We're going on mission to the Indian Ocean

When Ryan and Lynne Verghese married, it was with an understanding that they were both open to going on mission to serve God’s people somewhere.

“There’s this phrase that we used at Sydney Uni – The Less Reached and the Less Resourced. So our conversation was to try to serve the less reached and the less-resourced, which might be going to a different part of Sydney, a different part of Australia, a different part of the world,” explains Lynne during a late night Zoom session after the couple’s three small kids are in bed.

Ryan adds: “I was thinking, ‘I want to go as far as I can for as long as I can,’ and if the world didn’t work, then a different part of Australia.”

It was with this open mindset that the Indian-born Sydney accountant and the ethnically Chinese, US-born primary school teacher approached the Church Missionary Society CMS NSW & ACT.

“We said, ‘You know our cultural background and church background, take it and tell us what roles there are that we could potentially fill,’” Ryan explains.

“They gave us a list of seven and we prayed through that and they were really excited about Seychelles. And over time we got more and more excited about it just because they’ve been asking for help for a while. And it felt like it fit with us in terms of Seychelles being really diverse culturally. There are not a lot of places, other than the big cities, where there’s a lot of multiculturalism. So when we found there’s this little place in Africa where all the people look like our kids, that was appealing.”

“When we found there’s this little place in Africa where all the people look like our kids, that was appealing.” –  Ryan Verghese

At CMS Summer School in Katoomba in January, Ryan joked that they weren’t going to Seychelles as white saviours – “We’re not even white!” he said to general laughter.

The tourist mecca of Seychelles – off the east coast of Africa – has a multiethnic population. The islands have never had their own indigenous people, being colonised by France and then Britain. Its ethnic diversity today derives in part from the historic dumping of slaves by the British after slavery was abolished.

“The British decided they would plunk the slaves on Seychelles, so it’s not a cohesive group of people – it’s bits and pieces,” comments Peter Tasker, a former general secretary of CMS NSW & ACT who forged the first links between the Sydney Anglican Diocese and the Indian Ocean Diocese when he was the Anglican Bishop of Georges River in Sydney.

Tasker says he was not looking to develop relationships in the Indian Ocean, but the Lord unexpectedly put the opportunity in front of him. He is thrilled that Ryan and Lynne have agreed to fill a vacancy from a diocese in Seychelles for a senior minister that it has been seeking to fill for years.

Adam and Avril Friend with their son.

He is also delighted that Adam and Avril Friend are working towards going with CMS to Madagascar next year.

These moves are building on several years of sending French-speaking minister Al Lukabyo, Rector of St James Anglican Croydon, in Sydney’s inner west, to teach the Moore College Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC) to students in Madagascar.

So why has CMS decided to get involved with the Indian Ocean Diocese? It seems a little counter-intuitive for an agency with established links in East Africa, South America and Asia. Tasker says CMS took some persuading.

Even Tasker, when he began visiting churches overseas, naturally thought of developing relationships where CMS already had links. But his focus changed during a lengthy bishop’s consecration service in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2008 when he sat next to Ian Ernest, then the Anglican bishop for Mauritius and the primate for the Indian Ocean Province – Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar, which together have a population of nearly 30 million.

“We were sitting chatting while choirs were coming and going for six hours,” recalls Peter.

During those chats, Ian told Peter that when he had become a bishop a few years earlier, he had visited Sabah and noticed a real spiritual life there. When he asked Sabah’s Archbishop Yong Ping Chung about it, he credited and recommended the use of Moore College’s Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC), which is designed to create a biblically aware laity.

“This was two or three years before I met him. And he had no link to Sydney nor us to him. So under God, that was the link sitting there,” says Peter.

“Under God, that was the link sitting there.” – Peter Tasker

When he visited East Africa the following year, he went via Mauritius and discovered that about 40 middle-aged lay people had started studying the PTC in English.

“The preference would’ve been French, but English was still fine. So they started and then the next year I went by to see how they were going, and they were saying to me, ‘This has changed our whole life.’” For the first time, he explains, they saw that the Bible was not just random stories but the unfolding of God’s saving plan from Genesis to Revelation.

For Ryan and Lynne, going to Seychelles with CMS feels “part of that whole relationship, part of that history, part of us standing with evangelicals around the world to say ‘We want to help you guys too. There are good resources and good training. Let’s learn from each other, and let’s be a resource.’

“It felt like a good fit. They were asking for help and we could be a blessing to God’s people, not breaking down the doors and trying to set up something from scratch but actually going somewhere where they’ve been asking for years. We got to a place where it was obvious that that was the place we should go.”

Understanding how the Bible fits together in God’s big story was a key moment in Ryan’s Christian journey. Though he had attended church in India, Kuwait and New Zealand growing up, the preaching didn’t feel relevant to his life.

“My brother and I were mostly napping at church or playing noughts and crosses or hangman or something,” he confesses.

After the family came to Sydney, Ryan reluctantly went along to Quakers Hill Anglican after much prodding from his parents, and it was a revelation.

“I went along and it was like night and day. The Bible reading connected to the passage and I heard someone take the passage really seriously and go deep, but also think about what it meant for the people there and how it connects to contemporary stuff,” he explains.

“There were 40 people probably and at least five people were in late high school or early uni, and then a few people older, and a few people significantly older. So just even seeing five people my age, I was like, ‘that’s crazy.’ And they all took it seriously – they all were convinced it was true and convinced that God was speaking and is able to speak to them through his word. And I was like, ‘this is interesting.’”

“They all were convinced it was true and convinced that God was speaking.” – Ryan Verghese

At Sydney Uni, he connected with a small group of 12 people and discovered they were part of a faculty of 40 Christians.

“Then I went to an annual conference [with the Evangelical Union] and it was 500 young Christians. All that just made me see that people are taking this seriously. And again, the teaching was really rich and deep and spoke relevantly to us as students. So it was all coming together.

“I remember distinctly hearing a sermon and the penny dropping when I realised it wasn’t just moral stories, it was a free gift and it was eternal life. And, I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, I want to live this Christian life and not just go along to things, but I want to actually follow Jesus.’

“That was April or May of 2008 and I haven’t turned back since. I’ve kept following Jesus and growing in my love and knowledge of him and serving his people and trying to reach the lost.”

“I realised it wasn’t just moral stories, it was a free gift and it was eternal life.” – Ryan Verghese

Lynne, whom he met in his first year of uni through the Christian group on campus, comes from a non-Christian family and became a Christian through a youth group at St Thomas’ North Sydney.

“I definitely remember the night that we looked at Ephesians Chapter 2 at youth group. And grace was clearly explained and I remember things clicking into place,” she says.

“But the first time I declared that I was a Christian to anyone was on MSN instant messenger on the internet. A friend of a friend asked me if I was a Christian; I must have been in year 8. And I said, ‘no one’s ever asked me before, but yes, I am.’ That was the first time I said, ‘I’m a Christian.’

“I was at St. Thomas’ for many years. So through high school, through uni, for the first few years of work or so. I owe a great debt of my Christian formation to that church and the people.”

Ryan and Lynne expected to be in Seychelles in mid-January, but their departure has been delayed, allowing them a welcome pause in their life.

“It’s not what we would’ve planned, but it’s certainly been God’s kindness,” Lynne says.

“Being humble will hopefully mean that we are gracious when things are confusing and strange.” – Lynne Verghese

Asked for her prayer points, she offers: “I think that we would be humble. One of the beautiful things that came out of Summer School so clearly was the CMS value of being cross-shaped. I think it is just a priority in terms of how we want to go out and how we want to live every day. Being humble means that we can accept grace from Jesus – we can accept our weaknesses and we can rest in his strength.

“And I think that will sustain us. Being humble will hopefully mean that we are gracious when things are confusing and strange and Seychellois culture feels difficult. A posture of humility will help us come as learners and not puffed-up experts. We are standing on the shoulders of many other people, on lots of ministry that’s already been forged. We’re not going to go and start a ministry from scratch. The church has been there for hundreds of years. We’re not the solution to their church life – there’s stuff that we’re going to learn; there’s stuff that we’re going to make mistakes on.

“So we’re asking God for humble trust that Christ is building his church. We’re thankful that he has been doing that in Seychelles before us and are asking that he’d use whatever few talents we have for the sake of his kingdom.

“Our hope is that  everyone we come across in Seychelles comes away wanting to know Jesus more – less of us and more of him.”