Vicki Lopez of Turlock found some interesting friends while online in a Yahoo Christian chat room. The Southern Baptist woman, 50, chatted with a Catholic priest in Sahiwal, Pakistan, and a Pentecostal minister in Ranny, India.
The priest was trying to set up a school in his town where education is costly and school supplies are almost nonexistent. The minister was caring for five orphans and wanted to take in more.
"We'd been talking online for something like nine months," said Lopez. "I'd been sharing prayer requests with my church (Turlock Community Fellowship). My pastor said, 'I think God wants you there.' Wow! I hadn't thought about that. They sent me. My job was just to look things over and get a feel for the needs there.
"We do a lot of missions giving. I know a lot of people think it's strange — why would Southern Baptists support the Catholic church? But to us, it doesn't matter."
Michael Wright, pastor of Turlock Community Fellowship, agreed.
"We're a very small fellowship, about 50 people," he said. "We use our funds to go to places like India. We've been to South Africa, Europe, Seoul, Korea. We go and try to understand what the needs are. If we can support them financially or go there and help them personally, that's what we do.
"We feel the churches in America are very narrow-sighted. People like Vicki who have gone on mission trips have a larger worldview. You hear such negative reports about places like Pakistan, India and Rwanda. But God is doing something in all that negativity. When a person gets in touch with that, it really changes them. It affects how they see life."
That's certainly true in Lopez's case. Her husband died nine years ago, her son is in the military in Afghanistan, and her son-in-law is in Iraq. Her youngest, a 17-year-old daughter, goes to Pitman High School. Despite the grief, anxiety and joy in her family life, it was the trip from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1 that brought her a new enthusiasm.
Her trip started in Sahiwal to visit the Rev. Samual George, a Catholic priest.
"I call him Sammy," said Lopez, a Spanish teacher at Franklin High School in Stockton. "There are about 90 Catholic families there, all in the middle of Muslims. I stayed with his family — his mother and father, his sister and brothers live there. They were wonderful.
"I went to Christmas Eve midnight Mass. It's a beautiful church there. When we rode up to the church, there were six soldiers with rifles. The government wants to protect them. There have been attacks on Christians in the past."
George started a school in September. Ten boxes of school supplies sent that month by the Turlock church showed up about three months later while Lopez was visiting.
On the night before she left, the family and friends gave her a party.
"They all gave me presents, which was amazing because they didn't even exchange gifts on Christmas," she said. "It was very touching. I know they don't have a lot of money."
She traveled next to Ranny, in southern India. She had been corresponding with pastor Binoy Joseph, 31. What she didn't know was that he was part of a larger family of Pentecostal ministers that led 16 churches started by Joseph's father.
"(Joseph) recently married, and they have five orphans in their home. They're extremely poor."
The people in the tropical area take a three-hour bus ride to get to a Pentecostal church, which has a three-hour service, followed by a three-hour bus ride home.
"They pray at home every morning and evening," Lopez said. "They're very devout. They're trying to start an orphanage, Grace Children's Home.
"They have to haul water from a well for the bathroom. They use firewood to cook. It's a tough life, very primitive there. But the guys wear western-style clothes when they go out. Their shirts and pants are ironed. They're incredible people."
In the churches, people sit on the floor, men on one side and women on the other.
"The music is great," Lopez said. "They use a lot of drums and bells. The songs are gorgeous."
Despite the poverty and the hard life, Lopez said, "I feel sorry for us (Americans). I think those people know more about life than we do. One thing that came to me was that we're always praying for (them) because we know Christians are always persecuted there.
"I told them they should be praying for us. They have their priorities straight. They have such good values. They know what's important in life and about people."
It was her first trip overseas, but perhaps not her last.
"I would really love to go back there. I've really thought about selling my house and moving there. I really have."
Contact Turlock Community Fellowship at 668-8898.