KING – Pastor Caleb Waller understands that he is no longer in Sophia.
The “new” senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of King – he took over on January 1 – came with his family after spending six years serving as a missionary in Bulgaria.
“It’s been an absolute blessing so far,” he says.
Hailing from the eastern North Carolina town of New Bern, “where we have a real barbecue,” Waller and his wife Sarah (who is from Robeson County, Lumberton area) have four children, aged 7, 4, 2 and 6 months. They met at UNC-Wilmington in 2008 and married in 2010.
Then they boarded a plane in 2015 with their oldest, then a year and a half, 18 checked bags and one-way tickets to Bulgaria. “Having one-way tickets is a bit of a game-changer,” Waller said. “When I was young and growing up in eastern North Carolina, I never thought I would end up in Eastern Europe. We were in the capital city of Sophia, a city of about 2 million people. I had never been in a taxi, I had never been in a metro before… it was an eye-opening experience. We had the opportunity to go there, learning the language and working with the local churches and local leaders to try to improve the spiritual situation and the community as well.We eventually had three children born in Sophia.
Early in his ministry, Waller accepted a position with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church.
“We grew up in Christian churches, reading the Bible, attending services every week. I had in mind that there was a large majority in the world who had access to the Bible and could go to churches. We had always heard stories from people living in remote areas around the world. We had a pastor in college who brought to our attention the billions of people who don’t have access to the Bible or healthy churches.
Waller said he was inspired by a 1956 incident involving several missionaries who were killed by natives in Ecuador, a story told in the movie “End of the Spear.”
“It was a story that really captivated us. These newlywed Wheaton College students who moved to the jungle in Ecuador. Due to some inter-tribal fighting that they got caught up in, all the men were killed, transfixed by this tribe. You would think that would be the end of the story, that we would withdraw from this place. But we actually saw the exact opposite. The wives of those killed decided to go to this place. village with their children and to serve the tribe that killed their husbands. This story made us do some soul-searching. We went to Peru in 2012 on a mission trip, and before we knew it, we had applied to serve as full-time missionaries.
“I encourage you to think about getting out of context regularly. It helps your point of view. If we spend 2% of our year outside of our usual context, it will drastically change the other 98%. This is my experience. You come back changed. I encourage you all to look outside yourselves and see how you can improve the lives of others. Never lose sight of the fact that each of you is unique, with different gifts, talents, and experiences that have shaped you.
Waller says Bulgaria is stuck somewhere between third world and first world.
“The ‘American dream’ in Bulgaria is to get out and go to America. Everyone is hoping to release, first in Western Europe, then in Canada, then in the United States if you are incredibly blessed. The reality is that as soon as they get here, they will face a whole different set of problems.
“Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe. Brokenness is everywhere, at all levels of society. There is rampant racism between Bulgarians and what we would call Roma, who make up around 10% of the population. … Living and raising a family in a socialist country is a disaster. The government-run medical system is strained and limited and definitely looks like something out of the 1940s. This was under normal conditions, so you can imagine what happened when the pandemic took hold. We knew it got real to us when they put cops on every exit and you weren’t allowed to leave town. That’s when you felt like the United States was very far away.
Waller says 80% of Bulgarians call themselves Christians, mostly Orthodox, but have a very superficial religion. “What is so disturbing is that we were there for six years and I never met a single Bulgarian who could articulate the most basic understanding of Christianity.”
Last summer, Waller and her family began thinking about moving back to the United States and began exploring what might be available. The natural starting point was the construction site of the Southern Baptist Church and, at that time, FBC King had a position available.
“I was looking all over the country, but we couldn’t ignore the fact that this is our home and this is where our family is. With four small children, we saw the importance of coming to a place that felt familiar. It seemed like a perfect fit for our family, the perfect size and had exactly what we needed. I told the pastor search committee that “I am not a traditional candidate.” We need you as much as you need us. We planted churches for six years. That was our job, to go where the church was not. It wears you out; we knew it was time to come back. The whole process took less than three full months, from first contact to confirmation. It was truly a divine thing. I preached on October 10 and they had the confirmation vote immediately after, and we got here around October 26. We were overwhelmed with reception and can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“North Carolina is a fantastic place with fantastic people, but we have never met such nice people as we have met in Stokes County. We absolutely love it. I say King has everything what you need and nothing superfluous We’ve been coming out of apartment living for six years, no garden, traffic everywhere, so it’s a completely different change for us, but one that’s much closer to our roots. We are both small town dwellers so when we went to the big city in Europe it was a big change It’s nice to breathe the fresh air again and let the kids run outside alone.
Now that he’s back home, what has been his impression of his work over the past six years?
“First, we were proud to be part of the best mission agency in the world. The expansion of the kingdom of God is the number one priority, and participating in it, even in a small corner of the world, was a privilege. We were really out of context when we set foot in Bulgaria. You arrive with the idea that you are going to change the world. But very quickly, you realize that God is going to change us more than we change the world.
“We encountered the full gamut of society: the broken, the beaten, the poverty stricken…a consistent theme we encountered was spiritual brokenness or spiritual darkness. Bulgaria has had 1300 years of history and the vast, vast majority of it has been very difficult. And that hardened the people. They have a rough exterior. In the late 1980s they emerged from communism and embraced western democracy, but even that proved to be an uphill battle for them. Eastern Europe is a unique place in the world, the news reveals it. But we considered it a privilege to introduce people to the Gospel, to the Bible, for the first time. For generations, some of these people’s families never heard of the Bible. We have seen people come to know the Lord and churches strengthened.
The unfolding war in Ukraine had caused the Wallers to keep a worried eye on the situation in the Baltic region.
“Bulgaria was part of the Soviet bloc, a satellite state, so there are Russian supporters who sympathize with Russia,” he said. “Bulgaria is now part of NATO, so it could be attracted. And Bulgaria has a very large immigrant population of Ukrainians. Some of our closest friends there are Ukrainians. And a lot of Bulgarians migrated to Ukraine, so there’s a natural history there, a kind of kinship. And culturally, they are very similar. And the cities are alike. Our missionary friends say that there are Ukrainian refugees heading for Bulgaria. Some of them house refugees. Others in Poland are seeing massive waves of refugees arriving and are mobilizing to care for these refugees.
“The Mission Board kept a large group of missionaries in Ukraine, but as the conflict escalated they withdrew them. Ukraine has been and continues to be one of the largest pockets of evangelicals in Europe. It is considered the biblical belt of Europe.
Waller recalled a Ukrainian couple they saw becoming believers and joining their Bible study.
“Before going to Bulgaria, they would have been just statistics for me, names I couldn’t pronounce. But now we know their names, we know their faces, their culture, their language and their children.
Now Waller says he couldn’t have asked for a better place to land for our family.
“Many pastors are going into a ‘rebuild’, but I’m grateful to say that’s not the case here. The Lord really opened the door for us to intervene and unite around a missionary spirit and a missionary DNA. We did not leave our missionary identity in Bulgaria. We were able to take the strategy and framework we used with the Mission Board and adapt it to the US context, but use it here. And that’s basically to get into the community, to engage the lost, and to equip the saints.
“We realize that King is different today than he was ten years ago, and that he will probably be different ten years from now. Like everywhere in America, the Lord brings the nations here. North Carolina is a landing point for all nationalities, ethnic groups, language groups, so while we will always keep our eyes on the gospel to the ends of the earth, we want to be proactive and ready for those it brings to our gate.. This means we need to go out and be around people beyond our church campus.
“There is excitement and buzz here. We want to help people understand the big story of who God is and how their individual stories fit into this idea of what he has done. Understanding the big story makes all the difference.