NORWICH, Conn. – No one understands doing whatever it takes to reach people for Christ better than Shaun Pillay. Born and raised in South Africa, he and his wife, Deshni, arrived in the United States in 2007 as newlyweds. Having sold their possessions to finance their move, they brought only two pieces of luggage, a Bible, their wedding album and a resolve to follow God’s call wherever it led them.
“It was a jump, a crazy leap,” Pillay explains. “Everything was so different here but Jesus remained the same and He saw us through. Every morning when we woke up we knew that this is where God wanted us to be.”
Shaun and Deshni Pillay are among five North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 4-11, 2012, and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® (AAEO). The offering helps fund Pillay and other missionaries like him who are serving for Southern Baptists in North America. With a goal of $70 million, this year’s AAEO theme is “Whatever It Takes.”
Photo by Peter Field Peck
NAMB missionary Shaun Pillay, right, pastor of Cornerstone International Church in Norwich, Conn., prays with Tim Cable, a new believer and member of Cornerstone.
Pillay was called to missions at a missions conference in Birmingham, England. “I remember one speaker saying, ‘We need you to come to Europe and America. Our churches are dying,’” Pillay said. He was surprised when he heard of the need for missionaries in the United States. Even more surprising was the fact that he knew God was calling him to be one of them.
“I never thought of it to be honest,” Pillay said. “We hear of all that God is doing in Africa and other places like that, but it’s sad to see what’s going on in places like Europe and America with regards to church. When I heard about the need, I just felt God telling me, ‘Shaun, you go.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Lord, I will go wherever you send.’”
God sent Pillay and his wife to the small town of Norwich, Conn., a far cry from the home they’d known in South Africa. With a population of 40,000, the city is full of history and diversity. Once marked by money and influence, it is now equally marked by economic struggle, homelessness and drug use.
“We looked at the homeless population, the drug problems in Norwich and just knew there needed to be a light in the city,” Pillay says.
“We had compassion as Jesus did, looking on the multitudes and seeing them just waiting like sheep without a shepherd.”
Since their arrival, this has been the goal of Shaun and Deshni: to lead and love the people of the community just as Christ does. They started Cornerstone International Church in an effort to give the “sheep” in the community of Norwich a place to gather and grow in Christ. And it has been from the moment they opened the doors.
David Holland arrived at Cornerstone International Church as a carpet cleaner, hired to help spruce up the building before the church’s launch on Easter 2007. Notoriously known as a drug dealer and in trouble with the law in Norwich, David was worn and searching when he arrived to work at Cornerstone that day. Never one to pass up an opportunity to build a relationship, Shaun stayed with David as he worked and spent the afternoon talking and sharing with him, ultimately inviting him to Cornerstone’s launch that Sunday.
“David was in the congregation that Easter Sunday when we launched our church,” recalls Pillay. “As we were wrapping up, he came forward and accepted Jesus Christ. It was a huge moment in his life and the life of our church.”
Just last year Holland became the first deacon at Cornerstone International Church and is working alongside Pillay to reach the city of Norwich for the name of Christ. “God put Shaun right there in my life,” Holland says, “and he’s seen me through so much. He’s a good man, a man of God. And everybody I introduce him to just falls in love with him and his passion for the people and the city of Norwich.”
Holland’s transformation has not only been a testimony to the power of God but also the influence of Pillay in the city. Weeks after Holland’s salvation, the two ran into a group of policemen who knew Holland as the drug dealer and troublemaker he was before his conversion to Christianity. They hadn’t seen him in months and Holland took the opportunity to explain his absence from the legal system as the direct result of his newfound presence in Christ.
“The men were obviously moved,” Pillay recalls. “They said, ‘I wish all the drug dealers in the city would come to know your Jesus if this is the result.’ They knew for sure that David was a changed man.”
For Pillay, this exchange was just a small step in changing not just one life, but also the entire city of Norwich. Though the work is slow, he recognizes that every conversation, every seed planted is a victory in the name of Christ and looks forward to more stories like Holland’s in the years to come.
The Pillays have set up “proclamation points” around the city – locations where they can share the gospel and study the Bible with Norwich residents. Shaun’s most recent Bible study meets in a local barbershop owned by a former drug dealer. One by one, Jesus is transforming the city of Norwich.
“Whatever it takes to reach these people, whether it’s leaving our homeland or going to a place where we don’t know anybody,” Pillay said. “Whatever it takes to share the love of Jesus Christ, that is what we’re here to do.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Sara Shelton is a writer for the North American Mission Board. Visit anniearmstrong.com or BRnow.org for more resources about the offering.) Related stories NAMB deploys for gains in church planting