Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

Rich and Laurie Sheriff are lifelong Pennsylvania residents, but they are ready to leave the Keystone State for cross-cultural collaboration in Concepción, Chile. They are preparing to plant a bilingual church at the invitation of Chilean Free Methodists who have become their friends on several mission trips to the South American nation.

“You couldn’t write this kind of a story, or you couldn’t put these pieces together, because they are … a God story. They’re not Rich’s story. They’re not Laurie’s story. It’s what He’s doing,” Rich said in an interview with Brett Heintzman for the Light + Life Podcast. “We were invited by the superintendent of the Chilean conference, Patricio Alvial. He had a vision in the ’80s when he was in seminary in Concepción that he wanted a bilingual church in Concepción.”

Concepción is a diverse community known as “the university city” because it is home to multiple institutions of higher learning. Many residents know or want to learn English. Spanish, of course, is the dominant language although Chilean Spanish reportedly “can seem like a completely different language and one that even other native Spanish speakers admit to finding tricky.”

“God definitely has a sense of humor calling us to a Spanish country,” said Laurie, who noted that Chileans are known to speak more rapidly than Spanish speakers in other countries. “We do OK. We can get along going to the grocery store, but not much more than that.”

Along with trying to master the complexities of Chilean Spanish, the Sheriffs are saying goodbye to family members in the United States and giving up their longtime professional identities. Laurie has worked for three decades as a nurse in long-term care and hospice settings. Along with serving from 2010 to 2019 as the lead pastor of the Harbor Free Methodist Church in Warren, Pennsylvania, Rich has worked for more than 30 years in the environmental field.

The couple spent the beginning of the summer in Colorado where they participated in a monthlong Mission Training International program. They are scheduled to move to Chile in August, but the Chilean borders are currently closed because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

“We’re praying that the borders will open, because August would be a perfect time to start launching a ministry. That is spring in Chile, and spring’s a good time to start new ministries and get things up and running before the whole summer season hits,” Laurie said.

An International Heart

Rich said that even before he and Laurie came to salvation, God placed in them a heart for being overseas. “We didn’t know that’s what it was obviously beforehand, but we look back now and see that’s what He was doing. He was building in us the things that would give us a heart for people overseas.”

Their path to ministry included periods of wandering.

“I grew up in the church and then walked away as a mid-teen and didn’t come back for 21 years,” said Rich, who added that the moment He eventually returned to the church, “I could see He had placed a desire in me not just to travel but to be a part of what was happening in the world. I look and I see now that day when I finally, really met Jesus instead of just having people tell me about Him, He said to me, ‘You’re going to be my man, and you’re going to speak for me.’”

Laurie said she “grew up in a very Roman Catholic family. Unfortunately, in the world that I was in, people that did mission were nuns, and I knew I wasn’t being called to an unmarried life.”

The couple married in 2003 and within a few years, they were leading teams for disaster relief, street ministry and construction projects in the United States. They eventually joined international mission trips.

“God was building in us this desire to share His Word in different ways than just out of the normal church setting,” Rich said. “As we would go places, we would say, ‘OK, Lord is this the place? Would this be the time?’ And we would be in Europe or we would be in Africa or South America, and we just never heard Him say, ‘This is the people.’”

Then the couple went to Chile in 2013 to fill vacancies on a short-term Free Methodist World Missions team. The couple returned to the same Chilean church the following year with their son, Quincy. In 2015, they were invited to attend the Chilean Annual Conference and for Rich to preach during the dedication service of a church they had served on the previous trips.

While at lunch following the church dedication, the Sheriffs met Superintendent Alvial who asked them to return to the country with missions teams. Three years later, Alvial invited them to move to the country for fulltime ministry.

“We told him we would continue to pray for a year because we were bringing back another team in 2019. We said, ‘We’ll give you an answer when we come back next year,’” Rich recalled. “We came back in 2019 and said, ‘yes,’ and he then told us this story about the vision for a bilingual church that he’d had back in the ’80s.”

The superintendent told Rich and Laurie that when he met them in 2015 after the church dedication, God said, “There’s your couple for your church.” Rich added that Alvial “continued to pray for three more years before he approached us with God’s plan, and then we all prayed for another year.”

Laurie said that before FMWM had approved their application to become fulltime missionaries, the Chilean people had already found them a house.

“We’re so ready to be there that Rich and I both retired at the end of last year. Now we’re waiting for the borders to open,” Laurie said.

“I think the tension was that we couldn’t believe we were so sure,” Rich said. “It seemed unnatural that it would be as easy as it was, and I say that even in the midst of that it has been really, really hard.”

Rich added that he and Laurie “have really embraced this idea that God wants a people from every nation.” He said “nation” doesn’t just mean national borders because there are different people groups within each country.

“One of the things that we’ve had shown to us by the folks in Chile is that there are people groups there that you don’t picture when you say Concepción, Chile,” Rich said. “There are many English speakers already there or people who want to speak English. There’s lots of immigration from other parts of South America and Central America, and so you get this picture that there are lots of people there who are currently unreached.”

Many people want to be in an environment where English is spoken, and that includes in worship.

Missionaries are sometimes accused of colonization of other countries. In contrast, the Sheriffs want to learn from Chileans.

“We would not be the colonizers. We’ll be definitely the lesser-equipped or lesser-capable of people who are doing this church plant,” Laurie said.

“We stand to learn far more from them than what they can learn from us,” Rich said.

“Another part of this cross-cultural collaboration is what Paul had to say to the Philippians when he said, ‘We have joined in both the giving and receiving,’” said Rich, referencing Philippians 4. “We don’t want to just receive from our supporting churches, individuals, businesses and so on. We want to give back.”

Rich noted that technology allows additional ways to give that Paul didn’t have. Missionaries can participate in church services via Zoom. Christians in Chile can receive prayer requests from U.S. churches and pray for them, and then the Chileans can receive reports of how prayers were answered.

“When that makes God that much more real to the Chileans with us, and it makes His power and their power in prayer that much more real, wow, that’s collaboration,” Rich said.

The couple has shared their vision with at least 45 different U.S. churches since January 2020. Their first year in Chile is fully funded, and they are now raising support for the second year of their two-year commitment.

Along with appreciation for their U.S. supporters, the Sheriffs expressed gratitude for the efforts of Chilean Free Methodists. For example, a professional fisherman in Chile let them know he would always provide them with fish.

“We have tremendous support. They have found us a home to rent very economically. They’ve actually done a lot in providing some of the basics,” Rich said.

Laurie said their Chilean landlords, Richard and Mirabelle, have already purchased a new kitchen table for them along with firewood for the Sheriffs’ first Chilean winter. “They have literally thought of everything to make us comfortable.”

Health Challenges

In their December 2020 newsletter, the Sheriffs noted that the majority of the year had “been filled with setbacks and adversity.” While the world battled the COVID-19 pandemic, Laurie faced other health challenges.

She received a breast cancer diagnosis in February 2020, one month before the couple had planned an exploratory visit to Chile. Laurie said she would have delayed treatment until after the trip, but the borders closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic, so she went ahead and had cancer surgery.

“It was caught very early, but I had triple-negative breast cancer, which is a very aggressive kind of cancer,” Laurie said in a Light + Life interview apart from the podcast. “Everyone was happy we caught it as early as we did because it would have been a quite different story if I would have waited.”

After Laurie received a mammogram in which she tested negative for cancer, she was hospitalized in October 2020 for severe stomach pain, nausea and vomiting and was told she had a perforated viscus.

“Rich had gotten on the phone and made a lot of phone calls, and people were praying immediately, and someone was given a word at the Youngsville [Pennsylvania] church that if it was a perforation, it would be healed supernaturally,” she said. “The doctor was so convinced it was a perforation. It had all of the signs of a perforation … and they could not find a perforation. My lab work was almost 100 percent normal by the next day.”

She still felt sick for a while and had another episode in November, but then the situation improved dramatically.

“I had scopes in December, and the gastroenterologist said I don’t even have to have another colonoscopy for 10 years, which is amazing. There was absolutely nothing wrong,” she said. “God healed it all.”

Prayer and Support

One prayer request for the Sheriffs is for Chile to open its borders to allow them to enter the country. Laurie also requested prayer “that our minds would be flexible enough to learn a new language and a new culture in a timely fashion.”

To learn more about the Sheriffs or to provide financial support, click here to visit their page on the FMWM website.


Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.