Thursday, March 31, 2016

Introducing Vanessa Banks!

This week we are so excited to introduce: Vanessa Banks!

Vanessa is a long time Canadian friend of ours and we've been looking forward to having her here in Mozambique for months. I first met when I was the youth leader at a church in Canada when she came to a youth retreat I was running called STAND. God showed up, radically changed her life, and the rest is history.....

But for those of you interested in that powerful history---God has been calling Vanessa to the missions field for years and after numerous short terms missions trip, she is finally ready to take the leap into long-term missions. Vanessa will be doing an internship with us for the next two months before heading off to El-Salvado with Youth For Christ where she will be based long-term.

It is such an honour to have her here. We're so excited to get to be a part of Vanessa's calling during this season of preparation. Vanessa's passion, enthusiasm, energy and joy are contagious. She can't help but bring a smile to everyone she meets.

For anyone interested in more of Vanessa's story, check see her testimony below:

I joined the Canadian Armed Forces over seven years ago. I am an extremely adventurous person, and I felt that God was calling me to the military. I started out in the Reserves, part time military, while I was in high school. When it came time to choose my university, I felt led to go to Royal Military College of Canada. Not only had my dad and two older sisters gone there, but it had also always been my lifelong dream. Above those factors and all else, I just knew God was calling me to be in the military full-time. God gave me a heart and a passion for the people of the army; it was my mission field for many years. I started to realize that there is a lot of darkness in the military, and God’s purpose for me was to be a light in that darkness. My time in the military was filled with many highs, and MANY lows – I went through so many intense physical and mental challenges. God used my time in the military to develop my faith and trust in Him. There were many days I just wanted to give up, days I thought I couldn’t take another step. I reached many obstacles where I thought, “There is no possible way I can do that.” Every time, God proved me wrong. He never left my side and He showed me that if I put my trust in Him, He could give me the strength to do far more than I ever thought I could accomplish. I received a lot of meaningful training and grew stronger as a person. I now know what it’s like to function in horrible and stressful conditions with little or no sleep, to be at the end of my rope and still power through, to be knocked down again and again and still pick myself up and keep going. I met a lot of amazing people and I know I made an impact in at least some of their lives. I brought people to church and shared my faith when given the opportunity. I had deep conversations with people, sometimes at the most random times and in the craziest situations. I made meaningful friendships and bonds with people that can’t be found anywhere else. I laughed, I cried, I loved, I hated. I felt like I was living life to the fullest. I had unique experiences that very few people get to have in their lives. I did a lot of really cool things, and also had to endure a lot of horrible things. I felt complete freedom and also complete captivity. It was all part of the huge adventure. Through it all, God was there for me. He helped me discover my identity regardless of my circumstances, my identity as a Child of God. He made me into a stronger person and shaped me into the woman I am today. The military will always be a part of me, and it will remain in my heart forever. Given my family history and my passion for the military, I always assumed that God’s plan for my life was to make the military my career. I had no intentions of ever leaving the army.

Then I went to El Salvador for the first time, and everything changed.

I first heard about the trip from Allan Day through my church in Ottawa, Bridlewood Community Church of the Nazarene. I knew he had brought a team to Cuba on a missions trip, and that he was planning to take a team to El Salvador. I had always wanted to go on a missions trip but I was waiting for the right opportunity. He kept telling me about the trip, and how he really wanted me on the team. I wasn’t able to go on the first trip to El Salvador due to military training, but the second year he asked me again. I looked at my schedule and my summer leave corresponded with the dates of the trip. As I mentioned before, I am a very adventurous person and I am always up for anything. I also love travelling, so when I saw that I could go, there was really no hesitation. I joined his Youth For Christ team.

Leading up to the trip, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know where El Salvador was on a map (it’s in Central America, by the way, and it’s close to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua), and I never had any intention of going there. Like I said, I wanted to go on a missions trip but I didn’t even know what actually would be involved.

The trip was two weeks long, and it completely changed my life. I thought I knew what I was passionate about in life, but I had no idea until I started doing missionary work. When I was in El Salvador, my heart was alive. I saw lives being changed and it impacted me in a way that no military work ever had. I saw people be impacted by my music and singing, and I loved it. For the first time in my life, I felt completely like myself. I felt like I was doing what I was put on this earth to do, using the gifts God gave me to the fullest, and just being Vanessa Banks as Vanessa Banks was created to be. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and challenged, and God caught me every time. It was exciting, and it made me feel closer to God than ever before, because I had to depend on Him for everything. I stood in front of classes and churches and shared what God had done in my life, and it filled me with a joy I had never before known. It was the most thrilling, exciting, and powerful thing I had ever done. God gave me a story to tell, being a woman in the Canadian army, and I realized that it was worth telling. All of the things in my life up to that point that I thought were exciting, paled in comparison to the joy of following Christ and living completely for Him. That trip was when God first planted in my heart the calling to be a missionary. I had a vision of God’s incredible plans for El Salvador and the amazing things He was going to do there, through us. I felt like I was a part of the bigger picture, something so much greater than myself. I bonded with the people on the Youth For Christ El Salvador team and they instantly felt like family. Right from that very first trip, whenever I am in El Salvador, I just feel like I’m home.

Since that first short-term missions trip to El Salvador in the summer of 2012, I have went back on another trip every summer. This past summer, 2015, marked my 4th missions trip to El Salvador. My heart has never truly left El Salvador from that very first trip. My life pattern became going to El Salvador, leaving and returning to the military, feeling like my heart was ripped out of my body for a few months, then waiting anxiously to return to El Salvador the following year. Every year, no matter what kind of a year I’d had, I would go to El Salvador and just know I was where I was meant to be. God used every year to confirm and strengthen my calling to be a missionary. Every year it got harder and harder to return to the military, because I knew that God was preparing my heart to live in El Salvador long-term. It was all just a matter of timing. I had to be incredibly patient for the past three years, because I knew I had to wait on God’s timing to answer my missionary calling. I also knew that my calling in the military wasn’t yet complete.

Over the years, God slowly replaced my calling to the military with my calling to be a missionary and be involved in full-time ministry. I started dreaming new dreams. I slowly discovered who I really am and what I’m really passionate about. As God developed my calling to be a missionary, I started to realize that my calling to the military was only a baby calling. My calling to be a missionary is so much bigger, so much greater, more permanent. The military was just meant for a part of my life, a chapter, but I am starting to get the feeling that being a missionary is my LIFE calling, my life purpose. And not only that, but I feel like one of the main purposes of my time in the military was to prepare me for life as a missionary.

Over the past four years, we have seen amazing things happen in El Salvador. Youth For Christ El Salvador has become an official chapter as of last year, and God has put an incredible team of individuals in place to serve Him there. David Castillo, one of the Salvadoreans, now has a full-time job with Youth For Christ as national director, so he is able to do ministry all year round. The team is growing and dedicated. Our YFC Canada team has only went for two weeks at a time, for five years, but the impact that we have seen has been crazy. We have reached thousands of youth. And it is clear to all of us that this is only the beginning – God has such an amazing future for the country of El Salvador (which means “The Saviour” in Spanish). I get so unbelievably excited every time I think about it.

For those of you wondering what we do when we’re in El Salvador on the short term trips, we visit many schools, orphanages, churches, and communities. We share our testimonies in front of the classes, we hand out salvation bracelets and Bible verses, and we simply love the kids in whatever way we can. My main focus is my music ministry; I sing and play guitar, and I have been learning Spanish songs that I sing over there in a variety of places. It is amazing to use the gifts God gave me to make an impact. We put on programs for the kids and lead events for the churches and communities. Our main focus is love. El Salvador is extremely dangerous, because of the gangs. If we are able to reach the youth before they get involved and redirect their path to Jesus, we can make a huge impact. We give them hope for their future.

In September 2014, I returned from El Salvador after my yearly trip and I was severely depressed. It was crystal clear to me that my time in the military was coming to an end and it was no longer where I was meant to be. I didn’t think it was possible for me to leave the military because they paid for my university degree and I owe them five years of mandatory service. I continued to do my military training even though it was incredibly difficult, and my heart was still in El Salvador. The year that followed, this past year, was the hardest year of my life. God led me through a series of choices that required many leaps of faith. At first, He revealed to me that it was time to leave Armoured (my job in the military which involves working with tanks) and pursue another job in the military. I trusted Him and stepped out in faith even though it would have been a lot easier to just stay Armoured. Through the process of changing jobs, which lasted from November 2014-May 2015, I was in limbo. I had no idea what job within the military I was supposed to do, or how much longer I would be living in the place I was living, or where I was going next, or when. It was an intense test of patience, and waiting indefinitely with no real information about my next steps. After I encountered several road blocks in choosing my new military job, I started to wonder if it was finally time to leave the military altogether and follow God’s calling for me to be a missionary. After a lot of prayer, I realized that the time is indeed now. It made absolute no sense logically or financially, but I just knew deep in my soul that it was time. God revealed that to me, and He asked me to trust Him. I took the biggest leap of faith of my life and made the decision to leave the military to be a missionary. It was terrifying, because I’m leaving my secure job where I make a steady salary to have a job with no-income, living in a dangerous, foreign country. But I am called, so I have to trust that God will take care of me.

When I broke my contract with the military, I knew I would have to pay them a lot of money. Despite that, I knew that God was still asking me to follow Him. NOW, not in four years. I realized that He is the most important part of my life, and I am willing to give up EVERYTHING to follow Him. I never want my life to be dictated by money; I want to stand before Him at the end of my life and tell him, “You are more important to me than money,” and have proved it. I want to know Christ and spend every second of my life living for Him. That is true success and happiness, in my opinion. I got a miracle when I actually made the decision to leave the military. It turns out that I get a pension for having served seven years, and the pension completely covers my debt to break my contract. That was the first time (and certainly not the last) God proved to me that He will always catch me no matter what on my missionary journey. He will take care of me, and He will provide whatever I need, both now and in the future.

The rest of my family is or was military, including my dad (retired two years ago after thirty-eight years in the military), my three sisters (one left the military several years ago to raise her three kids but the other two are active military), and my sister’s husband. My family doesn’t know any other job or life path, and I have been raised surrounded by the military, which made my decision to leave a complete step into the unknown. Many think I am crazy, but I am only trying to please an audience of One. Christ is everything to me, and I know He is proud of me. Nothing else matters. My favourite song for this past season of my life was “I Have Decided” by Elevation Worship:

I have decided to follow Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

No turning back, no turning back

Though none go with me, I still will follow

Though none go with me, I still will follow

Though none go with me, I still will follow

No turning back, no turning back