It started with a missions trip.
At a women’s retreat, Laura Wagner, a California-based wife and mom, heard the late Freedom Challenge USA* founder, Cathey Anderson, speak about an upcoming hiking challenge. For a minute, Laura tuned her out. But when Cathey mentioned an outreach to India, Laura perked up. “I was turning 50, I’d been to Mexico to do a short mission trip, but I’d never been on a really big international mission trip, and I really wanted to do that, so I signed up, even though it wasn’t my church,” she remembered.
As it turned out, Cathey didn’t go on that trip due to ongoing medical treatments, but Laura did. In January 2015, she met and prayed for workers serving with OM and other organizations, girls who had formerly worked as temple prostitutes now thriving in safe houses and kids from the slums studying in OM-run schools.
“Going to India was an incredible experience. It’s so far away, and you’re thinking: God You are so big, and You care about every person in this whole huge world,” Laura shared. “And that was really what got me hooked on being part of this ministry and being part of everything OM’s doing and being part of the Freedom Challenge movement of women that care about women and children.”
When Cathey passed away, Laura joined a Freedom Challenge group in 2016 to hike the Grand Tetons in Wyoming in Cathey’s honor. After that, one challenge slid into the next: Estes Park in Colorado, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah, Mt. Hood in Oregon. She also went to Moldova on another Freedom Challenge missions trip in 2017 and returned to India, privately, in 2019.
As her miles added up, so did her fundraising dollars.
For her first challenge, Laura remembered feeling awkward about asking others for money to cover the travel and climbing costs and support the projects. “I think I raised some money and then ended up paying about half of it on my own,” she said. Then, Tracy Daugherty, current director of the Freedom Challenge shared Proverbs 19:17 with her: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward them for what they have done” (NIV). That Scripture changed Laura’s mindset “and caused me to think of fundraising as a chance for me to ask someone to be blessed by giving to the needs of people who are oppressed and enslaved,” she said.
From that point forward, Laura didn’t contribute to her own Freedom Challenge fundraising, though she gladly gave to others’ challenges. “I’ve never really had a problem raising the money. It’s kind of been the easier part for me. People have been so generous,” she shared. “It’s been really great to pray for the people that have given to this work, and I know God will bless them.”
Pre-coronavirus, Laura hosted fundraising parties and received invitations to speak about her missions trips and hikes with different groups, like the local Rotary Club. “So many more people are aware and they’re totally supportive of everything we’re doing and the work OM is doing,” she explained. “It’s been really great to educate people and share about the projects that we’ve visited, the different places. Everyone’s so interested.”
Fullness of joy
Though 2020 Freedom Challenge events were postponed, both a local challenge in California—Cactus to Cloud—and the ‘Jesus Walk’ in Israel, Laura is looking forward to continued involvement with the movement. “God’s really changed me,” she said. “As He sets free others, He does a lot of work as well in me because I’ve gained a lot of freedom in my life.”
Ten years before Laura went to India with Freedom Challenge for the first time, she was struggling as a stay-at-home-mom with two young sons and a husband busy building his career. “I think I’d been hoping that my marriage would really fill this deep emptiness in my heart, and then I thought having the kids would do that,” she remembered.
Some of Laura’s neighbors at the time were Christians. “They had this joy,” she described. She wanted that as well but didn’t think it was possible “because of my past, all the things I had done wrong, the shame that I was carrying.”
Around that time, a friend gave her a Bible and invited her to a Bible study. “It was just at the right point of my life when I had this desperation to be whole,” she said. From the first pages of Genesis, God’s love jumped off the pages, and Laura realized her Heavenly Father loved her, too.
Today, the joy Laura saw in her Christian neighbors is also part of her life. “I look at the world with hope because Christ has given me so much hope,” she said.
Growing in her faith is an ongoing process, she acknowledged: “It’s going to take my whole life for God to keep taking away some of the false beliefs and just bring healing day-by-day in my life as I surrender everything to Him.
“I think that’s part of why I really have a desire for women and children to know the truth about what God feels about them because I just did not know for all these years and there was a lot of striving and a lot of sadness.”
Through Freedom Challenge, Laura found opportunity to share God’s love with others. “For me, knowing the gospel has changed everything in my life, and I know OM, their mission is to reach those that don’t know Jesus,” she explained.
“When you look at the world, it could be hopeless if you didn’t see it through God’s eyes,” she said. “…God has a purpose and plan for each life, and that I can be part of it gives me so much joy.”
*The Freedom Challenge USA, a ministry of OM, is a movement of passionate women dedicated to freeing oppressed and enslaved women and children all around the world. Women participate in physical challenges that test their limits, while raising funds and awareness to combat dark, social injustices and set women and children on the pathway to freedom. For more information, visit www.thefreedomchallenge.com.