When Dewey and Kathie Aiken survey the landscape of Vermont, they see much more than the beautiful red and yellow leaves of autumn, the traditional maple syrup-making in March, and 150-year-old churches with white steeples piercing the blue skies of summer.
Instead, the couple is haunted — literally unable to sleep some nights — when they ponder the lostness of the majority of Vermonters and the urgency to reach the tiny New England state's population of 623,000 with the Gospel. It's estimated that only two percent are committed believers in Christ.
"Vermont is a beautiful state, and it's full of beautiful people," says Kathie. "But we know that beneath the facade there is a lostness. Something is missing in people's lives. I see the sadness in so many of their faces."
The Aikens — a husband-wife team of Mission Service Corps (MSC) missionaries commissioned by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) — say their passion for Vermont stems from the urgency of the state's bleak spiritual condition.
"There's an urgency to go and get the Gospel out here. When I think about how so many people in this state do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior, it breaks my heart," Dewey said.
The Aikens are two of more than five thousand missionaries in the United States, Canada, and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are one of eight NAMB missionary couples highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 2-9, 2008. This year's theme is "Live with Urgency: Seize Your Divine Moment." The 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering's goal is $61 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries' needs and ministries.
Hailing from Brevard, North Carolina, Dewey, 56, and Kathie, 54, were celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary ten years ago when they vacationed in Vermont. They fell in love with the Green Mountain State.
Already active in missions and disaster relief back in North Carolina, the Aikens returned home and after several years, retired from their successful first careers — Kathie as a registered nurse and Dewey as a purchasing manager for Duke Energy.
"When we came up here on our anniversary, we saw the need here in New England," Kathie said. "We had careers that we were finishing up, and we knew it was time for a change. Our children were married, our family was changing, and it was a time in our lives when we could serve Christ in another area in a different way. And we were ready."
Their passion for Vermont grew even stronger. "We wanted to come here. We desired Vermont. We were at home in North Carolina, where we were raised and where we had good jobs and family," Kathie said.
"We just felt like God was calling us to Vermont, to share the Gospel here," Dewey said. "I looked at Romans 10:14 which asks how will they know unless somebody comes and tells them? That's why we're here. We're here to tell the people of Vermont about Jesus."
And since the Aikens did not leave their North Carolina drawl behind, they joke about how they use it to witness to Vermonters.
"Folks up here grin when we talk, but they're polite about it," says Kathie. "Our accent is actually a witnessing tool. Say we're in a restaurant and we strike up a conversation. When they say, 'You're not from around here,' we make them guess where we're from. That opens up doors, and we can tell them why we're here."
Coming from a strong Southern Baptist state like North Carolina, the Aikens initially faced some culture shock upon their arrival in Vermont, a state known for its liberal political and secular bent. Vermont also suffers from a pervasive influence of New Age thinking and even Wiccan practices.
"God prepared our hearts and gave us a vision of what it was going to be like, even before we got here," said Kathie. "We came up here with the mindset that nothing is going to shock us."
A hindrance to their ministry, according to the Aikens, is the fact that many in Vermont — with its strong Catholic influence — have "just enough religion in their pasts to think — because they were baptized as infants — that they're going to heaven. Or they think they are 'genetic Christians' because their families attended church or were members of a certain faith.
"It hurts your heart, and actually sometimes makes me somewhat angry at the way people up here have been deceived into thinking that everything is OK," says Kathie.
Kathie gets frustrated at times because she sees children and young people who don't understand the Bible and, in fact, says the Bible has never been read to them, even in a church. "They don't open the Bible in church; only the priest does."
So whether ministering to young people or conducting a Bible study for a group of eighty-year-olds, Kathie tries to keep it basic and simple. Her strategy must work: she recently led an eighty-two-year-old woman to Christ.
Rather than ask a person if he or she is a Christian — since two-thirds of most Vermonters consider themselves Christians — Kathie instead asks, "Was there ever a time in your life when you asked Christ to be your personal Savior?" or "Do you have a personal relationship with Christ?"
While Vermont is dotted with beautiful old churches built in the 1800s and before, many have closed their doors. People in some churches just quit coming; some churches died spiritually or financially; and yet others closed because entire families finally died out. Sadly, many of these churches have been converted into town halls, libraries, antique shops, and senior centers.
But Washington Baptist Church, the only Southern Baptist church around, is open for ministry. Located in the village of Washington (population 1,000), Washington Baptist has ninety members, including Dewey and Kathie Aiken.
Right off Washington's village square is The Calef House and Retreat Center, a 7,400-square-foot Victorian mansion built by the wealthy Ira Calef in the mid-1800s. Today, it's managed and maintained by the Aikens for God's work.
Purchased from the local Catholic parish in the late 1990s by Washington Baptist Church and operated by the Green Mountain Baptist Association, the house was completely renovated by Southern Baptist volunteers who came from across the country.
"The church had a vision of changing the facility into a parsonage for the pastor and his family, a mission apartment for us, and a retreat center," Kathie explains. "We were called here by God to be the managers of the retreat center."
Some three hundred Southern Baptist "guests" — as many as twenty-one at a time — stayed at The Calef House from April to November 2007, most of whom were on mission trips to Vermont from throughout the United States.
When he's not helping Kathie run The Calef House, Dewey works as state disaster relief coordinator for Vermont under the auspices of the Baptist Convention of New England.
Using his relationship to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, he also manages a partnership of volunteers among the two state conventions and the Green Mountain Baptist Association, the local association serving thirty-three churches in Vermont and two in New Hampshire.
Dewey said the association only had twenty-three churches when he and Kathie came to Vermont. Today, the association's largest Baptist church has some four hundred members, while the smallest has as few as eight.
"We've had a lot of mission construction teams to come in and help us do construction on our church buildings," Dewey said. "The Calef House is an economical place where they can come, get a good night's sleep, good food, and a fresh shower. We've had about eighty teams come to Vermont this year, fifty just from North Carolina. God is using these teams to evangelize the state.
"One of the main ways teams coming to Vermont have helped us is in the increase of salvations we've seen. More churches have been started, and the number of ministries has increased. They have assisted our churches in our work and encouraged our pastors."
The Aikens also serve the Green Mountain association and its director of missions in the equipping and encouraging of the association's churches and pastors. They also work as "church strengtheners" for Washington Baptist, which involves the training, mentoring, and encouragement of new Christians.
What do the Aikens feel like they've accomplished during their five years of service as MSCs in Vermont?
"I want to know that the people of Washington, Vermont, had an opportunity to know Jesus Christ as Savior," says Kathie. "I want our churches in this state to grow and to reach people for Jesus. I want to teach and mentor young Christians and help them grow. I want to continue to be able to accommodate our mission teams at The Calef House. I want us to be able to encourage our pastors and their wives."
Dewey said he wants Southern Baptists to understand that "we are here because God, first of all, called us here. Southern Baptists need to understand that New England is an area that needs the Gospel. And we need workers.
"I pray that Southern Baptists will continue to give, not only of their time but of their financial resources," he added. "We still have so many towns and villages in Vermont that do not have a Gospel-preaching church at all."
Why should Southern Baptists give to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering?
"The money that comes to Vermont under the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering supports our director of missions, our church planters, and our new church plants," said Dewey. "It's all about a compassion to win people to Jesus Christ and to spread the Gospel here in Vermont."
When will the Aikens return to their native North Carolina, their three grown children, and five grandchildren?
"We just signed up for two more years," said Kathie. "After that, I'm not sure. We'll return to North Carolina one day, probably to the Brevard area near Asheville. We're mountain people.
"But right now in our lives, I can't imagine doing anything else," she says. "It's so absolutely fulfilling to know you're right smack in the middle of what He wants you to be doing. We cherish that.
"We have friends and family in North Carolina who still ask us, 'When are you going to come to your senses and come home?' Or they ask, 'When are you going to get over this mid-life crisis?' Dewey and I just look at them. They just don't get it. We pray that one day they will. No matter. We've never had a satisfaction or a joy like we have here today. We are exactly where we're supposed to be," Kathie said.
Week of Prayer
for North American Missions
Date: March 2-9, 2008
Annie Armstrong Easter Offering
for North American Missions
2008 Goal: $61 million
Mickey Noah is a staff writer with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.