Not long ago, a young man approached missionary Sara Risser and said, "I'm Walter. Do you remember me?"
"Oh, dear!" she answered in dismay. Risser is a 38-year veteran missionary to Ecuador.
"I was a patient who came to your camp," Walter said. "I came to know the Lord there. I help the church now, and I go around and visit all the people."
Sara Risser smiles when she says, "I've just been a jack of all trades." That pretty well describes her multi-faceted work in the smallest country in the rugged Andes Mountain highlands. Ecuador is about the size of the U.S. state of Nevada. Quito, the modern capital city, is home to about 1.5 million of Ecuador's 13 million population.
Risser has been a nurse, founded a Christian day school, coordinated construction teams, started a prison ministry, founded a workshop to provide wheelchairs for the disabled, helped establish a market for Ecuadoran artisans to sell their work, been an advocate for the elderly, and managed the Christian camp where Walter was saved.
A native of Bellaire, Pennsylvania, Sara first felt God's call to Ecuador while still a high school student. She heard Marg Saint and Elizabeth Elliott, widows of missionaries killed in 1956 by Ecuador's Auca Indians, speak at a missions conference at a church in Lancaster.
She went to Ecuador with HCJB Radio in 1964 and began her missionary nursing career at Vozandes Hospital in Quito. Now, almost four decades later Risser is working under the umbrella of Global Outreach International, and there are literally countless Walters in the wake of the energetic Risser's far-reaching witness.
Branching Out in Ministry
Her career as a nurse branched out, and she became a key figure in establishing programs for community health development. She has trained village health care workers in four of Ecuador's 20 provinces. Those workers go into the government and/or private systems, so they become self-sustaining, not dependent on financial support from missions groups.
Another outreach from her hospital days was a prison ministry which she conducted for a decade. "We developed a program for kids of inmates at the big men's prison," she says. "We had close to a hundred kids every Sunday, and we taught them God's Word. We built houses behind the prison for some of the families."
The Christian camp was another natural extension of her nursing career. "At the camp, I started a program for the disabled," she says. "We built a house so we could have up to ten disabled people there."
She says it's hard to secure services for the disabled because local churches are not prepared for them -- in physical facilities or spiritual programs. Risser is working to create an awareness of the disabled particularly in evangelical churches.
One of her current ministries is a wheelchair workshop. "We work with Hope Haven out of Rock City, Iowa," Risser says. "They collect wheel chairs and ship them to nine countries." She opened a shop to refurbish and build wheelchairs, thus providing the service as well as employment for workers. In line with health care services, Risser also helps support a clinic and optical shop in Quito. And she has coordinated and worked with countless medical mission teams.
Scattered all across Ecuador are churches which have benefited from construction teams that Risser helps coordinate. On the way to a construction project in Quito, she warns, "It's on the side of a mountain."
She's right. The small two-story Christian and Missionary Alliance Church will have a sanctuary downstairs and Sunday school classrooms upstairs. From the road, worshipers will descend a steep hill on foot to the church, then make the climb back up after worship.
A recent addition to her list of ministries is her work with a group of 65 Quito artists and craftsmen. Risser is helping establish a network to market their products internationally. As usual, the Gospel underlines her motivation.
"Santiago, the president of the arts group, just came to know the Lord," Sara says. She looks forward to the arrival of Rod and Deborah Bond, a Corinth, Mississippi, couple who will soon be moving to Ecuador. Deborah, an artist herself, will be working with the Quito group.
Betania (Bethany) is a home for the elderly that has recently come to Sara's attention, and she is working diligently to secure work teams, financial support, staff and improved facilities. "I'd like to find a good missionary couple to run this ministry," she says.
Being Successful in Missions
After four decades, Sara Risser easily identifies the keys for success as a missionary. First is strength -- physical, spiritual and mental. "You have to have good bases in all of those," she says.
Second, she believes missionaries must view their role as that of facilitator, not provider. "What I do is make contacts so they can function," she explains. "Then I can just step back and help out a little bit."
Third, Risser says missionaries must not try to maintain "ownership" of their projects, but transfer that ownership to the ones they serve. "That's what we need to look at, to make sure Ecuadorans are able to continue with the work we have begun. I've worked myself out of a job many times. That's always my goal."
Sara Risser looks back over her years and says fondly, "I've had a wonderful, wonderful time here in Ecuador. It's been exciting because the Lord has allowed me to do a little bit of everything."
"I want to retire now, but the people won't let me retire," she says with a little laugh. "And the Lord continues to give me good health."
She says "Retire!" with her lips, but her heart still says "Go!" So she continues -- for all the Walters still in her future.
By Albert H. Lee