A legacy of mission
Don Oleson looks back on 30 years of ministry service, particularly in Slovakia
Jim Killam
February 6, 2024

Don Oleson was still principal of Rockford East High School when First Free sent its first mission team to Czechoslovakia in 1992. He watched with interest and thought, I could do something like that after retiring. But he had no plans to retire any time soon.

God has a way of accelerating plans. In early 1993, the Illinois Teacher Retirement System announced a program whereby members could buy additional years of service credit and retire early. At 54, Don applied and was accepted. He retired that June.

The following February at church, Don joined what was then called the Missions Commission, now the Global Outreach Team. The former English teacher missed his first meeting because, appropriately enough, he was on his first mission trip to Slovakia, newly separated from the Czech Republic. He and a team from First Free helped with a camp for students wanting to learn English.

It would be the first of 32 trips to Slovakia for Don over the next 25 years. He and his wife, Luaine, even moved there twice. For the 1995-96 school year they lived in Kosice, where Don taught high school English and Luaine worked with a children’s ministry at a local church. They went back from 1999 to 2001 to help plant a church in Nitra.

From 1992 to 2022, 92 different people from First Free Rockford went to Slovakia on short-term mission trips. Some went multiple times. Don and Luaine were instrumental in those trips. During those years our church played a role in assisting 13 congregations across Slovakia.

Now at age 85, Don is retiring from the GO Team on Feb. 12 as he celebrates 30 years of serving. Those years included serving as missions director from 1996-99, then missions coordinator from 2008-12. In a letter informing GO Director Steve Cooper of his decision, he wrote:

Celebrate is the correct term here because I have been blessed by working with and for the dedicated missionaries supported by First Free and by working alongside a host of missions-minded coworkers on the Missions Commission and the GO Team. I thank God for the privilege of having a role in supporting and sending a multitude of dedicated missionaries out into the world with the good news of the gospel.”

We spoke with Don about it all recently. (Luaine’s recent health issues prevented her from joining us.)

You have witnessed a big chunk of our church’s history with global missions. For the sake of those who haven’t been part of First Free so long, can you give a quick history lesson?

From the beginning, our church has been a sending church—supporting global missions in addition to sending our own people. Our first missionary was Mary Anderson, who went to China in 1890.

So from early-on, we recognized and honored missionaries. From 1927 to 1987, their letters were published in a monthly publication called the Missionary Messenger. So everybody was reading firsthand what the missionaries were sending back. That publication also gave the missionaries information about what was going on at church. New members, weddings …

And for a long time, there was an annual missions conference. Our missionaries were brought in to speak and be involved in a variety of activities.

The other thing is, starting with Jim and Sandy Bellair and the English camp in 1992, we got into short-term mission trips. I’m not aware of organized teams going overseas before we started going to Slovakia.

Then at some point we started not just supporting individual missionaries, but projects. Like the church agreement we have today with ReachGlobal in Democratic Republic of Congo.

From our church, five of our missionaries started their own organizations. Kids Around the World with Jim Rosene, First Love with Tom Clinton, By Design Ministries with Jon Melin, Sunset Solutions with David Russell and Kijani Farm in Kenya with Brian and Heather Dellamater.

Participants and team members at the Nitra family camp in 2001.

What has it been like for you to serve as part of that long legacy for our church?

Personally, I get a great deal of satisfaction from working to maintain that missions tradition. Luaine and I had the privilege of living overseas on two occasions, both in Slovakia.

You lived there during the ’90s, right after the fall of communism. It must have felt like quite an opportunity for the church.

The people I worked with over there had a comment about that. We talked about the fact that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Czechoslovakia then emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. Up until that time, there was very limited evangelism going from the West into Czechoslovakia. Communism controlled everything. Some of these agencies were basically working out of Vienna or Brussels, even smuggling Bibles into Czechoslovakia.

When communism fell, several mission agencies rushed in. The Bellairs were part of that. They first went in 1991, and then First Free’s first group trip was the next year—doing the English camp and developing the relationship with the Cirkev Bratska denomination.

A lot of agencies didn’t stay long. The people we worked with used to talk about that—and the fact that First Free Rockford was still there. We came and stayed. It takes time to develop working relationships and get to the point where you can be effective. Where you have some credibility.

Getting past the point where it’s, for lack of a better word, tourism.


First Free’s formal advocate-church commitment went from 2001 through 2015. Was it hard for you to see it end?

No. The reason I wasn’t disappointed was, for about 30 years the church had been supporting my passion. For 15 years it was a priority. Funding, people going, attention. Now I’m gung ho on the Congo. That’s our current thing, joining ReachGlobal’s Congo consortium. On the GO Team, Paul Geddes has taken that thing and run with it.

The Nitra, Slovakia church planting team in 2002: Don and Luaine, the Hunter family (ReachGlobal missionaries), Jozef Papay and Pavol Cech, who were members of the Cirkev Bratska church in Levice.

The GO Team is much smaller than it once was. But you still get a significant budget and you control what level our church is supporting missionaries and who we’re supporting, right?

Yeah. That’s still our job. Our church supports about 30 couples and three singles as missionaries. The committee is small. If you go back to May, we were six. And then Darrell Peterson left after 19 years. Now I’m leaving. So we’re down to four — Steve Cooper, Katie Larsen, Paul and Diane Geddes. But it functions. Things get done, decisions get made, projects supported. But it’s not the same as if it was a team of eight with different generations and perspectives.

Tell me what this has meant personally to your faith and your life, to have this sort of involvement in global missions.

Well, John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world …” And I think through my deep involvement in Slovakia, talking to some of those older men some years ago … hearing what their faith was subjected to under communism. And how they maintained their faith and the church kept its identity. God loves Slovakia, and they’ve got some fantastic stories.

Even though I haven’t traveled to other countries, I’ve been reading missionaries’ newsletters forever, from several countries. To at least become aware of how God is moving in other parts of the world has really been inspiring.

Tell me more about that. I’ve experienced it, too. When you see the global church, it just broadens your understanding of God’s kingdom.

(Laughs) Can I quote you on that? But yes, I’ve been tracking places like Mongolia, tracking Cameroon, tracking the Congo all this time.

What did it mean for both you and Luaine to live cross-culturally two times? That’s a huge, brave thing to do.

(Laughs) You know, I think people who haven’t done it probably use that word brave. But when you do it, it’s just a calling. It’s Spirit-led.

But I do know—except for Jonah, who you have to leave out of it—I think God gives you a love for the people he calls you to serve.

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


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    Don, wow, with the passage of time, I’d forgotten many of these details above. Thanks, Jim, for doing this story, and the resulting memory refresher on the Olsons’ lives of service.

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    I worked along side of Don on the Missions Commission for 13 years and he has been a dedicated supporter of all First Free’s missionaries not only those in Slovakia. He always had a through knowledge of the history and current status of each one. Thank you for your long service.

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    What a wonderful story! Thank you, Don, for your prayers, encouragement, and support during the past thirty years. Since first meeting you when I was privileged to serve on a short-term English outreach missions team that you led through the present, you and Luaine have modeled what it means to love the Lord and your neighbor (Luke 10:27). You have become like family to me and my family. We will always be grateful to the Lord for your prayers, selfless service, and help in many ways. Many lives have been reached for Christ and His kingdom through your faithful service when you and Luaine lived in Slovakia as well as when you were back in the U.S. and you served as a liaison between First Free Rockford and the Cirkev Bratska sister-denomination churches in Slovakia. May the Lord bless you and continue to bear much fruit through you and Luaine for His glory (Ps. 1:3).

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    Don (and Jim), thank you ever so much for this article! You and Luaine are still honorary members of our Church in Levice and we are honored to have such dedicated members. I had a privilege representing our denomination at multiple visits to First Free and was always a welcome guest in your home. Thus I know how committed you were for the Gospel in Slovakia. May our Lord reward your commitment according to His riches!

  5. Avatar

    As an addition to Jan Henzel comment, I want to say that on May 8, 2015 General Assembly declared First Evangelical Free Church of Rockford, IL an honorary congregation in the Cirkev Bratská of Slovakia.
    We wanted to express our gratitude for your sacrificial example of God’s kindness to reach out and help the brothers and sisters who worked for forty years under communism. In God’s providence, you helped us better prepare for building Christ’s church.

  6. Jim Killam

    Thanks for all of these great comments and memories, especially from our friends in Slovakia!


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