In a few short minutes, the boys would be roused from their slumber. Cecil Eshelman woke early to spend time in Bible study and prayer. Living in the sandhills of North Carolina was a long way from California and traveling with a Christian troupe of actors. He had never imagined he would be serving as a Chief at Cameron Boys Camp. He only knew he was where God wanted him to be.
Sitting on the edge of his bunk, he raised his eyes from scripture. His mouth moved, but no words came out. He gazed on a set of prayer cards showing the faces of people who lived in Russia, and he began to weep.
“The tears were uncontrollable,” Eshelman remembers. “It was beyond what I could understand. I looked into the eyes of these people and my heart was broken.”
Although Eshelman says he never felt called to missions before coming to Camp, he grew up immersed in missions. His paternal grandparents were missionaries to Africa for eighteen years, and he remembers sitting at his grandmother’s feet as she told stories about the African natives and their work in a mysterious and faraway land.
“The stories captured my imagination,” he says. “Not just stories about their work, but the stories about how God revealed Himself as they served.”
One story was about Eshelman’s father who was born in Africa. The mission compound was near a quarry and it was not uncommon to be startled by dynamite explosions. As a young boy, his father and boyhood friends discovered some discarded blasting caps.
Wanting to make them explode, his father took a stone and struck a cap. The detonation crushed the stone and pieces of rock and metal from the cap shredded the boy’s hand. His parents rushed him to the doctor. The doctor did all that he could, but in the end, he wrapped the deformed hand and sent him and his family home.
“Grandma told me how she knelt and prayed into the evening for my dad,” Eshelman recounts. “She said she woke to the sun streaming through the window. The next thing she saw was my dad standing in the doorway with his unwrapped hand held high. He said, ‘Look Mama, Jesus healed my hand –– no scars!’”
Eshelman learned from his grandma that bad things can happen, but in all things, “God can take care of it.”
Living in the wilderness was easy for him when he first arrived at Camp in 1989. He was an Eagle Scout, and he and his family spent many vacations and getaway weekends hiking and camping in the wilderness. The other Chiefs were impressed when he demonstrated his prowess in cooking over an open fire and his skills in packing a backpack.
“I was prepared to live in the woods,” Eshelman says. “How I was to manage a group of hurting boys was the challenge.”
The novice Chief found direction from then Camp director Paul Daley. Daley pointed Eshelman toward developing relationships with the campers. He fully embraced the group dynamic and with training and learned processes, he began to feel he was impacting the boys’ lives.
“The ‘wow’ of my experience as a Chief was when I saw lives changed,” he says.
Eshelman stepped on Russian soil for the first time on vacation from Cameron Boys Camp. It was a short mission experience, but it changed his life. “From that time on, I felt a very strong call to missions.”
Cecil Eshelman soon began to dream of returning. In 1994, after three and a half years at Cameron Boys Camp, he turned his full attention to serving in Russia.
“My life changed,” Eshelman recalls. “God brings things about in the right time and brings you to the right places.”
Being a Chief helped prepare Eshelman for the mission field. “I learned to think on my feet. You learn to assess situations quickly and solve problems at Camp. You plan and think ahead. Living in the woods helps toughen you. What were hardships for some of my fellow missionaries were not hardships for me.”
Eshelman’s life turned another corner when he met a Russian young lady who would be his interpreter. He says of all the interpreters he has partnered with in his work in Russia, Tonya is the best. He was not only taken with her skills, he was smitten by her. The couple married in 1996.
Cecil and Tonya Eshelman would not only join their hearts, but together they would serve as missionaries in Russia. Tonya came to a saving faith in Jesus a few years before the couple was married –– she was the first member in her family to come to Christ. Today, they have three children — Timothy, 21; Vera, 19; and Diana, 18. The Eshelmans are in the United States on furlough.
Besides their pastoral responsibilities in Russia, the couple work closely training foster care families and promoting adoptions.
“We have seen the hearts of the Russian people change as God has changed the culture in my country,” Tonya says. “Families are welcoming orphans and foster children into their homes as government reforms are put into place.”
Children in orphanages were believed to be defective. Unable to be placed with families, they became adults with little understanding of family or how to be a parents for their children. Many of those children ended back in the state-run child welfare system.
“We are working with single moms who lived in orphanages by helping them learn how to be successful parents,” Cecil says. “Churches in Russia have accepted the responsibility to love the children and strengthen families — it has become a Christian movement.”
Now, Cecil Eshelman has his own stories of how a mighty God reveals Himself.
Are you servant-minded? Are you seeking a mission career opportunity? Baptist Children's Homes is committed to providing only the highest quality of care for children and families We look for people who feel called. Learn more at www.bchfamily.org/careers
Article written by Jim Edminson, Charity & Children Editor