Globally Engaged in Outreach (GEO) missionary Melissa Karges is the focus of April’s Missionary Profile. Melissa has served in Sopron, Hungary for the past three years. Her role is to build relationships through English. In Melissa’s work, this means teaching English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) at Berzsenyi Dániel Evangélikus Gimnázium (Líceum) (Daniel Berzsenyi Lutheran School) in Sopron.
Melissa is from a Southern California family, but grew up in Northern Nevada. Both of her parents were trained as Lutheran school teachers and both attended then Christ College Irvine (now Concordia University Irvine). Melissa has three older brothers who also attended Concordia University, Irvine.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Melissa graduated from Concordia University, Irvine in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Behavioral Science. She minored in Missiology and also went through the pre-deaconess program. Her minors required her to take a lot of theology classes and Melissa says that they have “allowed me to ask a lot of questions about my own faith and Lutheran theology that have helped me to answer the questions of others now.” In her major, she has an emphasis in Anthropology, which she says, “taught me so much about different ways of understanding the world and how to ask better questions to get more meaningful answers about why people behave the way they do within their cultural contexts.”
With these interconnected focuses in her undergraduate degree, Melissa brings many strengths to the field from her education. With a strong understanding of Lutheran theology, as well as how to interpret and explore new cultures and peoples, Melissa can better evaluate the people around her and how she can best share the Gospel with them.
Melissa’s journey into missionary work developed over time. As a child, she was always fascinated with foreign people and cultures. In high school, her father suggested that mission work might be a good fit for her. Melissa says, “I thought, ‘I love all things foreign and I love Jesus. That would be the best job in the world!’ I had never actually been out of the USA at that point though, so it was at the end of my first year at Concordia, when I went on my first mission trip (to Hungary, of all places) that it was a calling confirmed in my heart.”
Melissa’s supervisor, David Fiala (Project Coordinator for Central Europe) says,
Melissa’s current ministry in Hungary is built on several short-term visits she made while a student at CUI. Transitioning from her role as a short-term team member into being a GEO missionary was a natural progression. I believe that she has already seen the positive outcome of her long term investment in relationship building for the sake of sharing the Gospel with Hungarian youth. Many of the relationships she has with students began during her short-term team experiences. This continuity has led to a greater level of trust which in turn has allowed for more opportunities for Melissa to bear witness to the Gospel and lead discipleship activities.
Melissa’s family has been supportive of her transition to her role as a GEO Missionary living in Hungary. She says, “Having a family with the same understanding of faith is such a wonderful thing working as a missionary because they understand that this is a calling that I have, and even though it can be hard to be apart like we are, they know that I am doing the work that God has prepared for me.”
The support of her family sustains Melissa from across the miles as she lives and works in Sopron, where she encountered some initial “culture shock.” As with any new culture, says Melissa, there are certain challenges that come from simply not knowing the cultural rules. She notes: “you have to learn to work with people who learned to think and act in a way that is different from what you learned. They play by a different set of rules, and oftentimes you don’t know what the rules are until you break them.” For instance, one thing that caught Melissa off guard was “the way that alcohol is viewed here. When I first came here, I was barely 22, which meant I had one year in my life up to that point where I could drink alcohol. For my students, most of them had been drinking for years. When and how it’s used and by whom…it’s all very different and sometimes I still have a hard time understanding.”
However, Melissa also shares that some of the other smaller cultural differences do tend to fade with time on the field. Now that she has been in Hungary for three years, she says that while some things do still surprise her, she can usually chuckle about them soon afterward.
As noted, Melissa serves as an EFL teacher. Melissa teaches many different classes and levels at the high school, which allow her to interact with many of the students. Her job as a teacher is full-time and there are 250+ students whom she teaches, while she interacts in other ways with many more. She works with the students in the classroom, but she is also able to build relationships further by participating in other activities like service days, class trips, or school religion “camps.” Melissa says of teaching English that it
is something we already have a natural advantage at because it is our native language. It is something you can do without knowing the language of the country you’re in, and you can do it all over the world because, the reality is, people need to speak English. Working in a Lutheran school, I have the opportunity to bring Christ into lessons and discussions. In American Lutheran schools, it would be perfectly normal for a teacher to incorporate faith into every subject they teach, but here it is very unusual to bring the subject of religion into an English classroom. But even if I weren’t at a religious school, people are so often curious about your thoughts and opinions on various subjects because you’re different from them, and that creates more opportunities for sharing Christ as well. When faith is a part of your life, it affects everything else; you can’t help but share it.
One challenge of Melissa’s role is how many different classes she teaches. She teaches an average of about 20 different groups each year, which means 20 different lesson plans. However, a bigger challenge is the way in which many people in Hungary, including Melissa’s students, view their Christian faith. Melissa explains:
In Hungary, more than 90% of the population identifies with a Christian denomination and has been baptized into it. For them, this is what it means to be Christian. As a result, they see very little need for making faith an active part of their lives, and most people really have no idea what having a relationship with Jesus looks like…[Therefore,] opportunities [to share the Gospel] are nearly always mixed. For the most part, I approach situations knowing that the majority of the people I’m going to be dealing with do not have a relationship with Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
To help make the connections needed to continue to proclaim the Gospel to her students and more, Melissa also is involved in many activities outside of the classroom:
In addition to teaching school, I try to be involved at the dormitory where I live. They have devotions for the students there twice a week, and I always go. It’s a good time to connect with the kids there. I’ve also helped lead a few devotions in the last two years. I have tried different after school groups for kids. This year I have a small group of girls I meet with every week to talk about life and God. Sarah [Berta-Somogyi, a fellow GEO living in Győr, Hungary] and I also have this cooperation between our students and students in Aszód to meet together, and there is usually an activity with them every month. When there are American teams coming through to do camps, I usually connect with them and try to help out where I can. This year I have started coaching the school volleyball team, which is just another way to be involved with students, develop a different relationship with them, and have a chance to interact in a way that is different from inside the classroom.
While Melissa’s main role may be as a teacher, her dedication does not end at the end of each school day or even with the activities listed above. And that dedication to the proclamation of the Gospel to all with whom she comes in contact does bear fruit! One of Melissa’s favorite stories is of a young man she met when she came as a short-term team volunteer in 2010. After an English camp in 2012, this young man “came to the realization that he had in fact been saved by God.” Melissa’s friendship with the young man has continued to this day and she says, “I have watched him grow in faith in SO many ways! It has been incredible to see, and to have the chance to be a part of his journey! He was very recently accepted to Concordia University Irvine, and that is truly a dream come true!”
Melissa says that one of the main ways to connect with teens and young adults is just to “be willing to joke with them, be honest with them, and care about the things they care about.” She uses the Internet and social media also to help connect with them and guide them by posting things that let them know that she cares about them.
After working with this age group and in this call for the past three years, one of the main themes that Melissa sees emerging is that “God already has a plan; He is at work in ways that we can’t see. But when we ask to be a part of what He’s doing, He will most CERTAINLY oblige. He has planned for us to be a part of His work long in advance; sometimes all we have to do is show up.” Praise be to God that Melissa is living and working in Hungary, reaching those who have heard but have forgotten, and those that have never heard, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for them!
Fun Facts about Melissa:
- Melissa loves to travel (especially for the food). She has set a goal of seeing 20 foreign countries before she turns 25 this July. She has visited: Mexico, Hungary, Austria, Scotland, England, Wales, Norway, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Malta. She wants to see at least 3 more countries before her birthday, and that would put her over her goal!
- Melissa loves to run, and often combines this interest with her travel interest. She often travels to run 10k races in different countries.
- Melissa wants to try some longer distance races next.
- Pray for Melissa’s continued service, as well as for her students and all those with whom she shares the Gospel.
- Support Melissa with your financial gifts.
- Read more about a retreat for high school students Melissa helped to organize.
- Interested in serving as a GEO like Melissa? Check out the GEO link to learn more. Contact David Fiala (firstname.lastname@example.org) for questions about service opportunities in Central Europe, both with short-term teams or as a GEO.
Tags: Concordia University Irvine, David Fiala, EFL, game night, GEO missionary, God at work, high school, Hungary, Melissa Karges, Missionary profiles, retreat, Sarah Berta-Somogyi, Sopron, young adults, youth