“Sometimes when we are called to obey, the fear does not subside and we are expected to move against the fear. One must choose to do it afraid.” –Elizabeth Elliot

I have only one pair of good boots. I seldom get to use them, but they were the first thing I packed. For fifteen days I traveled through central Africa. Into the middle of the continent, and the middle of some of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. Our objective was to gauge the state of the church here, if there was one, and to learn how to re-engage these lands with a renewed missionary effort. What do you take on a trip like that? Good boots and a Bible. A notebook and an open mind. And, if you dare, an open heart.

Into Sudan, Congo, Chad, and the Central Africa Republic. Four countries with a combined land mass equal to two-thirds of the United States, but without the roads. So where the Land Rovers wouldn’t go, we traveled by air, motorcycle, dugout canoe, and foot – over thousands of miles of savanna, rain forest, mountain and desert. The landscapes were forbidding, and beautiful; giving way to sunlit villages of thatch and meandering footpaths, where smiling children and women carted the wares of life atop their heads.

But one has a sense, on a journey such as this, that there’s more to the story of the people and the land than you can catch at a glance. Where your boots meet the rich, red African soil, and where your itinerary makes time for a cup of tea and a conversation, you begin to see the real picture. It is largely a disheartening one. From the southern mountains of Sudan, all the way inland to Lake Chad, these four unique nations share one tragic history. Each gained independence from colonial rule somewhere around 1960. And each replaced one kind of oppression with another. What followed has been decades of human conflict and unfathomable suffering. Economies and communities were destroyed. Infrastructures crumbled. People scattered. The wicked prospered and the righteous lost their homes.

All four countries in recent years were listed among the ten least stable entities in the world. But those are only the political woes. For most of the people here, generations of spiritual darkness rooted in Animistic beliefs have led to a culture steeped in fatalism and fear. The “spirits” which they believe control their world are the most prominent and powerful forces in their lives. And the influence of Islam simply brings more fearful uncertainty.

My boots plodded through the thick elephant grass in the Datooga Mountains, tracing out a path up a hillside and back in time to an era when missionaries lived and worked here. Their house, like the Bible School they built, lay crumbling and bare, returning to the clay from which its bricks were cast. Sudan’s war in the 80’s drove them out and shut down the school. The Church scattered, but somehow, survived. Even grew.

How is that possible? It’s been said that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Jesus said as much. He told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.” And in central Africa, glimpses of that hope still remain. But they are like the courageous flickers of a lamp in danger of going out.

I sat and listened to James and John, two young Sudanese pastors aptly named, as they told the story of reclaiming a village for the Lord, and how they fought for it, literally, on their knees next to a slab of concrete that was once a whole church. I listened to a Zande choir rock their church, and my soul, with the sound of drums and voices lifted above the vaulted roof of a sanctuary built long ago, above a canopy of trees in the rainforest of C.A.R. I traveled down the Chari River with pastor Samuel, his face a mixture of uncommon humility and unpretentious humanity. We ventured onto the waters of lake Chad and prayed. Prayed, boldly it seemed, for the Gospel to one day take root this far inland. And for his little mud church upstream to simply stand. I saw Pastor Lalima praying over a thousand ravaged and displaced people in Adi. I saw the gleaming faces of the graduating class from the Bible Institute in Obo. I saw an old man, his life long ago transformed, rebuilding that old Bible school there in the Datooga Mountains.

The local church is the hope of the world. And it’s the hope for central Africa. It is God’s chosen instrument to transform lives and bring people into His Kingdom. It’s his instrument to preserve a community, a country, and the world from the debasement and destruction of sin. “But what if the salt loses it saltiness?” AIM’s Central Region coordinator simply looked north to answer the question. North Africa used to have a vibrant church. Today, it’s all but gone. He warned that this could happen here too. Are we a generation away? Less? The hard truth is that the Church in central Africa is but a remnant. Dealt a double blow from war and syncretism. It’s been scattered, persecuted, diluted. And, if you ask them, abandoned.

AIM’s initial missionary effort in these lands was not perfect. But the roots planted by those first pioneers somehow endured a forty-year absence. The danger now is that the “living stones” of the Body of Christ are looking much like the actual stones of many of the buildings. Crumbling. One wall where there should be four. Choked and overgrown with weeds. Over 124 million people live in these four nations. More than 220 unreached people groups. And a singular, impoverished church begging for help to reach them. It’s time AIM returned to central Africa.

Whatever the continued missionary effort looks like, it must be made of disciple-makers. All throughout this region, there are places where the church does not yet exist, and places where the church is barely holding on. And over countless hours in countless meetings with pastors and church leaders in the region, I heard their pleas. They ask for missionaries: people who love Jesus and are willing to share their lives and talents, to perhaps meet a practical need, while all along addressing the most important one – transformational discipleship.

It requires a coming-alongside to teach, speak courage, and ultimately go out together as One Church to the unreached. Central Africa’s transformation will begin here; in the hearts of people who are transformed into Christ’s likeness. Making more disciples who then make more. Is this vision for central Africa even possible? One thing is certain: we can no longer wait for it to become easy.

By day twelve on our fifteen-day trip I quit admiring my boots. I had grown to resent them, as well as the socks I had been wearing for three days straight. My feet were aching and slightly blistered. Gore Tex doesn’t really breathe when it’s 117 degrees. Some days prior, our pilot on the trip made a comment about feet that came to mind. I mentioned something about the “feet of those who bring good news” and he chuckled.

“Don’t know why they’re called beautiful,” he said. “The missionaries who have served here have trashed their feet. Only God could call them beautiful.”

This is a hard place. This is a hard calling. How do you live in a land of persistent instability? How do you minister to the spiritually oppressed and oppressive? How do you learn the language, understand the culture, navigate the government abuse? How do you throw up your hands in frustration and embrace a friend at the same time? What do you do when the next war touches you, and it’s your turn to flee? What if you lose all your stuff? What if you lose more than just your stuff? What if it’s worth it?

I sat in the dark, in a semi-circle of Congolese pastors at Aru. They asked us, unashamedly, why the missionaries are not returning. “Because it’s hard” we told them. “Sometimes they hear the news of this place and are afraid.” And one of them said something I cannot forget.

“In the past there were missionaries who loved us… and they accepted to suffer with us.”

And I wondered if the past was just that. Past.

I don’t know what to do with this. God is calling me to something, but is it something this hard? I have these feet, and they can go. They are able, even if they are not experienced. But the question I’m asking is this: are they willing? Willing to walk some of the earth’s most beautiful and devastated lands? Willing to stand side by side with those of my African brothers and sisters? Willing to be trashed in the process, and one day be called beautiful? Are my feet willing to move against the fear?

I don’t know what to do with this. But one thing I know I can’t do anymore is walk away.

This essay was written for AIM’s magazine, Heartbeat Africa. The essay is basically a journey  through territory and time, and through the tough questions about serving in a hard place.

(PHOTOS from this trip)