Baptists from around the world recognized Ilie Coada, a Baptist pastor and social justice worker in Moldova, during the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) in Izmir, Turkey.
"It's not enough just to tell other people about the needs; it's best if they can see them for themselves," Ilie Coada said. (Photo: Brian Kaylor)
Soft-spoken and almost timid in appearance, Coada hardly looks the part of the fearless and tireless human rights activist that he is in his eastern European country.
Coada received the BWA's 2014 Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award during a session of the BWA General Council on Wednesday morning.
That afternoon, a forum sponsored by the BWA's Division on Human Rights Advocacy featured Coada telling his story in more detail, including threats from mafia members as he struggled to improve the lives of thousands of Moldovans.
During the presentation of the award, Claire McBeath, co-principal of the Northern Baptist Learning Center in England, declared that Coada "preaches and lives the Word authentically."
"He has risked everything to follow the voice of the one who loves and saved him," she said.
Calling his work "an exemplary, pioneering and sacrificial ministry securing and protecting the rights and freedom of children in Moldova," McBeath said Coada had "saved countless children from the worst kinds of sex slavery."
Lauren Bethell, who moderated the forum with Coada and prodded him to tell certain stories from his work, introduced him as "a very quiet and humble man."
She captured his demeanor as he told his stories without a sense of embellishment or pride, only offering emotion as he told a joke, widened his mouth and chuckled out loud.
After hearing praise lavished on him in each setting, Coada demurred, instead crediting God with his accomplishments.
European Baptist Federation President Otniel Bunaciu translated for Coada during both sessions.
After receiving the award, Coada joked, "I was taken by surprise; I didn't know I was so good."
Referencing those who work with him and giving God all the credit during his short remarks, "We all recognize that our entire ministry belongs to God."
During the forum, he recounted his life in ministry as a story of God moving and acting.
As he recounted successes in his work, he consistently phrased it as God accomplishing the particular act.
"I understood it's not in my power to do these things, but God can do it," he said. "I understood that even if you just reach a hand to a person in need and lift that person, God can do more. And God started to do great things."
Coada lived in an orphanage before going to a university to study mechanical engineering, a field he worked in for two decades during the Soviet era.
Feeling a call to preach, he had to give up his job. He started planting churches, but noticed the people were in need of basic physical and social services.
"So in my mind the question was can I stop at just preaching the gospel without keeping an openness towards what the need is around me," he said. "My question certainly at the time was 'Why did you allow, Lord, for these people to end up here?' Secondly, 'Is there something I can do, the church can do?'"
Although Coada did not have many resources, he launched his ministries and slowly found churches to join the efforts.
"I understood very much what the text meant: 'gold and silver I do not have but what I have I give,'" he said.
Coada eventually founded the Bethania Christian Relief Association to run the projects and services he started over the years, including a home to provide shelter for young girls, a children's center that provides educational and nutritional services, a foster-care program, elder-care programs (community centers and food delivery), and various efforts to help orphans receive care and transition into adulthood.
The group also runs summer camps, after-school programs, festivals and other outreach activities to enrich the lives of Moldovans and help prevent children from being trafficked and exploited.
Even when local mafia threatened Coada, he continued with his work. "I told them my protection was much better than they could offer," he said as he glanced upward. "We have someone who looks after us."
Although Coada did not allow the mafia to stop his ministry, he said he does not attempt to deliberately provoke them.
"The Bible says that 'every man sins but woe is of the one from whom temptation comes' and I didn't want to become a temptation to the mafia people," he joked.
At first, government officials would not assist him, and the country did not have a foster care system so he started creating his own system.
However, as the government later started to develop laws for foster care, they came to Coada for advice.
As Coada started his ministry to orphans and others in unsafe and unsanitary institutions, he engaged his church in the ministry.
He explained he learned an important lesson about helping others see the need.
"It's not enough just to tell other people about the needs; it's best if they can see them for themselves," he said.
As Baptists applauded Coada for his efforts and example, he urged Christians to see the poor and their needs.
Referring to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Coada ended his remarks at the forum by urging those present not to be like the rich man.
"[The rich man] saw the poor man, but he was in Hell already," Coada explained. "During his lifetime he didn't see him. That's why it's important to see the poor while we are still living and can do something about it because if we see them later, it may be too late."
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. He serves on the BWA's communications advisory committee. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.