IN FEBRUARY BRUCE WILKINSON plans to step to the mike at the Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix to lay down a challenge to the largest pastors conference in U.S. history.
The author of the blockbuster bestseller, The Prayer of Jabez, has a modest proposal for at least 55,000 church leaders who are expected to attend the 2003 Promise Keepers event: Organize 100 church members to visit Africa for a one- to two-week missions trip. If one in five in the crowd takes up the challenge, Mr. Wilkinson believes he could change a continent.
In point of fact, Mr. Wilkinson did not become a household name with modest proposals. The creator of the Jabez phenomenon and founder of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries now believes he can leverage his celebrity status to mobilize 10,000 churches to send 1 million churchgoers to what many still regard as the Dark Continent. Within one- or two-week journeys, he believes, they will want to adopt the regions they visit and minister long-term to those in need.
"More people die [of] AIDS in South Africa every day than all the people that died in the Twin Towers," he told WORLD. "When Americans see the suffering in Africa, they will not be able to keep themselves from helping."
Mr. Wilkinson is not the first to have a vision for Africa. In recent years the consumptive pace of Africa's AIDS crisis has prompted other high-profile humanitarians-from U2's Bono to Franklin Graham-to use their public platforms and their money to try to cure the continent.
Private giving by Americans actually trumps government aid overseas. In 2001 the U.S. government spent about $20 billion in foreign relief aid and development. Private donors-church-based groups, volunteer organizations, foundations, corporations, and universities-gave $35 billion. Most foreign aid, whatever the source, winds up in Africa.
The continent's needs aren't news. But the numbers never fail to stagger. More than half the people of sub-Saharan Africa survive on less than a dollar a day. Forty percent suffer from serious malnutrition and food shortages. In Somalia 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday. Southern Africa is in the throes of serious famine, with 12 million people at high risk of starvation. Another food crisis looms in Eritrea and Ethiopia. And that's not talking about AIDS.
Seventy percent of the world's AIDS deaths, or 20 million, have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 13 million children are orphans as a result. In some countries over 20 percent of the population is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, most of them in the 15-49 age group.
What's less noted about Africa is the good news. West African oil and gas now supply almost 15 percent of U.S. energy needs. That could rise to 25 percent by 2005. Discoveries of new reserves have the petroleum industry looking harder at Africa, particularly as uncertainty increases about Middle East suppliers.
Military planners are looking more to Africa to bolster their own security. Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, visited Eritrea in March. Rumors float that he may soon select the Red Sea port of Assab as a new base of operations. More than 1,500 U.S. Marines are exercising in neighboring Djibouti, while 800 U.S. troops, including special forces, are based at Le Monier camp in Djibouti town as part of a task force for the Horn of Africa.
At the same time, the Bush administration is more concerned about Africa's own wars-both savage ethnic civil wars in places like Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, as well as Muslim-Christian conflicts in Sudan and Nigeria. Under the banner of war on terror, U.S. officials would like to halt the southward spread of radical Islam. "We've got to stop the wars," said Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner. "Africa will not develop if you have wars going, and we have got to assist in bringing some of those wars to closure."
Confessing Africa's strategic importance to the United States should mean also admitting that decades of government aid and intervention have not done enough to overcome widespread insecurity. Private entrepreneurs like Mr. Wilkinson are key. "Africa is not going to make it economically without international private sector involvement," he said.
Nonprofit groups have long known they could do good without government sponsorship. Whether it is the $24 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or $200 gifts for cleft palate surgery, donors want their dollars to help the beleaguered, not a bureaucracy.
That is why well-endowed humanitarians like Mr. Wilkinson strike out on their own. The soft-spoken, silver-haired Bible teacher, at 55, says he saw suffering firsthand in Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa while financing production of a film, Beat the Drum, about a boy who loses his parents to AIDS. It convinced him that only Christians devoting themselves en masse to the starving and the sick-building new orphanages and supporting African churches-can succeed. It also convinced him to move there.
Earlier this year he, his wife Darlene, and 15-year-old daughter Jessica bought a home in Bryanston, just north of Johannesburg, South Africa. Their son David and his wife Angie have also moved to South Africa. The radical career change was not instant after he resigned in 2001 from the leadership of Walk Thru the Bible, the ministry he had launched 25 years ago. Then he intended to move to Hollywood to "expand his territory and enlarge his borders," by taking the Jabez philosophy to filmmaking.
The Wilkinsons plan to spend eight months of each year in South Africa running their new ministry training African pastors and lay leaders, and four months of each year in the United States recruiting more American pastors and mobilizing the financial resources needed to keep the project going. The ministry, dubbed Global Vision Resources, already has partnered with Promise Keepers and World Vision to that end.
Mr. Wilkinson is not the only evangelical leader to cash in a high-profile ministry for Africa. Rosemary Jensen, for 20 years the director of San Antonio-based Bible Study Fellowship International, left that post to start the Rafiki Foundation, a nonprofit ministry to African women and children. ("Rafiki" means "friend" in Swahili.) Mrs. Jensen told WORLD that she has always wanted to do only two things. "I want to teach people about God by teaching the Scriptures. And I want to help with the physical needs of women and children."
Africa was not a new idea for Mrs. Jensen and her husband Bob. As missionaries in Tanzania from 1957 to 1966, they became acquainted with then-Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta. When they set their sights on Africa again, the Kenyatta family helped Rafiki purchase 27 acres outside Nairobi for a children's center and vocational training school. That compound and another in Ghana are models for Rafiki centers springing up in seven other African nations, as well as India and Ecuador.
The centers aspire to be more like villages than orphanages. When complete, children will live 10 to a cottage with staff attendants to parent them. Many children are AIDS orphans, are suffering from malnutrition, or both. One week a baby found in a garbage bag arrives at the center in Ghana. Another week, a set of triplets is turned over by their mother because she cannot support them.
Food, medical care, and classical Christian education become the children's staples. Mrs. Jensen works hard to keep staff/child ratios low, and she is unembarrassed to tell potential donors the real costs: $100 a month to sponsor a child.
She is also unembarrassed to keep Christian teaching at the center of the work, with particulars spelled out in a seven-part belief statement (including Scripture references) and in website and promotional material. "We will take in Muslim children, but we will not make exceptions about what they are taught," she said. "They will receive a classical education based on Christian principles and they will study the Bible."
In the field she stands out, a white-haired white woman among a sea of usually young black faces. Back in the United States she is no less noticeable, fundraising in a lime green jacket covered in zebras. So far the program has sustained itself without the usual government grants. "We would take a grant from the U.S. government, as long as they did not tell us how to run our program," she said.
Dick Bransford has learned more of the ropes on government aid than he ever cared to, and is discovering that a big business plan isn't always essential to big charity. A surgeon for more than 20 years with Africa Inland Mission, Dr. Bransford in the last decade has put his skills to work in tent wards on the front lines during the Somalian war and in clinics in Sudan while bombs dropped.
After Somalia, he was content to return to the Africa Inland Mission hospital where he first came as a medical student in 1966. Bethany Crippled Childrens Center straddles a glade above the Rift Valley in Kijabe, outside Nairobi-the only hospital of its kind in a country with the population of California. Dr. Bransford directs orthopedics and neurosurgery. The center treats most of Kenya's hydrocephalus and spina bifida cases, in addition to burn injuries, polio, and other crippling diseases.
From that perch Dr. Bransford watched as nearby African wars began to hover at his doorstep. At Bethany, Sudanese, Somalian, and Ethiopian refugees from UN camps just inside Kenya's borders now vie for a table along with the usual stream of Kenyan patients. Despite vast resources and infrastructure, UN camps are going bankrupt as camp populations swell. Nearly two years ago several camps began transporting patients to Dr. Bransford on a weekly basis. War and radical Islam now leave their respective ailments in his ward: landmine wounds, amputations, and women mutilated by female circumcisions.
A normal day for Dr. Bransford begins at six o'clock with morning rounds. He returns to his home, a short climb in thin air, for breakfast with his family before beginning a full day of surgery. Mondays through Wednesdays he performs surgery, while Thursday and Friday are reserved for overseeing 13 mobile clinics. On the Tuesday WORLD visited, 12 patients by midmorning were recovering from cleft lip and cleft palate procedures. Eighteen refugees, mostly Somalis, from a UN camp at Dadaab had arrived the night before and were prepped or already recuperating from procedures. In his spare time Dr. Bransford tinkers in a prosthetics workshop. It more resembles a blacksmith shop for its primitive tools and implements, but technicians there probably make more leg braces than any place in Kenya. Dr. Bransford also takes time away to work in Sudan, where he teaches battlefield medicine and operates along the way.
When the UN announced a year ago that it could no longer cover the costs of refugee medical care at Bethany, Dr. Bransford decided to pay them himself. He diverted some of his own support through Africa Inland Mission, cajoled Christian relief groups in Sudan to help out, and pressed pharmaceuticals and medical colleagues in the United States. He lobbied Washington, but only the private sources helped in the end. "I could find the money. That was not the issue. It is cooperation from the bureaucracy that is so hard. In a short period of time these people will be out of our reach medically. We just have a window of opportunity here," he said.
The UN, never good at notifying him of refugees it was sending to Bethany, suddenly stopped sending them altogether in October, even though Dr. Bransford was covering all costs but transportation. When Dr. Bransford inquired, UN health coordinator Mohamed Qassim informed him that "medical referrals of all elective cases has [sic] been temporarily suspended."
Despite the hard challenges of working with the UN bureaucracy, Dr. Bransford says he is grateful everyday for the way refugees overrun his hospital. The refugee patients, he says, in many cases represent unreached people groups. "We have been praying for Somalis for decades. But when famine came, the door opened. We could not go into their territory, but with famine and war, they came out to us."
Treating them has given the surgeon fresh appreciation for the advantages of private-sector funding. "Know anyone at Lily?" he quizzes, certain that he can procure expensive medicine from the pharmaceutical giant faster than it will arrive through government channels. The smiles in the recovery room are daily reassurances that private charity can succeed, whether the vision begins in a stadium or a brimming surgery ward.
-Joel C. Rosenberg interviewed Bruce Wilkinson for this article