Rev. Kim Gladden was first drawn to Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in Buffalo, N.Y., when she read about their new in-church donut shop in a local newspaper. "A donut shop in the atrium?" she curiously asked herself, “What kind of church is this?”
She met former pastor, Dr. Karl Eastlack, and his wife, Anita, and in the course of their new friendship, the couple invited Rev. Gladden to join the church’s staff. But doing so proved slightly challenging. At the time, Rev. Gladden was already a church-planter of Zion Quest Christian Fellowship. While she voluntarily led the congregation, she also worked full-time at a local university. Despite the busyness, she still felt led to join the ministry at Eastern Hills.
Rev. Gladden quit her university job and signed on as the pastor of global missions and small groups at Eastern Hills. That was six years ago. Today, an ordained minister of The Wesleyan Church, she continues on staff at Eastern Hills and volunteers also as lead pastor of Zion Quest, now an affiliate of The Wesleyan Church.
Rev. Gladden led a team of five to Sri Lanka in August. [In the team photo, she is last on the right.] Sri Lanka is an island nation located to the southeast of India and is predominantly a Buddhist country. The Wesleyan work there is among the Sinhalese-speaking majority, which, according to Operation World, is a "least-reached" people group (less than 2% reached).
There are seven Wesleyan churches in Sri Lanka under the overall leadership of an indigenous Sri Lankan couple who have been trained in Wesleyan institutions in Australia and the U.S. The New York team’s visit held various purposes: partnership in running a family camp, seminars for men and women, and helping lead worship times.
“We couldn't understand the Sinhalese language, of course, but we recognized the spirit of what was being said and sung, and we felt right at home when our Sri Lankan friends were leading worship,” said Rev. Gladden.
Perhaps the most important role the team played was encouraging the leaders and believers in a country where Christians frequently experience persecution for their faith. Rev. Gladden said the team made such a strong connection with the Sri Lankan believers that they actually "felt like family."
“As a pastor of a small congregation, I know how meaningful it is when someone comes to walk alongside you, to encourages you and your congregation,” said Kim. “We tried to do that while in Sri Lanka–to help carry their spiritual burden for a moment and point to the continued hope and joy in Christ.”
The group of five–consisting of individuals from both Zion Quest and Eastern Hills–was impacted by the vibrancy of the young church, and noted that cultural barriers can be overcome by the love of Christ. Yet, the realities of the persecuted church in Sri Lanka became very evident when they learned (after their return) that some Wesleyan pastors had been beaten while the team was in the country.
“My faith was deepened,” said Debbie Yager, another team member. “In America, we may casually worship God at times, without needing to fear repercussions. But many of our brothers and sisters in other countries do not have that liberty. My heart was deeply imprinted by these passionate Christians who cherish their faith, commitment, and love of God so much that they are willing to risk the consequences.”
Rev. Gladden plans to pray for the Sri Lankans and hopes to return to Sri Lanka one day to encourage the believers there once again.