FIRST-PERSON (Thomas White): A lesson learned in the African bush
FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--Our adventure began as we pushed the white Nissan Patrol adorned with a brush guard, a winch and two spare tires down the road to pop the clutch. While leaving it running, five of us grabbed extra water, a hand-held GPS and set out on an adventure to map the northern boundary of the Ngindo people group in East Africa.
Five hundred thousand people spread out over 18,000 square miles make up the Ngindo. Less than 0.1 percent of them have ever heard the life-changing message of the Gospel. Our task for the day was simply to identify the northern villages so that the Southwestern Seminary student stationed there could eventually make friends and reach them with the Gospel.
We traveled for about an hour and a half on dirt roads increasingly cradled by green brush and tree branches that opened suddenly, exposing vistas of luscious valleys and unexpected villages.
The farther north we went, the fewer people we saw, but tsetse flies came from every direction. Large piles of dung in the middle of the road let us know that we were not the only ones to travel this path. We had reached Tembo (elephant) country near the southern border of the Selous game reserve. We all wanted to see one -- from a safe distance of course.
As the sun began melting into the horizon, we ran out of marked road on the GPS and encountered a significant stream. Three of us left the vehicle, walking across the swampy terrain to find large elephant bones and what seemed to be fresh tracks. Excitement kept our senses keen as any number of animals could be just over the horizon or around the corner and some of them may look at us as an evening snack. The encroaching darkness and continued annoyance of swarming tsetse flies called us back toward civilization.
Our return ride left no time to relax, immediately presenting us with new obstacles. Jagged rocks sprinkled throughout the deep ruts in the road punctured our front right tire. The unmistakable sound reminded me of an untied balloon being let go. We quickly identified the most level spot available and rolled to a stop while keeping the vehicle running.
Four of us jumped out and changed the tire with the enthusiasm of a NASCAR pit crew welcoming yet another challenge on our adventure. After fixing the flat, we were soon on our way bouncing through the ruts again.
But darkness had fallen in more ways than one. As our vehicle approached the northernmost village, shadowy figures scrambled in the night to block the road with a large rope. "Nothing good could come of this," I thought. The last remains of the mythological troll under the bridge, or a simple shakedown for money, began.
Waves of people began to yell while rocking the car. Locked doors and a thin sheet of glass were all that separated us from their barrage. Our driver rolled down his window slightly and began to speak with them in their language. He managed to lower the threat level and eventually stepped out of the car to speak with the leaders. Providentially, no harm came to him.
They said we had crossed a checkpoint, which just happened to be unmarked and unattended, and failed to pay the fee to pass through their village. As a result, we needed to go to the village office, speak with the elders and, ironically, sign the "guest book."
The thought of driving through the rope held only by wooden posts crossed our minds, but we also considered the damage it might do to our witness for Christ.
To be honest, I thought leaving the safety of the vehicle and going into the office surrounded by unknown Ngindo people was a bad idea. This people group had murdered the last known missionaries with a machete and, although willing, I had no desire to volunteer for martyrdom. Bad soon turned to worse.
Intensity escalated as a man carrying a large caliber rifle approached the vehicle. Either he planned to shoot us or the villagers had drunk too much Pombea (alcohol), and he needed it to keep them away. Neither option provided comfort. Thoughts of Nate Saint and Jim Elliot crossed my mind as we prayed that God would help us make friends and not enemies.
For about an hour and a half, discussion with tribal leaders continued. The situation escalated as onlookers consumed more alcohol and carried increasingly larger clubs.
I sat there mentally going through contingency plans. Being a black belt in the martial arts, a concealed handgun carrier and a country boy at heart, my first instinct is always "fight to survive." I could use the 6-inch knife at my side to take out the guy with the gun, jump in the driver's seat, run the car down the 4-foot embankment and leave this people group in the darkness of the night. We would be safe, but perhaps the village would remain lost forever.
Or I could trust that if God wanted us to die then I should be willing -- not looking for death but trusting God's sovereignty even in this situation. Perhaps He had bigger plans on the horizon.
Our driver came out to announce that an agreement had been reached which included the expected "fine" and the unexpected request for us to return the following morning.
The next morning we kept our word and made the hour-and-a-half drive back out to the village. The drunks had disappeared with the stars, and new friends greeted us warmly. God had answered our prayers.
We told them our purpose for coming was obedience to Jesus Christ and to help with their problems. We learned that their biggest physical need was clean water. They led us to a shallow well where the pipe had become disconnected to the pump. Next, we walked to a hole dug in the ground where they wash clothes, bathe and drink, among other things.
What I saw in the darkness of the night was the depravity of mankind. What I saw in the light of the sun were people desperate for the hope that only God's Son can provide.
I had underestimated our God. We desired only to map the northern boundary of an unreached people group, but God provided a unique way of introducing us to the leaders of that village. Now our workers can develop relationships, fix a well to provide clean water and share with them the living water of the one true God.
I'll never forget what our driver said after leaving: "Missions is not what you do for a trip. Missions is what you do for a lifetime." Perhaps this struck me because my adventure was a two-week trip into his life.
This morning I took a hot shower with good water pressure. I sit in an air-conditioned house surfing the Web on wireless Internet while watching cable television. There are thousands of retail stores nearby and, although the drivers are crazy, at least the roads are paved.
Yet sitting here, I find my thoughts and prayers drifting back toward East Africa and a missionary family of six sitting in a open air banda (pavilion) amidst an unreached people group with eternity in the balance. They need our prayers, our encouragement and our financial support as they share and live out the Gospel among the Ngindo people.
My adventure into the bush made me more aware of the darkness of the world and more sensitive to the situation of our missionaries.
One wild night in a village, I learned a lesson that I hope changes the way I live: Whether holding the ropes through prayer and support or moving our families to bring light into dark places, "missions is not what you do for a trip. Missions is what you do for a lifetime."
Thomas White is vice president for student services and communications and associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (www.swbts.edu/campusnews).