Our Missionary of the Month
Meet Jo Ann Farris, one of the newer missionaries now serving with our San Francisco Branch. Besides her other talents, Jo Ann is an accomplished figure skater. She stands about five feet tall in very high heels or skates, and confesses to being 4’10 in stocking feet. Jo Ann looks like anyone’s cute kid sister, but ask her a serious question about God and you quickly realize that she’s no kid. Behind her perky personality, dimpled smile and mischievous eyes lie a deep desire and a special aptitude for telling everyone, especially her own Jewish people, about Yeshua.
A native Californian, Jo Ann graduated from Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She is as energetic as she is petite, and loves to eat bagels with melted cheese and vegetarian bacon bits.
Jo Ann and her husband Dan know American sign language and have had two years of experience communicating the gospel to the deaf in Long Beach, California. We’re glad the Lord pointed Jo Ann and Dan in our direction, but this is Jo Ann’s story. How does an accomplished figure skater from Southern California end up roller skating down a busy San Francisco street with a bag of gospel tracts? Read on.
Jo Ann’s Testimony
People often ask me, “How did you get into this business? Why would a nice Jewish girl like you want to believe in Jesus and be a missionary with Jews for Jesus?”
I grew up in Southern California and attended a Reform temple near my home in Bel Air. (That’s where the movie stars live.) My father is a physician. We weren’t rich, but I had things other kids didn’t have.
One special privilege was a chance at competitive figure skating. My brother, my sister and I all began ice skating lessons early in life and became very accomplished at the sport. I had a very busy childhood and adolescence because I entered serious training. My life as a skater was far from normal. Skating took all my time. I was on the ice every morning at 5:30 or 6:00 and after school until about 8:00 p.m. I skated six days a week, six to eight hours a day. As time passed, skating slowly took over my life. Along with my brother and sister, who also skated competitively, I dropped out of all other activities, including temple activities. Skating came before all other things. In fact, skating became our family’s “god.” As I grew older, I missed those earlier times when we regularly attended synagogue, and I wondered if God was real at all. Throughout my teen years God seemed just too far away to think about, and my skating schedule kept me too busy to think about him. Still, I always felt proud of my Jewish heritage, and I tried to observe my Jewish traditions when time allowed.
I did very well as a competitor, and in 1975 I won a Silver Medal in the Junior Dance event at the National Figure Skating Championships. However, the next couple of years were rough for my partner and me. I felt I needed to take a year off from skating to make some decisions about my skating career.
During the time skating took precedence over everything else in my life I had no close friends and no social life. I wondered what it would be like to be just a “regular college kid,” so in my senior year of college, I moved into a dorm at my school in Colorado Springs.
There I met several Gentile students who told me they had “become Christians.” That didn’t make sense to me because I had always thought that everyone who wasn’t Jewish was a Christian. One night I knocked on the dorm room door of one of these girls and asked, “How do you become a Christian?” She told me that Yeshua was the Messiah for all people, both Jew and Gentile, and everyone needed to make a decision concerning him. Then she asked me if I’d like to believe and accept the Messiah. I was not ready to do that, but making friends was so new to me that I was afraid she would not want to continue our friendship if I said no. So just to please her, I said yes. Now my problems were just about to begin!
By the next day, the school’s entire Christian community had heard that this Jewish girl had accepted Jesus! Oy! What was I to do? “Well,” I thought, “I’ll graduate in seven months. 1 guess I can pretend that long.” I didn’t know that you can’t pretend to believe. They asked me to speak to a Christian campus group, and they invited me to church. “Church?” I thought. “No one ever told me about church!” I could pretend to believe, but I couldn’t bring myself to go to a place I considered so Gentile, so foreign.
Yet during my pretending period, God was showing me things. After a couple of months, certain events convinced me that God was very real and there was something to this believing in Jesus. In January of 1978 I really accepted Yeshua as my Messiah.
At first, I thought I was the only Jew in the world who believed in Jesus, but soon a friend gave me a Jews for Jesus Newsletter, and I wrote Jews for Jesus and came in contact with other Jewish believers. After I graduated from college, I moved back to Southern California and began attending Jews for Jesus bible studies in Los Angeles.
Avi and Ruth Snyder invited me to go to church with them and stay with them a few weeks. Through Avi’s church I heard about a church in Long Beach near my grandmother’s home. Shortly after my visit with the Snyders I moved in with my grandmother and began attending that church in Long Beach.
There I met my wonderful, kosher-hearted husband, Dan, and we were married in April of 1979. A couple years later we hosted some Jews for Jesus bible studies in our home. Dan and I prayed about how we could help minister to the Jewish people in Long Beach and Orange County on a regular basis, and just then, we heard about the Co-Laborer in Messiah program, that was about to begin. Jews for Jesus was looking for volunteers who lived in areas away from the regular branches.
In January of 1982, Dan and I became Co-Laborers—volunteer missionary co-ordinators with Jews for Jesus. We did lots of things as Co-Laborers. We had several fun events in our area, even a Jews for Jesus Skate Night!
During this time, I was coaching figure skating and really enjoying my work as a professional coach. I became more and more committed to my profession. Then I became a skating school director, and I never thought I’d even consider leaving it. Once in awhile, Dan and I used to talk about serving God full-time, but as the years passed we thought we had become just too settled in our lives.
Then, in January of 1988 while I was at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Denver, I began to do some serious thinking about my life and career. I was discussing this with my unbelieving Jewish father, and he suggested that I become a Jews for Jesus missionary! (Jewish fathers are great—they just want their daughters to be happy, and my dad felt that being a missionary would make me happy!)
Dan and I contacted Jews for Jesus Headquarters, and before we knew it, we had moved to San Francisco. I began my missionary training, and Dan began administrative duties at headquarters. Soon he will be changing to full-time missionary status. Last summer we both went on the New York Summer Witnessing Campaign, and I even got to pass out gospel broadsides on rollerblades (roller skates that look like ice skates)!
That’s how a nice Jewish girl became a missionary with Jews for Jesus! I am very excited about the work God has called me and Dan to do. Please keep us in your prayers.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Gina Ciavolino—not a name you’d think to associate with Jews for Jesus, is it? But yes, Gina is Jewish, and she is now serving as a missionary in our San Francisco branch.
Gina was born in New York City on June 16, 1958, and she was raised in the suburbs of New Jersey. She accepted Jesus as her Messiah when she was only 13 years old, and the following summer her mother also came to the Lord. Since then, her father, younger sister, older brother and grandmother have all become believers!
Gina graduated from Montclair State College in New Jersey with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music therapy. She then moved to Costa Mesa, California, and served a six-month internship in a home for the mentally retarded. Following her internship, Gina took a position as activity director for a nursing home. She has always chosen to involve herself with people, to care for others and to serve. Time after time, Gina has sought out jobs that called for a compassionate heart and a cheerful disposition. Missionary work certainly requires those qualities, so it’s not too surprising that before very long the Lord led Gina in our direction.
In March of 1982 Jews for Jesus held a Messianic Music Workshop” in Los Angeles. Our mobile evangelistic team, the Liberated Wailing Wall, came to sing some of our Jewish gospel music. Gifted Jewish Christians from all over the greater Los Angeles area came to spark one another’s imaginations and to work at developing their talents. Gina Ciavolino was one of those gifted Jewish Christians; but besides her musical ability, Gina showed initiative and spunk. Actually, to quote Mitch Glaser, our minister-at-large, Gina had chutzpah. In the English vernacular the Yiddish word chutzpah means “gutsiness” almost to the point of being pushy. But someone as small and cute as Gina can afford to be a bit more up-front. Indeed, sometimes a woman that size and that attractive needs to develop such qualities in order to be taken more seriously.
During that music workshop in Los Angeles, Gina met our music director Stuart Dauermann who auditioned her and encouraged her to apply for missionary service with Jews for Jesus. Soon afterwards, Gina did apply, and was accepted on staff. The obvious place for her was with the Liberated Wailing Wall, where her tuneful talents could be used daily to tell people about Jesus. A normal term of service with the Liberated Wailing Wall is 18 months, but Gina served for 20 as she stayed with the team for two extra months to take part in the recording of our newest album, Messianic Joy.
When the album was completed, Gina came to work in our San Francisco branch. Gina still sings and plays her guitar whenever she has a chance, and she has written several songs that are a real story and praise to her Messiah. The letters on the license plates of her bright yellow Volkswagen spell out “PRZ HYMN,” and her greatest joy is to praise the Lord with her music. Gina’s nursing home experience has enabled her to be especially skillful in ministering to the elderly. She feels a special burden in this area, and sees opportunities to witness to people in nursing homes as a final mission field, perhaps the last chance some of the patients will have to hear the good news of the Messiah.
Gina’s lively spirit and the music she brings help create opportunities for her to minister to people of all ages. When it comes to passing out our gospel broadsides, Gina’s favorite location is the University of California at Berkeley. Because of the campus, the entire town of Berkeley has always been a hub of activity—a where-it’s-happening kind of place, and there are many Jewish students who, time permitting, are willing to discuss almost any issue.
Gina Ciavolino had been a believer in Jesus for ten years before she came on staff with Jews for Jesus. She says that becoming a missionary helped to end a time of stunted spiritual growth for her. When Gina joined the Liberated Wailing Wall, she immediately saw how much she still had to learn. It was an opportunity to begin filling in some gaps. Gina is doing a fine job in our San Francisco branch. The Lord is blessing her efforts. She finds the work challenging, and leans on Proverbs 3:5-6 for strength: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
(Editor’s Note: Among her many talents, Gina is a gifted writer. Her missionary reports often find their way into this Newsletter, and the following article is one such incident from her work that we know you will enjoy reading.)