EAST ASIA – Aaron Juergens* had the mountains etched on his heart long before he reached the Himalayas.
“When I was 1 year old, my dad moved my family out to Colorado to be near the mountains where there was more stuff to do,” he said.
For the next 25 years, Juergens was cold, wet, dirty – and happy.
“We did pretty much everything outdoors you could do when I was a kid, and after high school I started climbing ‘fourteeners,’” he said of Colorado’s 54 peaks that soar over 14,000 feet. “I would climb three mountains a week. It got to the point where I was never home.”
He froze his fingers enough times that he never again forgot gloves. He earned a college degree in mapmaking. He learned weather patterns, orientation and knot tying.
Photo by Kelvin Joseph
Eating fresh bread, International Mission Board journeyman Aaron Juergens (name changed), attempts a conversation with a homeowner in the Himalayas. Juergens is in East Asia, using his Colorado mountaineering background mapping villages hidden by the mountains.
It was ordained entertainment.
“God had that planned out,” Juergens said. “I understand exactly why I have been brought up and raised the way I am. God knew who I was when I was a little kid and He knew who I’d be today.”
Today, Juergens hikes the “roof of the world,” battling freezing temperatures, adapting inadequate maps and running from lightning storms.
His suffering is countered by the rewards of reaching people who have never heard the gospel.
“Not all people live in the cities where you can take a taxi to their front door,” Juergens said. “People live in places that we would never dream of living in but the fact is they live there. That’s where they’re put and they’re not coming to us. We have to go to them.”
He and his teammates do just that. It’s a tough job even for Juergens. People get sick from the altitude and the food. Travel is grueling. The spiritual warfare is intense.
John Costa*, Juergens’ team leader, said it takes five days to reach a village from the city.
“It’s a multiple-hour bus ride into the mountains and then you have to spend a couple of days in a base town acclimatizing before you can start to hike or mountain bike out,” Costa said.
The ridges to climb are between 10,000 and 15,000 feet, interspersed with valleys. Vicious dogs and giant oxen, yaks, are not uncommon. The air is thin and cold.
But the struggles are inherent in a trek to an unreached people who are, Costa said, simply hard to reach.
“There are a lot of people out there that if we want to actually walk through their front door and share the gospel with them, we’re going to have to use our feet or a bike,” he said. “And the obstacles aren’t just geographic – they’re physical, spiritual and political.”
Photo by Kelvin Joseph
International Mission Board journeyman Aaron Juergens (name changed) points to a location he mapped by GPS while trekking in East Asia. He gathers information to guide local church leaders sharing the gospel. “We can equip them to go out and finish this task,” Juergens said. “If they don’t know where they are, they can’t go.”
Each unreached people group has its own challenges – language, hostile terrain, security or accessibility, Juergens said.
“If you don’t like the cold or you don’t like inclement weather or you’re afraid to get tired and sweat or if you’re afraid your makeup’s going to run or you don’t like how your hair looks when you’re tired, this isn’t the job for you,” Juergens said. “Climbing mountains isn’t easy. They don’t climb themselves.”
And mountains can be deadly.
Severe altitude sickness hit one team member on a ridge recently and it took 14 hours to evacuate him. Costa and Juergens took him down the mountain in a trip that first utilized villagers’ horses, then a borrowed car, and then a hired car to reach the hospital.
“We had to pull off a rescue,” Costa said. “We take great care not to let that happen. We push to the edge, but it’s a calculated risk. We are compelled to reach these people, so we want to put significant effort into it.”
The mountains can be unpredictable and certain issues can make the terrain difficult to access, including the denial of permits, civil unrest and travel restrictions. In some areas, foreigners aren’t allowed.
“We are seeing more questioning than ever before but the gospel is advancing more than ever,” Costa said, noting that the spiritual warfare is producing spiritual fruit. “The two go hand in hand.”
Progress is slow.
Costa has been working among the people of the Himalayas for more than 10 years and has seen three people accept Jesus Christ.
“We would love to see it go faster. We would love to say there have already been churches planted but we are only just starting to see tangible fruit,” he said, noting more than a decade of arduous hiking and biking, sickness and language learning.
“This for us is a long-haul effort to reach these people,” Costa said.
It’s something Grace Westrick*, a summer worker, said was difficult to grasp.
“You spend so much time and effort getting out to the people, and then once you get there, their hearts are so closed it’s crazy,” she said.
“But there’s something about being the ones to pray from a mountaintop in Jesus’ name over a valley that has long been the enemy’s territory,” she said. “If the one who has been defeated can be here, why not the Victor?”
Jesus is revealing Himself, Costa said.
“We’ve seen a spike in people coming to know Christ and I think that’s indicative of what God is doing,” he said.
A new believer requesting baptism will be the first to receive the rite in front of his family and community.
“We are facing more obstacles than we ever have before, but this is no surprise. This believer represents the very first person who wants to be baptized in this place. Satan’s not just going to give that up easily,” Costa said.
For Juergens, that’s no reason to quit, but encouragement to persevere, even in sickness and freezing temperatures atop a mountain.
“I’m up there, wearing six jackets and three gloves and five socks and I really just kind of want to sit in a bed,” he said. “But then you think about those people (who haven’t heard yet). If we turn around, who is going to come next? I mean, how many people have turned around? The world is getting smaller. The day is coming when everybody is going to have no excuse whatsoever for not hearing. There’s no excuse for turning back.
“We keep going.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer and editor in Europe.)