“Sometimes when you are called to obey, the fear does not subside and you are expected to move by faith against the fear. One must choose to do it afraid.”
– Elisabeth Elliot
I have only one good pair of boots. I seldom get to use them, but they were the first thing I packed. For fifteen days I travelled through central Africa. Into Sudan, Congo, Chad, and the Central African Republic. Into the middle of some of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. Where the Land Rovers wouldn’t go, I travelled by air, motorcycle, dugout canoe, and foot – over thousands of miles of savannah, rain forest, mountain and desert.
The history of central Africa is largely disheartening. From the southern mountains of Sudan, all the way inland to Lake Chad, these four nations share a similarly 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.
Sudan, Congo, Chad, and the Central African Republic rank 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th respectively on Foreign Policy magazine’s failed states index. But that’s just the start. 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 brings more fearful uncertainty.
My boots plodded through the thick elephant grass in the Didinga Mountains of Southern Sudan, tracing a path up a hillside and back in time to an era when missionaries still 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 second civil war in the 80’s drove them out and shut down the school. The church scattered, but somehow, survived.
Bill Hybels said 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 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 some of them, abandoned.
Initial missionary efforts in these lands were not perfect. But the roots planted by those first pioneers somehow endured. Today pastors and church leaders are again asking for missionaries: people who love Jesus and are willing to share their lives and talents, to meet practical needs, all while engaging in transformational discipleship. Over 124 million people live in these four nations; more than 220 unreached people groups. It’s time for missionaries to return to central Africa.
Whatever the continued missionary effort looks like, it must be made of disciple makers. Throughout this region, there are places where the church does not yet exist, and places where the church is barely holding on.
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.
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? What do you do when the next war touches you, and it’s your turn to flee?
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.”
“In the past there were missionaries who loved us,” responded one man. “And they accepted to suffer with us.”
I wondered if the past was just that. Past.
I have these feet, and they can go. They are able, even if they are not experienced. But the question I’m asking now is this: are they willing? Are my feet willing to move against the fear?