Fiona Steward developed a burden for France during her studies there as part of a French degree. The Lord subsequently confirmed His call to the student ministry in Bordeaux through a placement while she was studying at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (2001-2004). She then spent a year working among students for the Heath Evangelical Church. In November 2005 she was sent out to Bordeaux by her home church, ‘Great Whyte Baptist’ in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire under the auspices of UFM Worldwide and in association with the Grace Baptist Mission.
Reaching the secular French has always been a conundrum. They are so far away from the gospel; they have no desire to listen. But reaching students opens the door into French society and 2010-2011 saw some changes and breakthroughs in our approach as we considered how we could encourage students to want to listen.
From the ends of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been a refuge for me, a strong tower from the enemy. I will abide in your tabernacle forever; I will trust in the shelter of your wings. Psalm 61:2-4
I wonder if there is a truth more comforting than to know that God is our refuge. To know that coming to God is like coming home to a very safe place of complete protection and rest. As I was reading Psalm 56 recently, I was struck by verse 9: ‘For this I know, that God is for me’ and thought – that is all the refuge I need!
A New Chapter
What a refuge God has been over the last 8 years and in all the twists and turns before I returned to the UK on March 3rd to begin my six month sabbatical. It has taken some readjusting but I’m so grateful for this time to rest, reflect and study. When I said goodbye to the students and church in Bordeaux, some of you picked up that I did it with a sense that the Lord was leading me away from Bordeaux permanently. At the time I was still looking to the Lord for confirmation so I trust you will appreciate that I was not able to share this openly until I was certain, and I hope this won’t come as too much of a surprise. The decision to take a sabbatical came before and is separate from my decision to leave permanently, even though they have both converged in providence. It is such a huge and painful decision which I have had to consider and pray about over a period of time. The Lord led me step by step and has graciously given such peace and confirmation regarding this. I love the students in Bordeaux so much that I remember telling the Lord that I didn’t want to leave. It broke my heart, but He gently showed me that it was time to let go. The last few years in the student work have been so encouraging, which has made it harder still, but it is the Lord who calls and I must trust and follow where He leads. Other factors have contributed to this decision. The first is the conviction over some time that the Lord is leading me away from student work to women’s work in a UK church context. The second are the constant demands of running the student work without a permanent full time team or a strong church basis, which made it unsustainable long-term. The Lord brought me to the end of myself many times in the last few years to show me that He is the only refuge in whom I can trust: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” 2 Corinthians 1:9
The thing that overwhelms me most when I look back over the last 8 years is a sense of absolute privilege. I feel indebted to you all who have upheld me in more ways than you can know and have been the means of so many answers to prayer. Thank you for investing in the lives of these students. I truly trust that we will rejoice in eternity over fruit that was reaped through these years of sowing. The Lord will continue His work in the lives of these precious students.
It is also difficult to know how to thank you all, firstly those with whom I have worked with on the field. Many thanks go to Carol Liddiard who started the student ministry in Bordeaux and passed the work onto me during my second year on her retirement. She taught me so much about prayer, faithfulness and trust in God and His Word. Next the other UFM missionaries working in Bordeaux; the Daveys, the Griffins and the Mitchells. Also the church family who really loved and encouraged me, in particular the Foucachons and the Mezergues amongst others. Then the short-termers, without whom I could not have continued the work: Liz Gaillard, David Wagner, Simon Farewell, Nicky Clayton-Stead, Abigail Matthews, Grace Pooley, Hannah Wright and Emily Harle, along with others whose help was so valuable. Last but certainly not least, a huge thank you to all the dear students who have brought me so much joy as well as tears! I have loved this work with all my heart. To God be all the praise!
I’d just like to share with you a few things which stand out from the student ministry in Bordeaux:
· The conversion of several Chinese, but in particular Sen, who I had the joy of witnessing become a Christian, attend church, be baptized and eventually lead the Chinese group and bring others to faith.
· The gift of the short-termers and especially our times of prayer.
· Watching God answer prayer in astounding ways.
· The joy of sharing the gospel with students for the first time.
· The first evangelistic Bible study, on demand, from a group of French students.
· The birth of our “Café Philo” and a café being provided more than once – against the odds.
· Watching Christian students grow in Christ-likeness through the Word and service.
· The great cost but greater privilege of ministry: ‘So death is at work in us, but life in you.’ 2 Cor. 4:12
· The overwhelming grace and faithfulness of God through all my mistakes and weakness.
My burden for France remains, but at this stage I know it is right and important for me to stay in the UK and work from within a local church context. The Heath Evangelical Church in Cardiff have invited me to be their women’s worker. I hope to commence late 2014 with an open-ended two year contract. I worked for the Heath in 2004/5, primarily with international students, before beginning my ministry in Bordeaux.
What about Bordeaux?
I am extremely thankful to Grace Pooley and Emily Harle for pouring themselves into the student ministry during my period of sabbatical. Their time in Bordeaux will come to an end in June. James Hammond, a Canadian missionary with GBM, is preparing to go to Bordeaux this August conditional to receiving his visa. He trained at LTS and feels called to be a pastor in France, but first of all he wants to gain experience in student work. So I will be returning to Bordeaux in September to help him settle, introduce him to some students and tie up some loose ends. Although it will not be possible for the student work to continue in the same structure as before, there will be opportunities for James, once he has adapted to life in Bordeaux, to continue outreach on a more low-key/one-to-one basis. He also hopes to link up with the GBU (Christian Union) with whom we have had a good relationship: including weekly prayer and joint events together. He will also get involved in a local church. If you would like to receive James’ prayer letter please contact him at: email@example.com.
I feel a mixture of sadness and joy as I write this letter. Sadness because it is the end of a beautiful chapter, but joy because the Lord is working His purposes out in our lives and in His universal plan of salvation. We are just a tiny part of that.
Many thanks go to UFM & GBM for making my ministry in Bordeaux possible and for their support & hard work behind the scenes. It goes without saying that the tireless work of my prayer letter secretary, Anne Newman has been vital to the ministry. Thank you Anne! I wish I could have visited and thanked each one of you individually. When I meet people who say they have prayed for me, it makes me realize something of how much God cares for me and how precious it is to be part of God’s family. I feel so loved and blessed by you and I wish I could give you something of that back. Most of all I pray that we would know Christ more. And if this means storms and difficulties, I pray they would make us cling to our wonderful Refuge and know that He is better than life itself.
Fiona (September 2014)
See Fiona’s website (in French!)