Growing up in Olathe, Ron Pottberg never dreamed he'd leave. But for the past 33 years he has been a teacher for the international World Bible School traveling the globe, meeting ambassadors, dignitaries and community leaders.
"This ministry has made it possible for me to be in over 50 countries around the world," said Pottberg.
Pottberg began his work with WBS in 1985. In 1986 he and wife Susan packed up their three children and 10 suitcases and moved to Africa to begin a long and rewarding career.
"We lived in South Africa during the years of change," he said. During that time apartheid was ending and the country's first black president was elected. The Group Areas Act enacted under the apartheid government was dropped weeks before they arrived. "Once it dropped you could not be on the streets after dark without a passport," he said. "You had to have that document with you at all times and if you were caught without it you would be arrested."
They remained in South Africa until 1994 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, to work with WBS. "We were basically just solo as apprenticed missionaries in the field. That was our first touch of doing missions work."
WBS, explained Pottberg, is a Bible correspondence ministry offered in 46 languages. In the English language alone they teach about one million students per year. It was founded in 1971 in Nigeria and spread to Ghana and across Africa, then to Asia. Today, WBS is truly a global organization. With the possible exception of Antarctica, "We literally have students in every country in the world," he said.
Pottberg learned about WBS through its publication, "Action." When he was young, he would read Action during Sunday Sermon. "I can remember seeing Action way back in the 1970s, way back when it first started. I knew about it but I never really knew what it was about or ever dreamed that I would be working with them for 30-plus years."
Today, Pottberg still has a heart for the people of South Africa, and of the world. He has worked with WBS in 50 countries.
Pottberg believes WBS is important for its ability to provide a basic understanding of the Bible. "We are not trying to convert," he said. "We are not trying to convince. We are just giving people the opportunity to see what the word of God is really all about. It's an overview."
Between ministering and the many friends he's made, Pottberg continues to travel to Africa. He prefers to travel during dry season to avoid driving on wet, slick, unpaved roads.
After returning to the U.S. in 1994, Pottberg would travel to Africa up to five months a year. Now in his 60s, he travels about three months per year to 16 countries including Ghana, the Philippines, Nigeria, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia. He travels to key countries where the greatest number of WBS students live, ensuring that everything is in place and to deliver lessons to correspondents in the U.S.
He also ensures work is being accomplished and that the nonprofit's funds are properly spent. "It is all donated money but we want to be a good steward of that money and make sure that it is really doing something," he said.
When asked why, after 30 years, he still travels and puts his own money toward WBS, he said he's looked at many ministries. Few of them, he said, are as proactive or are getting better results than WBS. "It does exactly what it says it is going to do and as a result we see a lot of churches being built and a lot of people becoming Christians."
In the past 5-10 years, Pottberg said he noticed something interesting. WBS has seen an increase of Muslims taking courses. "They want to know what this Christianity thing is all about. We also have Buddhist, Hindus, people from all different religious backgrounds doing theses studies basically out of an interest."
WBS goes beyond helping people with their spiritual lives. It also helps support several sister ministries throughout the world that can provide advanced studies. Students can even earn a doctoral degree. WBS also works with sister ministries to get students jobs in oil drilling, feeding programs and education, and connects them with other ministries. Each country is unique in the programs it offers, he said.
Another reason Pottberg continues giving, as he tells the board of directors when they meet in Austin, Texas, "I don't do this for us, meaning corporate; I do this for the people I get to go over there and work with, because they are now my closest friends. I keep doing what I do for the sake of their outreach and ministry in these foreign lands. We don't want to ever hinder that from continuing on."
His greatest honor was being named "A Son Of Africa" by the Nigerian people. "They dressed me in their traditional robes; they gave me the traditional hat. To be accepted as one of them is a unique situation. They are saying you have learned our culture, you've been able to accept our culture, we want you to be part of us."
Over the years he has seen a shift in people's priorities based on the country in which they live. "The one thing that stands out is how much influence the USA and Western society has on the rest of the world," he said. "In some countries, people are still living in mud huts with grass roofs, yet have an iPhone." When he and Susan first moved to Africa, running water was a new concept. Today, he says, "Everyone has a cell phone." He also notices that people are becoming less receptive to WBS, which ultimately helps them to better themselves with their sister ministries.
Pottberg said that as long as he sees results, he'll continue doing his job. "There are so many opportunities in the world to help people, but do your homework, make sure that where you're putting your time, your money, your energy, is actually going to impact people's lives."
To those who desire to take action, rather than donate money to a cause he suggests taking a mission trip, preferably away from tourist destinations, and seeing firsthand how people live.
"This ministry has made it possible for me to be in over 50 countries around the world," he said. Without WBS, "None of this would have ever happened if I had just stayed here. Part of it is just being able to expand yourself and putting yourself out there."