossing Church with my Mom on Sunday morning. After the service, I ran into a man, Mike Jette, who had led the college small group I was part of the summer after my freshman year of college. We talked for a while and he asked what I was up to along with the infamous question, “What do you want to do after you graduate?” I explained to him what I hoped to do and he asked how he could pray for

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me. I asked him to pray for the details to be worked out with everything and that I would continue to trust God for the next step. Mike asked if he could pray for me there, so Mike, his wife, his kids, my Mom and I joined hands and he prayed. I was so touched and my Mom was moved to tears. I could see in that moment that God had comforted my Mom about everything, which was something I had been praying for. Afterwards, my Mom and I met Dick Crist, the Director of Missions, who shared some amazing stories about Lynn and her work in Burkina Faso. “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” ~ Philippians 4:6-7 ~ In the weeks that followed, I found out that I was accepted to the SIM mission agency, and applied to their four-day training in January 2009. Thanksgiving break occurred shortly thereafter and I met with Dick Crist again after church on Sunday morning. He introduced me to a woman, Sheryl Gill, who supports a few children through Lynn’s child sponsorship program. Sheryl has kept in a binder every letter, picture and update she has received from the children her family Lynn Peters with some of the children from Yako, Burkina Faso in West Africa.

sponsors. Sheryl was willing to let me borrow her binder and I was thrilled to

take it back to Columbia to show the students at school. Then, at the beginning of winter break, a series of events happened that got me even more excited about going to Africa. The first thing happened when I was reading through a Scholastic magazine and ran across a story about an organization, Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL), that builds community libraries in West Africa. At the moment, they have four 12


community libraries in Burkina Faso, but none in the Yako area where I will be working. I became so excited about the possibilities. Burkina Faso has about a 15% literacy rate and is the sixth poorest country in the world, so there is a vast need for reading and writing. Secondly, I met with Jenni Fox (my friend Mazvita’s roommate). Jenni shared a lot of helpful information about life in Burkina, including tips on learning French, and was very excited to hear about me getting the opportunity to go. French is the national language of Burkina Faso. In seventh grade I decided to start taking French through school and completed French IV my junior year of high school. After completing high school, I remember questioning myself as to why I took French, instead of Spanish. While I am far from being fluent in French, I do have a solid foundation from which to start relearning. Shortly after I arrived in St. Louis for the duration of my winter break, I went to Windsor Crossing with my Mom. After the service my Mom pointed out the associate pastor, Andy Sharpe. Through my correspondence with Dick Crist, the Director of Missions at Windsor Crossing, I found out that Andy Sharpe had also spent time in Burkina Faso. I decided to introduce myself to Andy and talked to him for a little while. During our conversation, Andy told me he had someone he wanted me to meet. Everyone had cleared out of the sanctuary after the service, so there were not many people around. However, Andy walked me across the sanctuary and introduced me to Mary Anderson. Andy explained that Mary is Lynn and Dan Peter’s sister. I could not believe it. My mother and I talked to Mary for a little while. Mary introduced us to her husband, who left quickly to pick up the children from childcare. During that time, Mary explained that she normally picks up the kids from childcare, but she had managed to lose part of her earring in the sanctuary and was looking for it when we walked over. Again, another God wink. The following weekend, I decided to attend a service at the church I grew up in, Manchester United Methodist Church, one Sunday morning. During the brief meet and greet time at the beginning of the service, I introduced myself to the woman sitting next to me, Ginny Altrogge. Before leaving after the service was over, Mrs. Altrogge wished me Happy Holidays and asked if I was home from school. One thing led to another and I found out she is the principal at Oakbrook Elementary, where my high school ex-boyfriend/friend, Dan Faber, went to school, and that her husband used to teach at my elementary and middle school. After explaining that I was going to Africa to teach, she said she would love to support me.

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A few days later, I went to the dentist’s office for my annual visit and discovered that my dentist, Dr. Hoover, knows Lynn Peters and has supported Lynn for quite a few years now. She goes to West Springs Church, where Lynn’s brother Dan (who works at my Dad’s law firm) and his family go. All of this leads me up to now. I realize this story has no ending and is to be continued. Throughout this whole journey, my faith in Jesus has definitely been renewed. When I look back at each event that has led up to now, I can clearly see how God has crafted and orchestrated my story. The Lord provides and although I thought I had a decent plan for my life, God surpassed anything I could have ever come up with. I do not believe that we are separated by six degrees because God has shown me his own degree of separation. I am eager to see where God takes me from here. “…Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” ~ Joshua 1:9 ~ I trust in Him and his will for my life and pray that through all of this I become an even stronger woman of faith to impact His kingdom. “For the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few…” ~ Matthew 9:37 ~

TRUST HOPE

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LAUGH

LOVE HONOR

SERVE

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My Story