Photo: Alan Hood
Feature

Game Changers

A couple who left promising careers in “Sin City” now fill critical support roles in Bible translation.

(Above) Michael and Cheryl McDaniel enjoy a coffee break together in their office at the training centre in Hutjena, a small community near Buka town. They met while both were working in Las Vegas, Nev.; Michael as a “pit boss” in a casino and Cheryl as a realtor. But God had other plans for their lives—including key roles in facilitating Bible translation in Papua New Guinea. 

(This photo) At the waterfront in Buka town, the main community on Buka Island, Michael chats with local translator, John Wesley Gareitz, as he waits for a boat to transport him back to his home on nearby Torotsian Island.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Towards the end of Michael McDaniel’s job as a “pit manager”—overseeing the night-time casino operations of a major Las Vegas hotel—he noticed a recurring phrase cropping up when he confronted unruly customers.

“They would say, ‘You don’t belong here,’ ” Michael recalls. 

The first time a gambler told him that, Michael thought it was odd but chalked it up to the man’s liberal use of alcohol. 

“I was dressed in a suit and tie—I was the manager,” Michael explains. “But he says, ‘No, no, you don’t belong here. What are you doing here?” ’ “

“Three different times,” adds Michael’s wife Cheryl, “he came home and said, ‘This guy came up to me tonight and said, 'You don’t belong here! Why are you here? ’ ”

For Michael, the strange remarks seemed to confirm something he already suspected: that his 27-year career in the Las Vegas gaming industry was drawing to a close. What he couldn’t foresee was that God was drawing him back to Himself—and that he and Cheryl would one day play a significant role in providing God’s Word for language groups in faraway Papua New Guinea (PNG). 

“We’re painters, we do airport pick-ups, we do the sweeping and clean-up. We’re pretty much the go-to people for the centre to run.”
Michael McDaniel

Targets of Prayer

The McDaniels arrived in Bougainville, an autonomous region of PNG near the Solomon Islands, in December 2012 to serve as managers of a training centre dedicated to Bible translation. As centre managers, they oversee bookings, building and vehicle maintenance, finances, food, lodging and numerous other duties.

“We’re painters, we do airport pick-ups, we do the sweeping and clean-up,” says Michael, now 62. “We’re pretty much the go-to people for the centre to run.”

“We meet a tremendous amount of people,” adds Cheryl. “We’ve just been so blessed. And I love to entertain so . . . we feed a lot of people.”

The couple are an answer to prayer for expat staff especially, who previously had to help manage the training centre while doing their language-related work. Canadian Bonnie Moeckel, a translation consultant who serves at the centre with her husband Barry, is thankful God sent the McDaniels.

“They seem to really love the local people,” she says, “and they are doing a really great job.”

The McDaniels met in Las Vegas in 1994, when Cheryl, a realtor, sold Michael a condominium. Divorced and caring for her 13-year-old son, “K.J.,” Cheryl says she wasn’t interested in starting a serious relationship. But her co-workers in the realty office encouraged her to date Michael, who lived next door and often dropped by to chat with the realtors after his night shifts in the casino.

On one of their first dates, Michael surprised Cheryl by asking her what she believed about God. 

“I just shared about Jesus,” Cheryl recalls, “and that you need to know the Lord as your personal Saviour.

“He said, ‘I believe that.’ ”

It was nothing new to Michael, who had received Christ as a 17-year-old at a church revival meeting. But over time, his interest in following Jesus had faded as he pursued a career in the Las Vegas gaming industry.

Cheryl, too, had lost her spiritual bearings. Although she had received Christ as a child and attended church all through her formative years, as a single mom she had her hands full caring for K.J. and selling real estate.

As the two began spending more time together, Cheryl’s parents—both committed Christians—began praying for their relationship and recruited people in their Florida Sunday school class to pray too.

“My mom and dad desperately wanted us out of Las Vegas,” says Cheryl.

The McDaniels married in 1995. Five years later, convinced God wanted them to leave “Sin City,” they moved to Belleview, Florida to be closer to Cheryl’s parents. 

“The kids (Michael has two from a previous marriage) had all grown and pretty much moved on,” says Michael, “and we had begun praying, incorporating that into our relationship, and God just began to open doors for us. When we left Vegas, we desired something different in our lives than what we were into.”

As centre manager, Michael fills a variety of roles including taxi driver, mail-fetcher, maintenance man, accommodations co-ordinator and much more.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

“I really think it was the power of prayer through my parents,” says Cheryl. “God just moved our hearts to get away from the Las Vegas scene. Because it’s very hard when you’re making a lot of money, to give it all up and walk away and go to who-knows-what. 

“We didn’t understand it all at that time, because we weren’t living for the Lord, but He was drawing us back to Himself.”

Glimpses of PNG

After moving to Belleview in 2000, they both found work in sales and management for a retirement community. They also got plugged into a local church, where they helped lead prayer meetings, shared their musical talents, taught Sunday school classes, and participated in evangelistic outreaches. 

At the same time they were settling into life in the small Florida community northwest of Orlando, Cheryl’s brother and his family moved to Papua New Guinea to work with New Tribes Mission (NTM). 

“We thought, ‘Wow, that’s way out there!’ ” says Cheryl. “Why would you ever go to PNG when you’ve got two young kids? That’s nuts!”

“I really think it was the power of prayer through my parents. God just moved our hearts to get away from the Las Vegas scene.”
Cheryl McDaniel

However, the McDaniels began praying for them and supporting them financially. Then, in 2009, her brother invited them to PNG to help manage NTM’s mission centre. While the idea intrigued them, they both had job commitments that stood in the way.

“But God used that,” says Cheryl. “My brother said, ‘We need people like you—people who like to host, who like to get things done.’ ”

The idea took root and eventually, Michael and Cheryl began thinking about serving in missions somewhere overseas. That led them to contact several mission agencies, participate in a short-term trip to Costa Rica, and attend a Bible dedication at Wycliffe’s U.S. headquarters in Orlando, Fla.

“We came back ‘fired up,’ ” says Michael.

Michael chats with translator Samson Sukina, who has arrived at the training centre to accompany the Word Alive team to his home village in the Sibe region. The McDaniels say the most rewarding aspect of their job is the friendships formed with co-workers and the guests they serve at the training centre.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Shaken and Stirred

During their visit to Wycliffe, the McDaniels learned about a wide variety of service opportunities for people with their skills and experience. However, they didn’t want to rush into anything—that is, until Michael collapsed one evening in church.

“He dropped our Bibles and I saw him starting to fall over, and I screamed,” says Cheryl. “A guy behind us . . . caught him, and they got him on the ground. 

“When they turned him over, he looked like he was dead.”

The pastor came over and prayed for Michael, and a few minutes later, he opened his eyes. He wasn’t sure what all the commotion was about, because he felt fine. To this day, he has no idea what happened to him—but he thinks he knows why it happened.

“God used that to wake us up to the fact that we can die at any time. We both knew if the Lord calls us to go and do something specific, we’re going to say yes. . . .”

Not long after, they were contacted by email with an invitation to serve as centre managers in PNG. 

“We just started praying about it,” says Cheryl, “and the Lord opened the doors. He provided the funding . . . all of our medical approvals went through, and we raised our financial support in about four months.”

Two Surprises

Since arriving in PNG at the end of 2012, the couple say their lives have been enriched by the “wonderful staff and translators” who live and/or come to receive training at the centre. But they admit that it hasn’t all been rosy.

“Daily, I have to depend on the Lord for strength,” says Cheryl. “It’s not easy to be away from my family and . . . to not have the church fellowship that we had. I mean, that’s our family too; that’s our life back home, our culture. 

“But it’s also really great when the Lord fills that void . . . and gives you back more than you ever expected.”

Michael too has found it difficult to be separated from loved ones, including the couple’s aging parents. 

“God will use anyone who picks up their cross and follows Him. Sometimes in the most remarkable ways.”
Michael McDaniel

Recently, with their two-year commitment winding down, they began seeking God’s direction for their future. The process included some time away in Cairns, Australia, to pray together and consider their options. At that point, they were gearing up to return to the U.S. and see what God had in store for them back home.

While in Cairns, they encountered the first of two surprises. 

“God laid on our hearts the importance of the work we’re doing here in PNG,” says Michael. “He helped us understand why encouraging Bible translators gave us a ‘burning’ in our hearts, and we found ourselves desiring to stay the course and return to PNG after our furlough.”

Encouraged and re-energized, they returned to the Buka training centre with the intention of spending at least a few more years there. Then they received an unexpected email from Wycliffe Associates’ Pacific area director, urging them to consider a different assignment—at a missionary guesthouse in PNG’s bustling capital, Port Moresby.

Although the invitation came “out of the blue,” both Michael and Cheryl sensed that God was behind the invitation to manage the guesthouse, which serves many Bible translation staff and other visitors who must frequently travel to and from the capital. They now plan to move to Port Moresby next February, after returning to Florida to reconnect with family, friends and church partners.

“Serving God begins when we surrender our hearts to Him,” says Michael. “He takes the pieces of our lives and like a mosaic masterpiece, He makes something beautiful from all the brokenness.”

He and Cheryl are still amazed by the direction their lives took, once they chose to leave Las Vegas 14 years ago.

“God will use anyone who picks up their cross and follows Him,” adds Michael. 

“Sometimes in the most remarkable ways.”

                                                                        •••••

On a Sunday evening this past September, Michael (left) joins several of the training centre’s staff for a time of prayer. Such times of prayer and fellowship have helped both Michael and Cheryl endure seasons of discouragement or homesickness, as they serve God far away from their family and friends in the United States.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

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