Courage in the Face of Fear: Embracing Hardship for the Great Commission
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the Summer 2010 edition of the Southwestern News. To view the magazine online, visit www.swbts.edu/swnews.
“I didn’t come here to be a coward,” says Southwestern Seminary international church planting student Neal*. Wanting to make an eternal difference, Neal and his family have taken a difficult East african missionary job request that for nine years remained unfilled.
“I did not come here just to exist,” Neal says. “I came here to share the Gospel and make a difference. … Lifestyle evangelism alone is not enough.”
Recalling days when he feared sharing his faith, Neal credits his studies at Southwestern’s Houston campus with giving him a passion for the Great Commission. Havard School dean Denny Autrey’s Introduction to Evangelism class sparked his heart for the lost, and a lecture from Keith Eitel, dean of the Fish School of Evangelism and Missions, challenged him to consider missions. Eitel asked students “not to consider if they were called to missions but to consider what reason they had for believing they were not called to missions.”
With a Tilley hat shading his head and Teva sandals on his feet, Neal maps out remote villages and openly shares Christ among what he calls, “a cul-de-sac people.”
“You know with a cul-de-sac you don’t accidentally go there,” he explains. “You have to be intentional about it.”
This cul-de-sac people, however, do not live on paved streets in suburban neighborhoods. Even the “good roads” among the Ngindo people are two-track dirt roads with wooden bridges, deep ruts, and shallow river crossings. The main thoroughfares resemble hunting camp roads in rural Texas more than the center of commercial activity. During the rainy season, water and mud make the roads leading to major cities impassible.
The challenge excites Neal.
“It is amazing how God structured my past to equip me for what He has me doing now,” Neal says. Living on a farm and driving a 4x4 truck in the U.S. prepared him for the gardening and getting around required in his current assignment. His hunting experience also comes in handy since he has to hunt hartebeest and cape buffalo six months out of the year in order to provide food for his family.
Neal and his family have not only adapted to the adverse conditions, but they are also thriving in their ministry to one of the world’s remaining unreached people groups. They added water storage tanks, indoor plumbing, bars to secure the doors, and a bamboo privacy fence. With help from local fundis (craftsmen), they built an open-air banda (pavilion) in the backyard. Their supervisor says he is amazed at their ability to gain access and acceptance in their home village in just six months.
Neal and his wife, Retha*, start each day by reading the Bible and praying together.
“It is a necessity in this environment to begin your day with the Word,” Neal says. “With so many people to help and so many different things you can do, you have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide you each day to be as effective as possible.”
The Ngindo: A People of Fear
Mud huts with thatched roofs form villages that unexpectedly appear out of the African bush. Life for the Ngindo consists of constant battles with emptiness—empty wells, empty stomachs, empty promises, and empty lives.
Most villagers drink, bathe, and wash clothes from the same water supply, while residents of some villages must drink from potholes in the road. Few towns have a decent well, so Neal works alongside Living Water International and Baptist Global Response to bring clean water alongside the living water of the Gospel.
Pombe, the local alcoholic drink, enslaves many residents and ancestral worship is common. For example, one thirsty boy poured out half a bottle of rare clean water on the ground in reverence to ancestors before taking a drink.
Commonly referred to as “the forgotten people,” the Ngindo have a history of being deceived. When Germans began occupying the territory in the 1800s, these outsiders raped, plundered, exploited, and sold locals into slavery.
Fed up with the abuse, mganga (witch doctors) led a revolt against the Germans called the Maji Maji War. They convinced villagers to attack by giving them a special potion, which they claimed would turn bullets into water. The Germans mowed down the deceived attacking villagers with machine guns.
When asked what best describes the Ngindo people, Neal replies, “Fear!” A government official reinforces this, saying, “The people fear change; they fear outsiders; they fear witchcraft; and they fear the unknown.”
The last known missionaries to work specifically with the Ngindo people were German Catholic missionaries. Because of past abuse, a Ngindo family slaughtered the five missionaries with machetes on August, 14 1905.
The government official commented on the tragedy: “If the Ngindo people had accepted the help of missionaries, they would be far better off.” Having completed a Masters degree in the U.S., he understands the advantages of education, saying, “Other regions who accepted help have advanced much further. … The Ngindo people are very uneducated. Almost no one can read, and thinking in abstract religious concepts is difficult.”
The Big Dipper is not the only thing that seems upside-down in this part of the Southern Hemisphere. With 500,000 people spread out across 18,000 square miles, Neal estimates that 99.9 percent of the Ngindo people claim Islam as their faith while less than .005 percent profess faith in Jesus Christ. Spiritual ignorance, witch doctors, satanic rituals, animism, and Islam all have deep roots.
Many village residents participate in two trips a year into the uninhabited 21,000-square-mile Selous Game Reserve in order to make sacrifices and force girls as young as 6 to participate in sexual exploitation. The government does not prohibit this activity. Instead they provide armed guards to protect participants from the lions.
Additionally, the lion population has the people living in fear and for good reason. The worst recorded lion killing comes from this region, with one lion reported to have killed almost 50 people. Several months ago, a lion attacked a local man working in his yard. Others report cheetahs sneaking into their homes at night through the cloth sheet that serves as the door and attacking family members.
Whether from physical or spiritual attack, fear pervades every aspect of Ngindo life. Neal and his family pray and work toward the day when the Ngindo people will put their trust in Christ and no longer be slaves to fear.
A Family Effort
Neal, Retha, and their four children—Barrett, Josie, Colt, and Jamie*—prepare for the day as little heads peer over the fence in anticipation of playtime. Every afternoon, except Sunday, children from the village gather outside the house.
Barrett and Colt play soccer and tag with the older boys. Josie plays readi (filling a coke bottle with sand while dodging a ball being thrown from all sides), achuela, or other dancing games with older girls. Jamie plays ukuti (holding hands and jumping around in a circle) with the younger girls.
Meanwhile, Ngindo children of all ages run to Retha with any injury. She regularly washes feet, treats sores, bandages wounds, and encourages good hygiene. Different children show up with as many as 50 coming by each day. One cannot ride through town without hearing children call out “Josie” or “Jamie.”
While in town, a local man named Zebede said to Neal, “I have been keeping up with you through my daughter.” Later that day, Zebede invited Neal to his home. Neal says “this never would have happened this quickly were it not for the ministry of my children.” While there he met many of Zebede’s 15 children from his two wives.
“Having the entire family involved in ministry is essential,” Retha says. “God did not call just Neal and me to missions. He specifically placed our four children in our home at this time so that they, too, could minister to the Ngindo people. Everyone in our family has a special mission from God.”
Wearing a kanga (traditional wrap) and a comforting smile, Retha cooks almost every meal from scratch. She keeps the house, homeschools all four children, and deals with the regular interruptions as the call of shida (issue) comes from the fence. Retha must be flexible as each day brings new opportunities to minister to women and children. No matter where they go, crowds gather to see the wazungu (white people). Dull moments and routine days come as rarely as an October rain.
God continues to open doors for Neal, even allowing him to answer questions about Christianity from Muslim leaders for almost four hours in front of a crowd of 2,000 people. One trip downtown ended with Neal engaging 20 young men while sharing peanuts he had just purchased. The crowd continued to gather to look at the mazungu (white man) and to hear about Neal’s mission. He tells them, “I came to show the love of Christ and to help you with your most serious problem.”
“I have to be completely honest to overcome their natural fear of outsiders,” Neal says.
One young Ngindo man named Juma* joined the family in more than one way. Neal hired Juma to help with some projects, and as they worked, Neal shared repeatedly with him the stories from the Bible. Juma helped with virtually every home improvement project, including the banda where he knelt and asked Jesus Christ to forgive him of his sins.
“Juma has become a full member of my family,” Neal says as he watches him play with the family dog, Sharkey.
Juma was the first Ndingo Neal led to the Lord, and a small indigenous church baptized him in the local river. Neal wanted the local pastor to perform the baptism because he feels that for any spiritual advancement to last and be reproducible, he must stay in the shadows.
Neal’s time in Africa is not without challenges. The region contains the highly poisonous black mamba, siafu (relentless migratory ants) that attack by the thousands, the tsetse fly, mosquitoes which carry malaria, and countless dangerous plants and animals. The power goes out every night and periodically throughout the day as only one of the town’s three generators continues to work. Every member of the family has had malaria at least once despite sleeping under mosquito nets and wearing a permanent layer of Deep Woods Off. They catch rainwater from the roof but must still ration water, as the incoming supply is unreliable. Phone service is spotty, and the nearest help lives days away.
“Any discomfort pales in comparison to the importance of the task,” Neal says as he recalls the day he walked through his dirt front yard to learn that his close Ngindo friend Udahjo had died. With tears in his eyes, Neal admitted, “I am having a difficult time letting him go. His death is for all eternity—an eternity in hell.”
Neal has only one regret: “I just wish we had been here 20 years ago so we could have 40 more years of ministry here instead of 20. God is truly faithful. I’ve gotten more by being here than I have ever given.”
Neal hopes that other believers will consider a call to missions and make sure they do not live their lives as spiritual cowards.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.