KENANSVILLE — She calls it a journey of faith.
But when Maggie Andre packed up her family and moved them 1,000 miles from their comfortable, middle-class life in the suburbs of London, Ontario, the loved ones she left behind had another word to describe it.
“They thought I was crazy,” remembered Andre.
For the new music pastor of Kenansville Baptist Church, the journey that would lead her to eastern North Carolina began when she was a young girl, listening to her father preach from the small wooden pews of their church in her native Portugal.
With a hint of her southwestern Europe homeland still resonant in her speech, Andre explained that she came to understand and respect the church not through her father’s sermons, but through the example he set at home. “What he preached on Sunday, he lived on Monday; I saw his faith in action,” said Andre. “It just made sense to me.”
From the beginning, music played an important part in her life. By the age of five, she was singing in the choir; ten years later, she was teaching the choir.
In 1987, when she was 14, Andre’s father received what he described as a “calling from God,” a calling that prompted the family to leave behind their homeland and settle in Canada. “We packed up our life in a single suitcase,” recalled Andre. “We had to start over completely; learn a whole new language.”
Andre remembers her mother reassuring her and her three siblings with words similar to those she would use 23 years later. “She told us, ‘I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but God will provide.”’
Growing up in the church, Andre continued to nurture her musical gifts. As she grew into adulthood and began raising a family of her own, her thoughts turned to a career as a music pastor.
Realizing there would be a limited demand for the job in London, Andre decided to send out resumes. To aid her job hunt, she performed a Google search using the words “Baptist jobs.” When the music pastor opening in Kenansville appeared on the screen, Andre said she made the decision to apply.
On January 23, 2009 she received an e-mail response from the church, which included a description of the area. “It said it was located in a small, picturesque little town,” said Andre.
After lengthy discussions with her husband, Dan, Andre decided to apply for the job. “We never really thought I would get it,” she remembered. “It just didn’t seem possible.”
After making the 15-hour drive for several interviews with church officials, Andre and her husband made the commitment to pull up stakes and test their fate in a country they’d visited only briefly. “After the first interview my husband told me this was going to be our home, because everyone at the church loved me,” she said.
The mother of two teenage boys and a 10-year-old girl, Andre, who was working with a pro-life organization and finishing up a degree in Christian studies, said their decision was far from simple. “We lived in a nice, suburban neighborhood. My husband had a good job working as a civil servant with the government. Plus, we lived within three miles of my parents, so we were leaving a lot behind.”
The support of her husband, said Andre, was crucial during this time. “He told me ‘If God wants you there, I won’t be the one to stop you.’”
The process of applying to come to the US, however, soon cast doubt on the family’s future. “Dealing with the government for anything takes a long time,” said Andre. Beginning with legal discussions in April 2010, Andre said she waited through eight months of background checks and questions before finally receiving confirmation that the US government had approved the move. Having already sold their house and resigned from their jobs, Andre said the news was more than welcome. “It was such a huge relief, you can’t imagine,” she stated emphatically.
On January 20 Andre and her family finally reached the destination of their yearlong journey, moving into their new home on Abner Phillips Road in Kenansville. “It was amazing culture shock,” said Andre. “We come from a city of 350,000, so this was a real change.”
Andre said the move has been especially difficult for her children. “It’s been very hard for them; they left all their friends behind.”
To add to the difficulties, Andre’s husband isn’t allowed to work for two years unless he can find a business willing to sponsor him.
“You must be very careful when you say ‘Here, I’m available, Lord. Place me where you want me,’” said Andre, smiling warily. “You better mean those words.”
Despite the hardships, Andre said she’s come to realize that small town life has its benefits as well. “People here are very welcoming; you get to know everybody. In a big city, you’re lucky if you know your next door neighbor.”
Avid campers, Andre said her family has enjoyed the more rural nature of their life in Duplin County. “It was amazing to look up and see real stars,” she recalled. “In the city, you don’t have that.”
Among other things, Andre said she has developed a keen appreciation of southern antebellum architecture and the rich history of the people and land of eastern North Carolina. Andre said she also enjoys living in the vicinity of the Atlantic Ocean. “I like that we share the same ocean as Portugal,” said Andre. “I believe water binds people.”
Andre said during her family’s brief stay in the states they’ve had the chance to visit Top Sail Island, Wilmington, and Myrtle Beach.
According to Andre, she’s also learned to appreciate the small pleasures found in her daily commute to work. “I’m a city girl, so I actually relish the mini-rush-hour traffic in Kenansville in the morning. Just two or three cars at the intersection and it’s like I’m back home.”
Beyond the day-to-day struggles, Andre said her work with the church is what truly sustains her. As the director of the 23-member Kenansville Baptist Church Choir as well as the churches Praise Team, Andre said she finds the work both challenging and fulfilling. “They’re very skilled, they have no problem learning new material, so they really keep me on my toes,” she stated.
One of the challenges Andre has set for herself is keeping the choirs repertoire fresh and relevant to both senior church members and young adults as well. “I try to mix some new music that’s more in tune with today’s generation along with some of the older hymns,” she remarked.
In order to maintain a balance between the modern and the traditional, Andre said she often rotates between Sunday services that feature old style, southern gospel and those that include worship songs from as recently as the 1990’s.
“Music is a tool to get closer to God,” said Andre. “I want people to see church as a fun place. My goal is for people to leave better off than when they came in.”
Andre said she had a chance to speak with the churches former choir director, Barbara Vestal, just before she passed away several weeks ago. “She was very kind to me,” said Andre.
The churches pastor, Michael Thompson, and the rest of the church staff have been pivotal in easing her into the new job, said Andre. “He’s like a father figure. I’m fortunate beyond comprehension: They’ve made me feel right at home.”
In addition to her music duties, Andre also organizes church events such as senior craft activities. She said she is working on plans to organize an adult singles night as well as a couple’s ministry. “Life is not over when you say ‘I do,” said Andre. “You can still have a happy marriage and be a Christian and have fun.”
As an example, Andre sites her own marriage, which she admits has at time been strained due to her church duties. “I love what I do so much that sometimes I don’t want to take a day off,” said Andre. “But I truly feel that this experience has only caused our relationship to grow.”
Andre admits that she’s far from perfect when it comes to matters of the spirit. “There are days when my faith is right down in the gutter,” she stated, wiping tears from her eyes. “I’ve spent many nights awake wondering about this decision; that’s just part of being human. But this is where God put us and you can’t worry all the time.”
While she remains humble about her work at the church, Andre speaks with pride about her family’s strength. “It takes guts to do what we did; most people wouldn’t do it unless there was more money or a raise involved. We took a big cut in pay.”
Andre said she is cleared to remain in the US through June 13, 2013, but hopes to stay longer. “Nothing’s easy with the US government,” she remarked.
Though the experience has tested her in many ways, Andre said she would happily do it again. “I love Canada, but there’s nothing like putting oneself out there in the care of God. This has been the biggest adventure.”
With a new office under construction at the church and a growing congregation to support her, Andre said she is satisfied her journey will unfold according to plan. “A life without faith is a life not worth living. As much as I miss my family, this is where I’m supposed to be.”