Hearing from God
by Keri Vermeulen
Justine Johnston has a way of engaging a person in conversation. It’s not just her ability to talk, or her pausing to listen to others, but it’s also in her eyes, which are as much expressing her own heart as they are looking at your own.
She smiles and laughs, often. Home in the Lower Mainland for a visit in early summer from Biarritz, France, she sits down over coffee, in the bright kitchen of her parents’ Cloverdale area home, to share the European missionary journey God has set her on. As she shares, the listener just might get swept away on the journey, too. Her story of following God’s call is exciting, adventurous and even a little risky – and it all started, and continues, with hearing from God.
Listening and responding to God has taken her throughout Europe, including Losone, Switzerland, Lesvos, Greece, and Biarritz, in the south of France. That might sound like some far off lifestyle of the rich and famous, but for Johnston, it’s a life of humble service and simply living in assurance that God speaks directly to her.
Today, Johnston is building women’s ministry in Europe, from a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base in Biarritz, reaching out to women caught up in human trafficking and the sex trade. She is also fresh from a six-week stint on the Greek island of Lesvos, where about 60 per cent of Syrian refugees land, after taking a harrowing boat ride across the waters from Turkey. It all began about 10 years ago, when a friend began to tell her about her experience serving with YWAM in New York. “All my friends were doing it at the time and I said, ‘I’m not doing YWAM, because everyone else is doing it.”
Months later, though, Johnston found herself still thinking about her friends returning from missions trips. “I was so captivated with the stories everyone was sharing, and my heart just kind of struck. I was praying and asking the Lord what He wanted to do with my life because, at 21, I was assistant manager at Starbucks and I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. So the Lord just placed in my heart ‘Why don’t you do what your friends are doing?’ They had all come back with so much growth in their lives and in their hearts and in their perspective of the world.”
After first contacting YWAM Greece, a country she had been praying for since she was 18, Johnston was directed to Losone, Switzerland, where she undertook a one-year Discipleship Training School at YWAM, then continued on as staff for another two years. It was there that God placed on her heart the desire to reach out to women. It was also around that time, 2006/07, that the impact that human trafficking was having on women around the globe began to be understood. “Women were being taken and sold into the sex trade. I started getting this anger inside of me.”
Johnston says she felt a passion to God’s call to speak life into women, especially because she had suffered so much hurt and rejection of her own as a girl.
She tried starting something for women in Switzerland, but doors weren’t opening. She came home and began studying counselling at University of Fraser Valley. During this time, she ran into a friend from her old youth group days at church. The friend listened to Johnston’s heart for serving and helping women, and told her about Mercy Ministries Canada, a place that poured Christian love onto women suffering with eating disorders, self harm and the aftermath of sexual abuse. Johnston felt an immediate tug on her heart. She pursued Mercy Ministries and was hired, becoming a support worker, and later office manager (she had by that time begun studying business at Kwantlen).
But still, she felt God calling her to France. “I knew that I was being called to back to Europe and specifically to France.” But there were some practical issues that Johnston had serious questions about – like money. How could she ever afford to go and live in France? Again, God answered, saying to her “Why don’t you think you can get to France when I have called you there?”
As she recounts her story, the number of times she confidently shares about “hearing from God” or “the Lord told me” is remarkable – and entirely believable. She attributes her faith in a God who speaks to us, to her mom, who taught her from a young age that we can hear from Him. “My mom raised us from an early age to believe that God speaks, and also in the ways that He speaks – an audible word, or a sense from the Holy Spirit, or from other people.” Later, her training at YWAM devoted large portions of teaching to discovering how God speaks. “They really teach to make the time and the space to invite the Holy Spirit to speak and to show the revelation of God in the areas you’re longing to hear Him in. Make the space.”
Indeed, this is a core value of teaching at YWAM’s Discipleship Training School. YWAM founder Loren Cunningham writes in his book Is That You God? Hearing the Voice of God: “Hearing God is not all that difficult. If we know the Lord, we have already heard His voice – after all it was the inner leading that brought us to Him in the first place. But we can hear His voice and still miss His best if we don’t keep on listening. After the what of guidance comes the when and how.”
For Johnston, 10 years of hearing God call her to Europe, and specifically France, began to come to fruition when she connected with an old YWAM friend last summer, and found there was an open and welcoming space for her to serve as long as she wanted, doing outreach and evangelism to the thousands of young adults partying their lives away on the beaches there. Her worry about finances began to fade after her brother gave her a car to sell, and that paid for her flight. Everything began falling into place. “When I was in Biarritz, the Lord just said, ‘Justine, now is the time.
France is now.’ So it wasn’t when I was 40, 50 or retired. It was right now, at 30 years old, much sooner than I had expected. He had been building everything I needed inside since I left Switzerland at 23.”
Johnston made a proposal to YWAM to come back a develop a women’s ministry, that will spread from France to reach all corners of Europe, aiding women trapped in the darkness of the sex trade and human trafficking. The idea is to pour out love and teach practical skills to help them move into a healthy, safe place in life. Skills such as resume building, parenting along with trauma counselling and plugging them into a church community. YWAM, seeing her heart, and her experience, accepted Johnston’s proposal. She came home last year to fund-raise and organize and then headed back to Europe in February, 2016 – this time for good. God had another surprise for Johnson. As soon as she landed back in France, YWAM asked her to head to Lesvos Greece, and put in six weeks coordinating teams helping refugees. Johnston readily agreed – after all, Greece was the country God had put on her heart to pray for since she was a teenager.
Today, she is back serving in Biarritz. Reaching out to the party set in France is no easy task. Johnston and her team are busy all summer, from 11 pm to 7 am, meeting with and talking to young people, often sitting dazed and drunk on park benches, and finding that after the party, their lives are empty. And Johnston, gifted in that beautiful way to draw people into conversation, is just the person to meet them.
For more information about YWAM, or Justine Johnston’s missionary call to Europe, check out: