Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Memories from my first missionary journey

Sunday I told of my first international mission trip. It was to the country of Kenya in Africa.

At the time I was a 21-year-old pre-med major who had just surrendered to God’s calling on my life to serve him professionally in ministry. Problem: I didn’t know how or where! I was stressing myself out and driving my pastor and spiritual mentors crazy with questions! One of them, Alan Duncan, a missionary’s son, advised me to go and see for myself if God wanted me to be a missionary. So I saved and raised some money and went--by myself--to Africa. It was the most significant and life-altering summer of my life.

A few people wanted to know more about my trip so I thought I’d take a short walk down memory lane and dig up a few old pictures. I pulled out the journal I wrote while on my journey. It was the summer of 1988. My football coaches were less-than-enthusiastic about me going; they were afraid I’d get sick or at least not do the summer workouts like I should and report back to fall practice out of shape.


I had been in the air about 24 hours (not counting layovers) by the time I got to Nairobi. Marshall Duncan (Alan’s dad) had traveled monsoon-beaten mud roads to get there to pick me up. We stayed in Nairobi at a missionary conference center for a few days before going to the Duncan’s home in Kericho.

This part of Africa was not the arid, dry place I was expecting. It was green and wet. My first impression of the people was not really positive. We were in a big city. People were staring and some would boldly ask me for money! I learned quickly how to say, “No” forcefully in Swahili so that they would not think I was a na├»ve American tourist (read: “target”). We went west across the Great Rift Valley to Kericho, a small town in tea growing country.

For the following days, Mr. Duncan showed me the real Kenya. The people were for the most part wonderful, genuine, and hard-working. My primary job was to help build churches.

Some didn’t have buildings and met under a tree or in an empty lot. Others were barely planted, having only a new, young pastor.
I spoke a lot. Schools, church groups, people curious about the mzungu (white man) who was digging a foundation for a church building, I would speak to any group of people who would listen.

It was cool that some of the people heard about Jesus for the very first time from me (through a translator)!
I also helped out at the Duncans' place doing chores and tending their garden. They had Indian neighbors who invited us to dinner. Strange but good!
Mr. Duncan liked good food. And eating was always an experience!

Then Mr. Duncan took me to stay for two or three weeks with the Bass family who lived on the east coast. Missionary Dwight Bass really made a lasting impact on me. He was a tireless and positive man with an indomitable spirit. We went everywhere from small villages in thick cashew jungles, to the Muslim inner city of Mombasa.
One thing we did was to teach a few dozen young Christians how to share their faith in Christ with others. Amazingly, those people led over 1000 individuals to Christ by that fall! In meeting Christians in some of the villages I experienced some of the most incredible worship and loving hospitality of my life. People who were much more committed Christians than me would give me the place of honor in their homes and feed me the only chicken they had (which they killed just for me). It was humbling. On the long drives between villages I learned SO much from Dwight about missions. I also had several opportunities to speak and share my faith.

It wasn’t all work. Mrs. Bass took their kids and I to the beach to blow off some steam!
While at the beach my wallet was stolen (along with hundreds of dollars), which was another valuable lesson learned.

One of the most significant moments of my life happened one evening when Dwight and I were standing outside a school full of students singing beautifully in worship while the sun set and the stars were coming out. Dwight became emotional and said, “This...this is what I live for! It doesn’t get any better! In times like these God reminds me that I am doing exactly what he wants!” I shared the emotion and breathed in the moment contemplatively. It was at that instance that God “spoke” to my heart and confirmed my call. He clearly conveyed to me that he wanted me to be a pastor...at home in the U.S. “Thank you, Lord.” I prayed out loud with gratitude.

After my stay with the Basses, I went back to the Duncan’s home. Mr. Duncan (who wasn’t feeling well) took me to a village called Londiani and introduced me to an African pastor with whom I would be staying for the next several days. I will never forget that town.

We were threatened and cursed by a witchdoctor (who Mr. Duncan demonstrably put in his place just before he left town), I was the center of the biggest “mzungu parade” of my whole stay, I was arrested and taken to jail, I attended a church with topless women, and slept on the dirt floor of a cardboard hut! I ate goat, banana, and root stew, cooked by my host the pastor (who knew almost as much English as I knew Swahili)! Talk about culture shock! I can’t even begin to describe it!

The jail story always gets questions and demands some explanation. After the “mzungu parade” I was the talk of the town. Two policemen came that afternoon to question me. They looked through my bag (I had a tape player, camera, notebook, Bible, clothes, etc.) and acted really suspicious. What I didn’t know is that there had been a recent communist uprising in a neighboring town. The police believed I was a communist organizer! They arrested me and the pastor panicked! He just took off! Feeling abandoned and that things were out of control, they led me across town to the jail through the muddy streets in a torrential downpour. They put me in an 8’x8’ cell that had a hole in the corner (the toilet) and a broken metal chair. The head policeman (who knew a little English) interrogated me. “So, you no like our country?” and “What do you think of our president?” were the kinds of questions he asked. Realizing what was going on, I assured him that I loved Kenya very much, supported their political system, and was enjoying my visit!

While sitting in my cell, I made note of who was in the other cells. An old man who seemed to be drunk, and a young teen who looked like he had been beaten were also behind bars. There was also a young woman there who the policemen ordered around like a slave. I picked up by their actions and words that she must have been a prostitute who was working off her sentence (this was confirmed later when I got the rest of the story). She came and offered me chai (hot tea with milk). I gladly accepted. Using some of the few Swahili words I had learned, I tried my best to share the good news of Jesus with her. I kept saying, “God loves you,” “Jesus is God’s Son.” and “Jesus died for you.” She listened intently, then smiled and tears ran from her eyes down her face.

The police made her leave my presence and I prayed that she understood. While sitting there in the dark (there was one light on in another room) I went from being scared, thinking, “My family will never see me again or know what happened to me!” to thinking of Paul and Silas in Phillipi. I almost started singing around midnight! What dawned on me is that God was totally in control. I can trust him. Later that night a car pulled up to the jail. I heard some people come in the front office and begin speaking sharply to the head policeman. Through the door I could see the other two stand at attention with fearful looks on their faces. A light came on and into the hallway walked Marshall Duncan with a distinguished older African who turned out to be a tribal chief! The pastor, who I thought had abandoned me, had gotten a ride to Kericho and found Mr. Duncan, who had previously led the tribal chief to faith in Jesus! Those poor policemen were wishing they had never arrested me!

Of course there is much, much more that happened. Reading my journal brought back so many memories! I saw (and ate!) many wild animals, and even had some close calls. I slept on the banks of a crocodile-infested river and had hippos walk all around my tent during the night. Look carefully at the below picture and see the hippos at the top right, next to the river.
This picture was actually taken right behind my tent.
While traveling with Jim, a missionary’s son who was about my age, our convertible Land Cruiser broke down (a common occurrence) in the Masai Mara, many miles from the nearest sign of civilization. Our African driver got out to try to fix the problem. He suddenly bounded back in the vehicle shrieking, “Simba, simba, simba!” I knew that word. It means, “lion”! I grabbed my camera and started looking toward the horizon, hoping to get a good picture. The panicked driver pointed down toward the front, left tire (in Kenya, that’s the passenger side of the vehicle). There was a huge female lion concealed in the tall grass, about 15 feet from us!! I snapped a couple of pictures before I felt “that awkward moment when you realize you’re not in a zoo and could become lunch to a wild lion.” I looked around and realized we were in the middle of a pride of lions—six of them were within 35-40 feet of the vehicle! Long story short, we did a lot of sweating and praying. We hadn’t even seen another vehicle for hours. We finally noticed on the horizon a tiny cloud of dust. It grew. I (perhaps unwisely) took off my orange shirt, stood on the top of the Land Cruiser and frantically waved and screamed. Miraculously, they saw us. It was an African wildlife tour guide taking a vacationing American out on safari to photograph animals! They chased off the lions and the two drivers fixed our old Toyota.

Who was the vacationing American in the other vehicle, you ask?
(This is where you are going to think I’m lying...but God knows it is the truth.)
Jeopardy! game show host, Alex Trebec!
He was ticked-off, by the way, acting smug and annoyed at us since we had disturbed his private safari. After we recognized who he was and saw his attitude, I asked Jim, the missionary’s son, “How can we make sure he never forgets us?” We considered several things. Finally, while the drivers worked, I stood up in my seat and yelled (with an unbridled east Tennessee accent), “Hey! I know you! You’re Bob Barker! He’s Bob Barker! Go-lly, imagine that, we come all the way to Africa and see Bob Barker!” Trebec just shook his head in disgust. Jim and I laughed all the way to where we were staying. I’d love if someone would ask him if he remembers us! It makes me want to tryout to become a contestant on Jeopardy! just to ask him!

It seemed every missionary I was around was sick or had the runs or something. Amazingly, I never did. I didn't have the time or opportunity to work out while there, but I did a lot of physical labor, and tried to run at least once a week. Nevertheless, I wasn't in great shape when I got home. Spiritually, however, I returned in the best place so far in my life. My perspective had changed.
God taught me so much that summer! There are so many things that will never leave me. Here are a few:
• God is 100% trustworthy. 100%.
• God is doing amazing things around the world.
• There are good and bad ways to do missions.
I learned first-hand the great challenge of international missions. I saw HOW to DO missions & how NOT to do missions. In our desire to do good, American Christians have made a lot of mistakes, too. Finding indigenous people/leaders/pastors and planting churches are the keys to reaching the nations. I saw examples of great people of God who he used tremendously. I also saw shams and “missions” that did more harm than good.
• Christians are a family no matter their language, color, or nationality.
• Most American Christians are minor-leaguers by comparison to most Christians in the world. But there are some American missionaries who are fearless, humble, spiritual giants.
• Personal: God clearly spoke to my heart that he wanted me to be a pastor in the USA. I think I needed to get away from all the distractions and focus on him. Interestingly, I began dating Darla the fall after I returned. It was like God was preparing me for many things.
I came home CHANGED...in many good ways. That’s what happens when we get out of our comfort zone and go on a Journey!

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