Some weeks back I spent a few days deep inside DRC Congo. During the busy time I had some moments to glean a bit about the history of the mission station we were visiting. There’s something beautiful about a Cessna airplane tucked back into the edge of the rain forest at the end of narrow airstrip in the middle of Congo. And I found the people there beautiful too. The station in this remote outpost has been without missionaries for many years. And despite their struggles, I found that the church was still shining brightly.
On a solitary hill in Zande land, in the heart of the Congo, sits a historic mission station. There, a dozen odd buildings of earthen brick have stood the test of time and human conflict, and remain still today as a testimony to their builder. Maybe you’ve heard of him, or read a few pages about this pioneering missionary in a book of AIM’s history. But you would have to travel deep into the Congo to really get to know Earl Dix. His heart, and fifty-four years of his life, are still visible there. And not only in the buildings.
I recently visited Banda station with Richard and Carrell, two of the Dix children. Not children anymore, both of them nearing seventy-years-old now, they traveled here for a reunion of sorts, returning to their childhood home atop the hill and down a curious avenue of memory lane. Richard not only grew up in the Congo, but he returned with his wife to work as missionaries at Nyankunde station in the eastern part of the country. During those years, they would make occasional visits to the old homestead in Banda, but it had been a long while since his last return. Carrell, his older sister, arrived at Banda this day after a fifty-year absence. Her memories of the place resurfaced in smiles and stories and a few happy tears.
Earl Dix, ever innovative, set out to Africa somewhat unintentionally, but nonetheless wholeheartedly, in 1929. Supported by a single wealthy businessman who soon after lost his fortune in the throes of the Great Depression, it might appear that Earl’s mission would be short lived. But a minor setback such as being completely broke in the rain forests of the Congo was not going to stop him. It didn’t even slow him down. He married his wife Helena there on the field in 1930, built her a little mud hut to get started with, and then rolled up his sleeves for fifty-four years of ministry. He traded a pig for an old truck, and with it built a mission station.
Homes, workshops, schools, churches, a hospital… “I hauled a lot of bricks up this hill,” Carrell smiled, looking over the station with young eyes again. The earth usually swallows up the works of men here in Congo, ever tending back toward the wild place that it is. Yet somehow, Earl’s work has remained. I leaned against the smooth mahogany frame of an open doorway in one of the old homes, listening to Richard and Carol tell stories on the veranda, and I began to glean bits about their father and mother through shared memories punctuated by rounds of laughter or quiet reflection.
Looking across the lawn I could imagine their ubiquitous pet lion, as it paced to and fro on the porch, waiting for Earl to emerge from the house and causing the local Azande workmen some concern. I could see Earl, in story after story, putting his clever mind and Nebraska farm-boy know-how to take on the challenges of the day. I learned how he involved his children, and adored his wife. I discovered how he once fixed the old truck with a potato. I saw him laying the foundations of buildings, trekking through the forests, and constructing bridges on the spot.
In a way, building bridges is what Earl did best. He is remembered for his talent at working alongside the Azande people, bringing them together, and leading them to the Lord. Bwana Dix, as he was known, worked tirelessly in all things, including his relationships. Perhaps this is why his legacy lives on long after he and wife have gone. At the end of the day, or at the end of lifetime, a mission station is still more than buildings or the presence of a missionary. It is a place where out of the chaos of a forest, a hospital emerges, and out of the darkness which engulfs a society, a church emerges. It is the work of men and women like Earl and Helena. And it is the work of God.
Such works can bring about a transformation. The Azande, I learned, were once a people living in deep and terrible fear. But on this day, I stood in a magnificent church with high vaulted ceilings held aloft by massive timbers, and at the same time supported by the vibrant sounds of two hundred secondary school children singing hymns in French, loud and beautiful. There was no fear there. Only light.
Richard gave a short message in a language he has not forgotten since he was a boy. With a tattered Bible matching the smooth, worn wood of a small table at the front of the sanctuary, he stood and preached both in his father’s shoes and upon his father’s shoulders. Light from the forest spilled in – hues of golden brown and green – rich, soft, substantive colors that seemed to blend in naturally with the bright uniforms of the school children. And in the mix of light and song and Scripture I remembered a short message that Jesus once gave to a crowd on a mountainside.
“A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”
What brought Earl to choose that little hill upon which to build his life’s work, I don’t know. But seventy six years after setting foot on it, it is still a beacon of light to the Azande.
“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Likewise, Earl and Helena are still lovingly remembered by an isolated community of people no longer lost in darkness. Carrell and Richard brought many of those memories to surface again during their short visit. And in the radiant light of a weathered mission station set providentially atop a hill in the middle of the Congo, we all caught a glimpse of the unfading glory of God.