Diaspora

Opinion: Ohio pastor finds unexpected calling in Nicaragua – The Cincinnati Enquirer

Long after Nicaragua fell off most Americans’ radar screens, the Rev. James A. Setser of southwest Ohio zeroed in on the Central American nation as the focus of his mission work.
“Get out of your comfort zone,” he recently urged some of his congregants at Abundant Life Tabernacle, based in Germantown, city of some 5,000 people. That’s more than 3,000 miles from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, in the impoverished, tumult-plagued country that was a major concern of the 1980s Ronald Reagan administration.
Setser, 66, has been out of his comfort zone for decades, after growing up on a farm in the bucolic Butler County village of Jacksonburg.
“I never had aspirations to be in a foreign country at all,” he reflected in a recent interview. “This is the plan the Lord had for me.”
He had long planned to be in Christian ministry, but while taking classes at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, he met professors who were former U.S. officials and agents who told him about life behind the Soviet Iron Curtain.
He was “mesmerized” by stories of daring people who smuggled Bibles and other forbidden literature to support underground ministries. He soon joined them, while working around thuggish secret police in Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia to help Christian ministries.
His overseas adventures paused as he built his own ministry and family of four in Germantown; resuming when he was asked to help a mission in Guatemala. That eventually led him to Nicaragua, site of a 1980s superpower proxy civil war that saw the leftist Sandinistas topple the right-wing Somoza regime. Lt. Col. Oliver North’s diversion of arms-for-hostages funds from the Middle East to anti-Sandinista rebels led to the Iran-Contra scandal that dogged Reagan’s second term. Then the Soviet Union fell, and Nicaragua largely faded from U.S. consciousness.
Why did Setser go there years later?
“These people had nothing,” he said, explaining his work there began after he was told about 25 ministers who were preaching from lean-tos and empty lots. They had no vehicles, little or no education. Some had been on opposite sides during the civil wars.
“They said all we want is for our country to have peace and to help our people,” he recounted.
Setser hired a Nicaraguan attorney with some connections; she incorporated Abundant Life Missions International and helped gain official Nicaraguan government recognition as a mission in 2005 headquartered in Matagalpa.
Setser began fundraising and a big boost came when a U.S. church disbanded and donated proceeds from sales of the property.
One church was built in Nicaragua the first year, two in the second, “then it just snowballed” in the country of 6.2 million people.
More than 60 churches now, with a 51-acre Missionary Training Center and Youth Camp and a “House of Refuge” for children who are orphaned or who need shelter. It grew out of heartbreaking stories such as of the 11-year-old girl who tried to kill herself after her drug-addicted mother sex-trafficked her. 
The old Sandinista guerrilla leader, now-President Daniel Ortega, rules with his wife Rosario Murillo serving as vice president. Relations with the United States remain strained, although the U.S. government has provided hurricane relief and COVID-19 assistance. Meanwhile, China has been steadily increasing its role in the country.
The State Department put Nicaragua on “Special Watch” in 2020 for “having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedoms,” although most hostility has been directed at Catholics, the traditionally dominant church.
Setser steers clear from any politics, and adds that Nicaragua doesn’t have the “lawlessness” that has led to kidnappings of Christian missionaries in nearby Haiti. 
Setser, whose once-frequent visits have been hampered by the pandemic, now is “training this next generation so this will carry on when I’m not around.”
And he will have completed a calling he never expected to have.
Dan Sewell, retired from daily journalism after 44 years, is a member of The Enquirer board of contributors who used to ride the school bus with Jim Setser to Edgewood High School in Trenton.

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