MISSIONS: How God is at work in Abidjan
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (BP)-- As I pored over news stories to prepare for the trip to Ivory Coast, not much of the nation's recent storyline encouraged optimism.
Abidjan, a city formerly known as the "Paris of West Africa," seemed littered with tales of violence that left marks in bullet-pocked walls and on people's hearts. Accounts of bloodshed and strife caused by a decade of civil war filled my background notes. Even the airport I flew into, reconstructed and modernized now, had been looted and damaged during fighting, which culminated in the Battle for Abidjan in April 2011.
Though now the government is stable and the city is rebuilding, I could also imagine the physical state of this West African city of more than 6 million inhabitants: tangles of traffic, impoverished neighborhoods, disparities between rich and poor, unemployment and economic uncertainty, all of which might have rubbed the sheen off a country that was once considered a model of stability for the continent.
All of that awaited me in Abidjan. But something else was there as well when I stepped through the airport doors into the humid African night with IMB missionary Heather McAfee. As she steered her vehicle through dark streets, dodging potholes and pedestrians, before we even reached her home, Heather began offering glimpses of a city much different than the one conjured up from reading too many articles on la crise, "the crisis."
Heather and her husband, Mike, urban church planters in Abidjan, have a passion for this city and care deeply about the multitudes of people whom they seek to reach with the Gospel. A diverse group it is, with more than 60 indigenous languages spoken in the city and a religious makeup that includes Muslims, Catholics and those who follow tribal religions. Only a sliver of the population includes Christian evangelicals.
In the following 10 days, Mike and Heather carried me throughout the city from the Treichville commune, to Abobo in the north, across the canal that makes Abidjan the primary port in West Africa, to the central business district of Plateau. They introduced me to national friends in ministry, took me into Muslim homes where they openly share Christ, showed me places of possibility in the city where God seems to be moving and other areas where they hope to establish a church presence.
They shared how God is there in Abidjan, working in those neighborhoods, touching lives of Muslims -- even through dreams -- and opening doors for their efforts to speak truth to many who live in fear of curses and darkness. Their daily focus, Mike says, is to discover where God is at work and join Him in what He's doing in this sprawling, needy city.
Telling the story
Heather is a homeschooling mother of three. If that isn't enough, she also manages to be deeply involved in ministry, wearing a dozen hats ranging from volunteer coordinator and hostess to networker with national pastors' wives. One day she took me to Vridi, where she visits weekly to share Bible stories. Vridi was the first place that Heather began to practice Chronological Bible Storying in French when she first arrived on the field. She had only been in language study for three months when another missionary took her there to model the work. The following week, the older missionary encouraged Heather to tell the Bible story in her then-halting French, and Heather's been returning weekly since that time.
Power lines skim the sky over this shantytown settled decades ago when the former French colonial government brought immigrants, mostly from Burkina Faso, to build the Vridi Canal. Dwellings are jumbles of corrugated tin, shored up by slats and pieces of discarded wood: someone else's trash woven together to make a home. Young barefoot children wearing mismatched clothing run up to Heather, determined to shake hands with la blanche, the "white lady." Heather finds her way along a dusty path to Vridi's market area. There she meets two women, Agira and Marie, at a market stall with clothing hung on nails stuck in boards against the stall sides. Smoke from cooking fires wafts through the air. Surrounding stalls sell cheap hairpieces, plastic beaded necklaces and food items such as peanuts and bananas.
Heather seats herself on the floor of the stall while Agira reclines. Agira is pregnant with her second child and not feeling well today. Heather tells the story, in her now-fluent French, of the paralyzed man whose friends brought him to Jesus' feet. As she wraps up the story, they discuss it while Shakira, Agira's 4-year-old daughter, playfully climbs into Heather's lap. Agira is interested in the fact that God is willing to forgive, "even really bad sins." She comes from a Muslim background but has told Heather before today that she wants to give her life to Jesus. The three ladies conclude by singing a song together.
As with most missionaries going to the field for the first time, when the McAfees landed in Abidjan in late 2007, it was a commitment of uncertain shape and size. Heather and Mike, with their then-8-year-old Caleb and 6-year-old Karis, were planting their lives on an unknown continent with only the assurance that God had called them there. Now, however, Heather is clearly at home, sitting on the floor of this African market stall and talking about issues of the heart with these women.
As urban church planters, the McAfees' ultimate hope is to plant a church in every quartier, or neighborhood, in Abidjan -- a God-sized task. As they work toward this end, it's just possible that these city streets that saw so much bloodshed will instead know God's forgiveness, reconciliation and grace.