Saji Varghese and Mathew James didn’t lack a passion for ministry, but they still needed the right visa to stay in the U.S. to pursue their calling as church planting pastors.
Assemblies of God churches became part of the solution in answering the prayers of the men from India last spring by donating funds to help them obtain religious worker visas. Leaders from the PennDel Ministry Network, which covers Pennsylvania and Delaware, agreed to sponsor the pastors for the R-1 Visa, which allows them to support their families while doing full-time ministry.
Varghese, 45, and James, 42, came to California on student visas from India nearly a decade ago to continue their biblical studies. The two didn’t know each other in their home country, but became friends as students at the International Theological Seminary in El Monte.
Initially, neither pastor planned to remain in the States after completing his studies.
“When I came here, I was planning on going back, but God gave a clear vision to start a church,” says Varghese.
James says he felt a similar calling, specifically to the Northeast U.S. James planted Harvest International Church in Philadelphia with help from Church Multiplication Network and the Matching Fund from AGTrust.
Upon his suggestion, Varghese launched New Life Indian Church in Pittsburgh. However, because of the visa status, neither could receive compensation for his ministry.
“They’ve made tremendous sacrifices to minister here in the States,” says Tom E. Rees, PennDel church planting director.
PennDel never had sponsored a minister to receive an R-1 Visa before. The process requires an established religious organization to ensure that the applicant can be supported financially through his or her ministry.
After approval from the PennDel Presbytery and Network Superintendent Stephen R. Tourville, the R-1 Project became a reality. Churches around Pennsylvania and Delaware rallied to support the pastors upon hearing their powerful testimonies of how they became Christians.
In his mid-20s, James worked as a chemical engineer in Bahrain when an accident left him exposed to dangerously high levels of radioactive materials. His co-workers died instantly, and doctors told James he had cancer and would die within months.
“I started reading the Bible and I heard a voice say, If you believe in me I am going to heal you. I knew you when you were in the womb of your mother,” James says. He accepted Jesus as Savior, and within days the cancer disappeared.
“This incident changed me,” James says. “It was only God who saved me. That is why I fully submitted.”
Varghese’s father had been a communist activist and the family headed down a wrong path. But C.V. Abraham, an Assemblies of God minister, came to his village and preached the gospel to an expectant teenage Varghese.
“If (Abraham) would not have been there, our destiny would have been something else,” says Varghese, who considers Abraham his spiritual father. Two years ago, Abraham traveled to Pennsylvania to baptize Varghese’s son, Alby.
Rees says these stories of faith and the pastors’ belief in their calling to reach Indians in America impacted many people. Churches in the PennDel network donated more than $60,000 to the R-1 Project to allow Varghese and James to receive the religious worker visas. The funds also will be used for future pastors seeking the visa status.
“These two guys both have a heart for God and a heart for lost people,” Tourville says. “It’s gratifying when we communicate our vision to people and they latch onto it and get behind it. Hopefully, this will encourage others to get behind those who are coming to America and give them support and a hand up.”
Through the R-1 Project, the network already has sponsored another pastor’s visa process. Reginald Nesamoni is currently ministering at Harvest International Church.
“God is bringing people from around the world into our backyard and it’s a great opportunity to reach people for the gospel,” Rees says.
Services at both New Life Indian Church and Harvest International Church are conducted in Malayalam and English. Indians, Pakistanis, and Ukrainians worship at Harvest. James says he has seen miraculous healings, like the one he experienced in Bahrain.
“An 85-year-old blind grandfather came to our church and he asked for our prayers,” James says. “Within one week, God gave him vision.”
Both Tourville and Rees say they hope other AG ministry networks and districts will actively support ethnic churches and pastors.
“If we build some bridges to help people to connect with us, we can help them grow in a great way,” Rees says. “We want to embrace the people that God has placed in our backyard.”IMAGE - Tom Rees (center) has helped Mathew James (elft) and Saji Varghese open churches.