Month: November 2017





By Loretta Fulton

Irena Bytyqi didn’t believe in the resurrection until she experienced it.

Her husband, Burim Bytyqi, found it hard to deny God, although he said he was an atheist.

They took different paths, but both ended up in the same place, as Christian missionaries, thanks to meeting during a training session for Youth With a Mission, (YWAM), an interdenominational missions organization with 1,100 locations worldwide.

Today, Burim and Irena work out of the Tyler office. They were in Abilene Nov. 21 to present the program at the weekly chapel service at McMurry University. The two have been missionaries for 15 years, Irena said, and have been in the United States three years.

Irena is from Albania and Burim is a native of Kosovo. They both speak Albanian and English. In her early life, Irena lived under communist rule in Albania.

“We never really heard about God,” Irena said. “This was the environment I grew up in.”

When Irena was 10, communism failed and the country opened up to outsiders. When she was 12, a group of Christians came to her hometown and stayed two months. They didn’t proselytize, they just played games with the children, leaving Irena to wonder why.

The day before they left, they visited her home with a translator and gave her a New Testament and Christian literature in her native Albanian.

“I was so excited to receive a book from my new friends,” Irena said.

But then they left and Irena didn’t have anyone to process the information with or to ask questions of. When she read about the resurrection of Jesus, she was skeptical.

“That’s a good story” was her reaction.

Then one day she took a bus to church and as she was leaving after the service to get  back onto the bus, she was hit by a car.

“I remembered that I only whispered, ‘Jesus,'” she said.

Her father was incredulous. He told her she should have died from the trauma and that no one could believe she was alive. Then she believed in the resurrection.

“That was the day and the time,” Irena said, “that I decided to give my life to Jesus.”

Burim also experienced communism while growing up in Kosovo, but people had the freedom to practice religion. His family was nominally Muslim, he said. But he struggled with questions about his purpose, his goal and where he was going.

In 1998-99, Kosovo was at war with Serbia and that prompted more questions for Burim. Why were people killing each other? He hated the fighting and he hated life. He considered himself an atheist, but had a realization.

“I was having a hard time denying God’s existence,” he said.

After the war ended, missionaries came to Kosovo, and Burim’s cousin became a Christian. She knew Burim was looking for purpose and answers to his questions. She gave him a copy of the Gospel of John.

“It’s life-changing,” he said. “I read it, and I ran out of questions.”

Burim was 15 at the time. His life started having meaning. He understood that Jesus didn’t promise an easy life, only that he would be on the journey with Burim and other believers.

Burim’s life was so positively affected by his conversion to Christianity that he became a missionary with YWAM. He urged McMurry students and others at the chapel service to share their love of Christ as well.

“If we really know him, “Burim said, “let’s share him.”







By Loretta Fulton

“Happy Thanksgiving! Jesus loves you!

Long lines of hungry diners were greeted with well wishes and a blessing Thursday at the sixth annual Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Robert and Amy Graven in their restaurant on South 27th Street, Lucy’s Big Burgers.

Instead of big burgers, hundreds of guests feasted on the traditional Thanksgiving fare, including pies cooked up by women who are part of Missy Denard’s ministry, New Beginnings.

The women, who have been incarcerated, live in homes sponsored by New Beginnings. The owners of Lucy’s, Robert and Amy Graven, employ several of the women.

Robert Graven and friends smoked 60 turkeys for Thursday’s feast. Lucy’s employees helped with the fixings–dressing, green, beans, rolls, gravy, all the traditional dishes. And volunteers with New Beginnings contributed pies.

“This is our deal,” said Randa Russell, a graduate of the New Beginnings program and now a peer recovery coach at Serenity House.

Robert Graven said the inspiration for the dinner came from his wife, Amy. She grew up in a large family that didn’t have much money. In addition to the large family, her brother would bring home friends from the neighborhood to eat with them.

“Her mom made sure to feed those boys, too,” Graven said.

Amy suggested that she and Robert and their family have Thanksgiving together either the week before or after the traditional day. On Thanksgiving Day, they would host a community dinner.

The first year, 175 people showed up to dine on 14 turkeys, Robert Graven said, and 40 volunteers helped. Now, 600-plus diners isn’t unusual, with 60 turkeys and pans and pans of fixings prepared by volunteers.

Graven said 60 percent of the diners who attend can’t afford a meal and the other 40 percent come because they have no family in town and don’t want to eat alone. Many leave donations. Paying for the meal is something the Graven’s never worry about.

“God has recouped 80 percent of our expenses every year,” Graven said.







By Loretta Fulton

Just days before Thanksgiving, Santa’s elves were already busy in Abilene, getting Operation Christmas Child boxes packed with goodies and ready to ship.

First Baptist Church and Wylie United Methodist Church served as dropoff locations for churches and organizations in the Abilene area. On Dec. 15 volunteers will tow trailers loaded with packed boxes to a sorting warehouse in Grapevine.

There, thousands of boxes will be opened, inspected, resealed, and packed into shipping crates for distribution to children in 100 countries. Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief agency.

Joy Daffern, a member of First Baptist Church, has been a volunteer for several years. She helped with the collection process at First Baptist and will join about a half-dozen other volunteers from the church for the trip to Grapevine.

“We have so much fun,” she said.

At the warehouse in Grapevine, all the boxes will be opened and inspected to make sure no prohibited items are shipped. The boxes are filled will all sorts of fun stuff, from toys to school supplies, to clothing, hygiene items, and cards offering Christmas wishes.

People get innovative, Daffern said, with their packing, including stuffing a deflated soccer ball and air pump into the small space. Seeing all those donations and thinking about the people who did the shopping and packing brought a smile to Daffern’s face.

“You just see the love that people have put into them,” she said.

Each year, Sunday School classes, organizations, families and individuals participate in Operation Christmas Child. This year, children receiving the boxes also will get a booklet titled, “The Greatest Journey.” The children will be invited to go to a local church and participate in a 12-week study based on the booklet.

Samaritan’s Purse website,, tells the story of the beginnings of Operation Christmas Child: “The program was started in the United Kingdom in 1990 by Dave and Jill Cooke. Three years after this beginning, the Wales-based shoebox gift project merged in a partnership with Samaritan’s Purse, allowing us to share 20 years of expertise in relief and aid work with the project, and expand the reach of the shoebox gifts to more than 28,000 children that year. Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child has delivered gift-filled shoeboxes to over 146 million children in more than 100 countries.”






Click on link below to see Allison Ball, a Hardin-Simmons University physical therapy student, in a promotional video for Joni & Friends, a foundation to raise money and awareness about disabilities. Ball also was invited to speak to donors to the foundation in October.
Click on link below to learn more about funding a Hardin-Simmons University mission trip to Peru.

By Loretta Fulton

Appearing in a fundraising video for a foundation that advocates for people with disabilities and speaking to a donor meeting in California came naturally to Allison Ball, a second-year student in the Hardin-Simmons University physical therapy program.

She knew firsthand what she was talking about. Ball’s brother suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car wreck when he was younger. Now a student a McLennan Community College, he is doing well. But the experience left Ball with a desire to help people in similar situations, so it was no wonder that she was the perfect person to be an advocate.

“A lot of it, I could relate to,” Ball said.

Ball, from Arlington, was invited in October to fly with her husband to California to talk to donors to Joni & Friends, a foundation started by Joni Eareckson Tada, who in 1967 suffered a diving injury that left her a quadriplegic. In 2010, she suffered another setback when she was diagnosed with breast cancer but today still keeps an active ministry schedule.

The Hardin-Simmons Department of Physical Therapy partners with Joni & Friends to offer a course titled, “Beyond Suffering.” According to the Joni & Friends website, people with disabilities are considered one of the world’s largest under-represented groups. One of the primary goals of the “Beyond Suffering” is to address this issue by preparing leaders in ministry, education, medicine and science to become involved in this life-changing ministry.

The course shows what disability ministry looks like, Ball said. One thing she learned is that most churches are not prepared to welcome people with disabilities.

“That was  a surprise to me,” she said.

“Beyond Suffering” is taught is six one-hour sessions in the Hardin-Simmons program. The course ended in June and was followed by students participating in a family camp near Houston and then in a mission trip to Peru.

In October, Ball was invited to speak to the Joni & Friends donors in California about that trip and to appear in a promotional video. The summer trip to Peru was a first for Ball. She had been on a mission trip to Louisiana as a high school student but had never been on a trip like the one to Peru. That kind of opportunity was a draw for her when deciding which physical therapy school to attend.

“That was one of the big reasons I chose Hardin-Simmons,” she said.

Ball, who earned her bachelor’s degree at Baylor University, is focusing on neuro-developmental pediatrics in physical therapy school and plans a career working with children suffering such disabilities as Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy.

The trip to Peru was a first for Ball, but definitely not a last. Ball learned how to incorporate ministry with her work and to practice what she had learned in the “Beyond Suffering” course, which focused on compassion and a bringing a positive perspective.

“You literally get to be the hands and feel of Jesus,” Ball said.







By Mike Patrick

Nancy and I decided to get away for a few days at Thanksgiving because of our busy schedules—her grading English papers at the university and me starting a new teaching series at the hospital. We chose simply to go with no specific plans other than to relax—read, watch movies, eat. We left Wednesday afternoon and managed the two hour drive in heavy holiday traffic with no difficulty.

mike patrick2014

Mike Patrick

Originally, we planned to go to a French restaurant that advertised having a Thanksgiving special, reservations required. I thought it might provide an enjoyable new experience especially with their reputation for pies! As time got closer, we both decided we really did not need to eat that much food. So we drove around the area to see what restaurants might stay open for the holiday. As expected, very few did. Luby’s had a long line out the door.

Of all places, we chose to eat at an IHOP. The hostess seated us and we began going through the menu deciding whether to eat breakfast or not for our Thanksgiving meal. Nancy decided on fish and I went for the chicken fried steak.

As we sat there, I noticed a family of six seated at a table toward the other end of the room. Based on appearances, they seemed to live on a pretty tight budget. The four children ranged in age from an infant in a stroller to about eight years old. The father wore a T-shirt, shorts, and a ball cap. The mother, hair slightly unkempt, seemed a little haggard. The older children acted very excited as the waitress brought their meals. I could tell eating out was not a normal experience for them—well behaved but very excited. They all enjoyed a big breakfast—pancakes, eggs, bacon, biscuit, sausage.

As I watched them, I could not help but think about my childhood when our family, also with four children, moved from Texas to Chicago. I know those were tough times for my parents who had both been in school the previous three years. For a while the six of us lived in a two-bedroom house. At times we did not have much to eat; but we always had a meal. On the trip to Chicago we checked out of the motel that first morning and ate breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

All of a sudden, with those memories came a flood of emotion.

I thought I would like to anonymously pay for this family’s meal. I asked my wife if she agreed, knowing she would because she is more giving than I. When Nancy looked at my face, she said, “You’re getting emotional aren’t you.” I had to lower my head as tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t speak. She asked, “What’s going on? I couldn’t speak. She added, “You’re thinking about your family aren’t you?” I couldn’t speak but nodded yes.

When I finally got my composure, I told our waitress that I wanted to pay for the other

family’s meal without them knowing who. She later brought me both tickets. When they finished their breakfast, the father asked for the bill. Their waitress told them that someone else had already taken care of it. He asked who and she simply pointed in the general direction of another section of the restaurant. One of the little boys asked, “What did they do, Daddy?”

The couple looked at each other with a degree of amazement. The father didn’t want to risk the waitress missing a tip, so he asked her if she could charge him a penny and then he could add a tip and put it on a credit card. They filed out of the door to their car and were gone.

Of all places, we had eaten Thanksgiving at IHOP. Of all places we were thankful to have eaten at IHOP.

Mike Patrick retired as Chaplain and Ministry Education Coordinator after 27 years at Hendrick Medical Center.