Nineteenth-century New York editor Horace Greeley is most famous for words he may never have said: "Go west, young man." But even if the words weren't his exactly, the message was: New York City was crowded with people chasing the same American dream, so the adventurous should head to the frontier.
Africa, as previous articles in this series have noted, is the newer frontier. Some people go there to apply demonstrated strengths. Some go there to overcome career mismatches or disappointments. But the Bible emphasizes God's sovereignty, which means (among other things) that every experience moves those He calls to where He wants them. There are no accidents.
Look at Mike Jones (see "The other venue," July 16), who grew up on a farm in North Carolina but from 1984 to 1994 worked as a computer engineer: This man who exults in being outside in the Zambian bush country spent 10 years wearing a coat and tie and peering at mainframes in D.C.-area office-building basements.
Career mismatch? "That was a little strange," he acknowledges. God blessed him and his wife with four daughters, and his supervisors gave their blessing by making him a manager, but then his company was bought by another. He was demoted to a regular engineer again, with a 10 percent pay cut and the loss of a week of vacation, although his manager unofficially gave it back to him.
In the midst of this professional mismatch and disappointment God also gave him a vision for Africa. Does it take away from Mr. Jones' calling to note that a better white-collar corporate job wasn't calling? Not in the least. The fine movie Chariots of Fire notes that God made Eric Liddell for missionary work in China, but God also made him fast. God gave Mr. Jones the ability to work with computers, but a look at the joy he takes in helping Zambian farmers and orphans shows that God made him for Africa.
The Ezra to Mr. Jones' Nehemiah in Zambia is Jerry Beall, 59, a pastor for 33 years. The first five of those were in the United Methodist Church, but he left that denomination as big parts of it moved toward embracing homosexuality. He pastored at several Holiness churches within three different small denominations but was concerned with legalism in those situations, as he had been concerned with liberalism in the mainline denomination. (He smiles and says, "Choose your blessings and choose your battles.")
By 1993 Mr. Beall had pastored for a decade at Damascus Wesleyan Church just north of Washington, D.C., and had helped to increase attendance from 15 to 450-500. Quantity was good but he wondered about quality and "was looking for a vision for the church." He believed the church should become mission-oriented but didn't know where; Albania, Colombia, and Spain were candidates. But after he and Mr. Jones visited Zambia in 1993, "Mike came back breathing and talking Africa all the time."
Meanwhile, a church split in 1995 and two more splits in 1998 left Mr. Beall wondering what was next, so he started annual trips to Africa. Standing in a Zambian village late in June, he said, "In the States, people have so much already. I enjoyed preaching there but people have so little here. They have less so you want to give them more." If his church had been trouble-free Mr. Beall might not have had the opportunity to visit Africa so often or the personal incentive to see if he could be of more service on the frontier.
God also providentially orders lives of short-term volunteers. One afternoon at Mr. Beall's Zambian orphanage, three West Virginia Wesleyan students helping out for the summer were as enthusiastic as Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings, and with longish hair looked the parts. The oldest of the three, Jacob Schwertfeger (he quickly explained that his name means "sword carrier" in German) played on his guitar, "Lord I Lift Thy Name up High," and the other hobbits were lifting up laughing toddlers. A 3-year-old strummed on his Road Warrior T-shirt.
Later, Jacob described his high-school years: "Got into some major sin. Sexual immorality, the drunken party scene. That was my life through high school. . . . One day I realized I had nothing. I was bawling my eyes out . . . and God said He still loved me." He "came to college all fired up" and also started thinking, "How cool it would be to travel for the Lord." Two of his talents make him particularly well-suited for work in Africa: "Pull out a guitar and a soccer ball [he's on his college team] and you have a crowd around you wherever you are. It's awesome that God gave me that."
God also gave Jacob a certain taste in film: "Tarzan was one of my favorite movies. . . . From the time I was 5 or 6 I longed to go to other lands, particularly Africa." He spoke of his plans to be married next year and to return to Africa with his new wife. He says she "always longed to be in a ministry with children who need love"-and as they became an item, Jacob reports, "we've always said, 'It's Africa.'"
Other college students volunteer out of a desire for adventure or the opportunity to stretch their wings-and then fall in love with the children who come under their care. Lydia Alder and Jaimie Bugaski, both recent college graduates, teach the two regular classes at the Children of Zion home in Namibia (see "One church, one orphanage, July 23). They have a particularly challenging assignment because of the wide differences in age and ability levels in each class: A 12-year-old new to schooling has to learn her ABCs while an 8-year-old is doing three-digit multiplication.
Older volunteers also show multiple strengths. Jodi Canapp, 28, returned to America last month after spending nine months over two stays at Children of Zion. While there she became the home's Jill-of-all-trades: She washed clothes, changed diapers, taught school, washed dishes, shopped, cut hair, and even delivered a baby goat. When the cook quit, she learned to make nutritious meals for 65 people. Every night from 6:30 to 7:00 she dispensed drugs to the HIV-positive kids. The local staff called her "nurse Jodi" or "chef Jodi," depending on the hat she was wearing.
Volunteers need to be flexible and they also need to learn perseverance because in Africa nothing comes easy. Wounded healers are also welcome, as long as they are adaptable and willing to help. One short-term mission group at Loskop in June, from Indian Creek Community Church of Olathe, Kan., included members who were older than the average college student or 20-something, but they had a typical experience in one sense: They came to serve and found that in the process they were served.
One member, Chad Phillips, 37, said, "I've always felt that I don't have much to offer. . . . Both my parents are from broken homes themselves. I grew up feeling rejected by both. That feeling of being abandoned opened up the door for temptation . . . but maybe I had a twisted upbringing for a reason, to make me more compassionate to orphans. I know how much they need to be nurtured, held, and loved. . . . I've changed a lot this past year, and this trip helps. I see hope now. I realize that God loves me and loves these children."
Another older helper, Steve Robbins, 35, spoke of three blows he suffered during 2004: His wife filed for divorce, he was laid off, and he broke his leg and so had plenty of time to think about the first two disasters. On his last Loskop day he said, "God's been taking my whole life and twisting it around." The twists he encountered in Africa-seeing poor-quality tools, missing needed supplies, and suddenly finding that he was crew chief because he was the only visitor who was handy-helped in his resolution "not to be so rigid, to go with the flow, not to get upset."
The leader of the Indian Creek group, Brad Hill, 28, is an associate pastor working to create niches within the church of 1,400 people for those seeking what he calls "a non-formulaic church environment." He said, "I've been to all the conferences, dude-Willow Creek, etc. Those places work for some people, but a lot of us want something real . . . to be a part of God's big story, to have adventure. Sometimes in the States we say we're reaching new people, but it's mainly people who have been disenfranchised from the church they're in. Here we can reach new people, and that's exciting."
Tim Stout, 53, and his son Trevor, 18, were the oldest and youngest members of the group. After working at Hallmark for 17 years-he now consults in the creation of e-cards-Mr. Stout grabbed the opportunity to come to Loskop and make a video that Agathos will use in fundraising. He also noted that his father died three months ago and he wanted to bond more with his son: "The two weeks here is the longest we've ever gone without fighting."
And one member of the group, Ivy Wagner, 23, was staying on at Loskop for two months rather than two weeks. She had already spent a half-year in Tanzania, because "cross-cultural experience rocks your world." But doctors had already rocked her world when she was 16 and they diagnosed her with thyroid cancer. After surgery, radiation, and seven years gone by, she has a clean bill of health, but the experience "made me think how short life is." She bonds with a similar African sensibility and generalizes, "People in the U.S. are always looking for what's next. Here, people live one day at a time, and I think there's more joy in anything they have today."
Americans who go to Africa today need an adventurous disposition. Pastor Beall said of himself and his volunteers in Zambia, "Yeah, we're different. Folks who come here are not satisfied just going to a church. They're a restless bunch." When asked what those who head to the African frontier would have done in the 19th century, he grinned and said, "We probably would have gone west back then."
Americans who want to help pioneers financially have different ways of doing so. Some donate money to big relief and development agencies. These organizations may be tied down by their administrative or publicity staffs and their needs or desires to play ball with governmental groups. The tie-downs, though, may also keep them from flying off into space or losing time and money on untested initiatives. Donors should throw hard questions at both bureaucrats and entrepreneurs.
Some churches also need to make hard decisions. For example, it's great to have good worship spaces, but do we need cathedrals? The orphanages in Namibia and Zambia profiled in this series exist because medium-sized churches chose to prioritize mercy over building a new sanctuary in one case and putting in air conditioning in the other.
And for the people moved to go to Africa, what David Livingstone (see "Livingstone's prayer") wrote a century and a half ago is still true today: "My heart is sore when I think of so many of our countrymen in . . . misery, while [in Africa] they could do much good to themselves and others." Some volunteers go from strength to strength, happy with their American jobs or studies and ready to advance. Some who feel dead-ended try out a different way of living. Both kinds in Africa can do much good for themselves and others.
Contact information for organizations spotlighted in this series:
(working in South Africa)
P.O. Box 6127
Lynnwood, Washington 98036
Children of Zion
(working in Namibia)
P.O. Box 413
Churchville, MD 21028
Sons of Thunder
(working in Zambia)
P.O. Box 7
Damascus, Maryland 20872