“I don’t know what to do with this.” I heard Ernie speak those words just a few days into our safari. Ernie and his wife had worked with AIM for two years at the MK school here in Kenya back in the 90’s. Today, he’s a pastor in Memphis, and a member of AIM’s directing council. He joined us on our epic trip into central Africa, representing the council and, inadvertently, the average American Christian with a tug of missions on his heart. He sat there in John and Pam’s flat in Ndjemena, defeated by the heat and the events of the day and offered this resignation. The sentiment would only grow over the course of our journey, and Ernie wasn’t the only one at a loss for words. We all struggled to categorize and contain what we saw and experienced: Four broken countries and the oppression, both natural and supernatural, bearing down on the feeble stand of a struggling local church. Countless unreached peoples and the enormity of the challenge in sending workers into this “harvest.”
The ten of us travelled by air, Land Rover, dugout canoe, motorcycle, and foot. We sought out to understand the state of the church in Sudan, C.A.R., Chad, and Congo in order to understand how we could partner with them anew to finsh the task: the task of “making disciples” and reaching those who have never yet heard the Gospel in these distant and difficult lands. In every place, we sat long hours with a remnant of missionaries and African pastors, praying with them and for them. We dove into the murky depths of syncretism and missiology, on a sobering journey through the patchwork history of AIM and the successes and failures in engaging the darkness that thrives in Central Africa: the deep-seated animistic beliefs that hold the people captive, an aggressive Islamic push into their lands, genocides, wars and rumors of wars, ignorance, fear, and still more fear. The fifteen-day journey was exhausting, leaving us with a pile of filthy laundry and a few new parasites. It also left us, not surprisingly, with heavy hearts. But also ideas, and a new sense of excitement to be joining God in His work—however hard it may be.
The immensity of the task struck me on our leg out of Zemio, AIM’s old base of operations in the Central African Republic. We departed on a four-hour flight that traversed the entire country and carried us toward the sands of the Sahara. Flying in Africa, I’m used to seeing the signs of civilization—roads, cities, and paved airports—fade from our graphical display on the GPS map in the airplane. But our routes are usually still pinpricked by a string of mission airstrips—the little clearings of dirt and grass we frequent with people and supplies that on a map represent some kind of missionary work going on. But in C.A.R., the screen was just a black void—empty except for a handful of waypoints in the south. Looking out the window as we flew, the void revealed an inaccessible paradise of tropical forest mottled with vibrant grasslands but no visible roads. Signs of life, where the unreached tribe of the Mbororo roamed, were discernible if you had an eye for it. And a broad look under a gently lifted wing revealed the bigger picture of a coming storm, where the pastoralist Mbororo were encroaching on the agriculturalist Zande, and where the tribes would one day soon be competing for the land and fighting for their survival. One people group has yet to be reached with the Gospel, the other has only a marginal church, and the country is practically void of a missionary presence. If the local church is the hope of the world, it is certainly the only hope for C.A.R.—the only hope to penetrate the darkness there, or to forestall the next war in Sudan, the next Coup d’état in Chad, the next slaughter in Congo. But the workers are few. Too few.
From what I saw over the course of our journey, watching 3,800 miles of African wilderness tick by below my wings, and from what I witnessed on the ground in our visits from the cool Didinga hills in South Sudan to the stagnant waters of Lake Chad, the words in Romans chapter 10 rang true: How can a lost people call on the Lord if they’ve never heard of Him? And how can they hear the Gospel unless someone goes and preaches it, and teaches it, and lives it? And the feet of those who go will be called “beautiful.”
Ron laughed at that imagery when I mentioned the verses. A veteran missionary with enough scars to tell stories late into the night, he probably knew better than any of us on this trip just what was required to minister in Central Africa. “I don’t know why they are called beautiful,” he said. “The people who have gone to these places have trashed their feet. Only God could call them beautiful.” I smiled, knowing full well how trashed his were. Perhaps it is true that some of the ugliest feet in the Church are the ones God admires most. But I think some of the people who have been reached by those who’ve sacrificed and gone would agree with God’s assessment. I saw it in some of the chance meetings along the way, in the smiles and hugs and foreheads pressed together—a Zande pastor remembering his old teacher, and an old Sudanese man remembering the son of the man who led him to the Lord and onto a straight path. One of the big questions we asked ourselves was how to get more feet muddied in the task. White ones, and black ones, working side-by-side.
We asked a lot of questions over those fifteen days. Most of them revolved around the vision and strategies of our mission organization or the complexities of the cultures we encountered. But some of them were truly personal, like Ernie’s honest supplication, “What do I do with this?” I felt the same question weighing on me during the trip, but I tried to forget it as we neared the end and turned eastward toward home. I’ve often thought that Congo is best viewed in the rearview mirror, and seeing it scroll behind us on the GPS map as we flew to Entebbe on our last day brought a sigh of relief once again. One thing I’ve known for a long time is that I could never be a missionary in Congo. I’m not cut out for it, the work is just too daunting. I can barely fly there for a couple days without going crazy. But I couldn’t shake that one question, the one I am most likely to have an answer for. If I’m honest, I would have to say that I know at least part of “what to do with this”—this knowledge of the pressing need and the seemingly impossible task: PRAY for the Lord of the harvest to send workers. And never say “never me.”