How African Mission Work Changed Quaker

Willie Sang: Our Burning Bush

In the early 70’s Willie Sang was a Kenyan teenager running up and down the hills around his hometown of Kitale, Kenya. His running ability was not unusual since he belonged to the Nandi tribe which is known for producing some of the greatest distance runners in the world. Willie’s uncle was the great Kip Keino, winner of gold medals in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico and the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Similarly gifted with his uncle’s running ability, Willie longed to go to a university in America and his ticket was a track scholarship. While trying to find a school to give him a scholarship, he was directed to Hugh Rhodes, track coach at Lubbock Christian College. Willie enrolled at LCC in the fall of 1975.

That same semester another young man enrolled at LCC. His name was James Johnson. He and Willie were assigned to the same dorm room and became good friends. Willie attended church with James at Quaker Avenue. At that time, we were a church in decline. Once a thriving church enjoying between 300 and 400 in attendance each week, we had experienced several disheartening events with attendance often dropping below 100. But Willie loved our church and soon was asking if a church like Quaker could be started in his hometown of Kitale, Kenya. The idea seemed outrageous really. We were still struggling through our recent trials, were in no position financially to embrace such a task and certainly did not see ourselves as any kind of a model church for anyone. But Willie persisted, telling us that his father was an influential leader in his hometown and would be able to make any arrangements needed there. It was just a matter of sending people over.

Gradually we decided that it wasn’t just Willie who wanted Quaker to send missionaries to Kenya, it was God. Willie was our “burning bush.” Through Willie, God was telling us, “Go.” And like Moses, we could think only of the reasons why we were not qualified for the work we were being called to do. Soon, however, a fact-finding team was put together to travel to Kenya and explore the possibilities of taking responsibility for such an awesome work. What they found was a country eager to hear the good news of God.

Such was the modest beginning of a mission work which has grown to bless literally tens of thousands of people on two continents. Now, thirty years later, the seed God planted through a young African boy has blossomed not only into well established mission works in Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan, but also a home for abandoned children, a ministry to children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, a Bible Institute and the early foundation work for an African Christian University in Uganda. The impact of this work, as future lessons will explore, would bring more blessings to our church, prospering the local work, enabling greater unity among churches nationwide and giving the next generation of members an even larger vision of the kingdom of God. But it all began with God sending an African teenager to deliver an unthinkable invitation to an unlikely church to be a part of an unimaginable work.

SPIRITUAL TRUTH #1My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:9

“God Just Dumped This in Our Lap”

In January of 1980, the members at Quaker Avenue gathered together on a Sunday night for their quarterly family meeting. In most ways it was no different than the other meetings the church had every three months. The budget was reviewed, a few committees gave their reports, plans for the annual singing school were discussed some. But one item on the agenda would dominate the discussion that night. What are we to do about Kenya? Willie Sang had challenged us to send missionaries to Kenya. A fact-finding team had returned with glowing reports of the opportunities waiting there. Now was the time. Will we do it or not?

Several had given their opinions, considered the financial challenge and discussed various possibilities about cooperating with other churches. At the time, the church budget was just barely meeting our local needs. One member spoke up, “Wouldn’t it be prudent to wait until we can raise the funds to make this commitment?” Another answered, “Maybe God is wanting us to step out on faith.” After more discussion, Armand Weathers spoke up. “Well, it seems to me that God just dumped this thing in our lap. We got to do it!” And with those words the consensus was formed. After all, if God was truly sending us, surely God could supply us. We voted unanimously to sponsor the work.

God had already shown his faithfulness by enabling the church to raise funds to send the fact-finding team over. We had budgeted $12,000 and received $16,000. The cost of the trip ended up being $16,000. That was the first of many experiences that would teach us how God would provide just what we needed to accomplish his work. Invitations were sent out to churches and individuals to be partners in this exciting new mission work. Contributions started coming in from people who themselves felt the challenge to do more in addressing the Great Commission of our Lord. By the time the missionaries had been selected to go, in the fall of 1980, there were more than enough funds available to send them and assure them of support.

Over the years there have been many anxious moments when it was uncertain if the funds were there to sustain the mission, but over and over again the Lord provided. A few years ago Shawn Tyler informed us of the opportunity to purchase land that would be perfect for building a school facility adjacent to the church. He estimated it would take $60,000 to purchase the land and build the building, but it would have to be paid in full within a year. Of course we didn’t have an extra $60,000 sitting around, but convinced this was God’s leading, the commitment to purchase the land was made. We started raising funds and received a little over $100,000, which was good since it turned out that the land and building expenses were more than expected, a little over $100,000!

Sometimes there were large unexpected contributions, other times many additional supporters came in just as the needs arose, but in every case God has never failed, providing a twenty five year testimony of his faithfulness. And as the work has grown, its demands for our faith and dependence on God have continued to grow. So that now in addition to the thirteen year work in Kenya followed by the current work in Uganda, we have become involved helping support other missionaries in Laos, Malawi, Sudan and the Ukraine as well as several mission points in the States. And God continues to provide. Within ten years of beginning the Kenya mission, attendance at Quaker more than doubled and contributions almost quadrupled. Is there a connection? We are convinced there is. Obedience to the great commission has not cost us, rather it has paid us rich dividends, both in Africa and here at home.

SPIRITUAL TRUTH #2And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19

Shawn and Linda’s Story

“We need someone to go to Kenya!” I had not really met Tom Langford, an elder at the Quaker Avenue Church of Christ and I didn’t know that much about the Kenya Mission project. I had traveled to Madill, Oklahoma to attend a “Positive Christian Leaders’ Retreat.” I had just begun my own preaching ministry with a one year appointment to preach at the Rochelle Road Church of Christ to provide experience in church work. Monroe Teague and Ken Vaughn, two leaders at Rochelle Road, were great spiritual mentors and they had traveled to Madill with me.

I looked forward to meeting other preachers and church leaders at Madill. My wife Linda and I were praying for God to open a door for us in ministry. I was hoping to gain information from these church leaders about possible churches we might be able to work with in the future. Growing up I never dreamed I would be a preacher. In high school I wanted to work for the telephone company. All that changed when I met Linda Watkins. She introduced me to Baker Boulevard Church of Christ and a whole new world spiritually. Soon I was taking courses at the Farmers Branch Bible Training Work and making plans for a life of preaching.

About sixty preachers were in Madill that night listening to Tom’s presentation. The couple who had originally planned to go to Kenya had decided not to go because of educational concerns for their children. I thought, “Well this is the right place to come. Everyone here is a preacher, surely someone would be willing to go.” Then Tom began to list the qualifications the elders at Quaker were looking for.

“We need someone young and willing to commit for ten years.” I looked around the room and mentally checked off all the white-haired men listening attentively. There were a few there who were young including David Langford, Tom’s son who was sitting on the bench next to me. “We’re looking for someone who is married.” That eliminated Dave and several others. “We’d also like to find a couple without children.” The list had ruled out most of the people in the room. In fact, as I looked around I suddenly realized I was the only person in the room that met all three of the qualifications. The hair on my neck stood up and I felt a numbing sensation. I thought the Lord not only opened the door, he hit me with it to make sure he had my attention.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I tossed and turned in my bunk. This wasn’t the life of ministry I had planned on. I had always envisioned preaching at a nice suburban church somewhere, probably in Texas. I knew nothing about Kenya. What would Linda think? What would our families think? I visited with Ken Vaughn and also with Chris Atteberry of the Farmers Branch Church of Christ about my feelings. They both encouraged me to pray about it and then pursue it if I had peace. The next morning I knew what I needed to do. I approached Tom Langford and told him I wanted to interview for the mission work in Kenya. He suggested I put together a resume, gather some letters of recommendation and contact Quaker for a time to come meet the elders and preach. Several couples applied for the position of being missionaries in Kenya, but I felt strongly that God was speaking to me and was sure that we would be the ones to go.

As I drove home I wondered how Linda would react to all this. At first she was shocked that I came back with the idea of mission work from the retreat. She told me she never wanted to let me spend the night away again. However, after we prayed and talked about it, she also felt we needed to walk through the open door. Next of course we had to tell our families. They were initially uneasy about it, but soon they too became supportive and encouraging as it became obvious to them that we really wanted to go.

In the next few months we met with the Quaker Avenue elders and preached for the church; we took psychological tests, talked to counselors, and visited with Rolland and Jessie McLean, the other couple chosen to go to Kenya. By the second week of November 1980, the elders called Linda and me to say we had been chosen to be part of the missionary team to Kenya.

After some coursework on missions at Abilene Christian University we left for Kenya on August 22, 1981, less than two years after hearing Tom’s announcement in Madill, Oklahoma. We agreed to a ten year commitment without ever having seen Kenya. We have now completed twenty five years in East Africa as missionaries. In fact, we have now lived in Africa longer than we have lived in America. When Linda and I first began praying about where to minister we never imagined that God would send us to the other side of the world to Africa. Now we can hardly imagine having done anything else.

SPIRITUAL TRUTH #3In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. Proverbs 16:9

Melanie’s Story

Soon after the missionaries entered Kenya, a beautiful little girl was born to Shawn and Linda. The arrival of Melanie added to the missionaries’ joy in their new work. A year later their joy turned into a grief unimaginable. One afternoon, little Melanie toddled out into the drive just as another missionary couple was leaving. They did not see her wander in front of their Jeep as they started out, and she was run over. Her frantic parents rushed her by mission plane to a hospital in Nairobi, but it was too late. Melanie died on the way.

Both missionary couples were devastated. They had given their lives to serve God in a foreign country. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Was this Satan’s way of trying to stop a good work even before it had begun? The news traveled rapidly to the states and the supporting churches. All were struck down by the news. The elders at Quaker Avenue called the Tylers to discuss what they wanted to do: Come home? Bury their child in the states? Change their plans for foreign mission work? The elders assured them that they would support the Tylers in whatever decision they chose to make. Shawn and Linda discussed it. They were heart broken, but as tragic as Melanie’s death was, it did not change the fact that they had committed themselves to go to Kenya. That commitment was not conditional on nothing bad happening. Soon they informed the elders of their decision to stay and that they would bury Melanie in Africa. Supporters were informed of the tragedy and urged to pray for the mission team. What followed was an outpouring of sympathy and a bonding together of missionaries and supporters in a way that might never have happened if not for the tragedy.

After a while in the States to be with family, the Tylers did return to Kenya. The Kenyans took note and were surprised. Later they would share with the Tylers that they never expected them to come back to Kenya after their little girl’s death. Missionaries rarely stayed in their country more than a few years anyway. When Shawn and Linda did return, the Kenyans knew the missionaries genuinely loved them, and they were profoundly moved by such sacrificial love.

This tragic loss opened hearts and doors to the gospel and strengthened the resolve and commitment of the Tylers. Once again God took Satan’s evil and redeemed it for good. Twenty five years later, Shawn and Linda are now seasoned missionaries. God has since given the Tylers two other children, Noah and Natalie, who have blessed them and the work immeasurably. Through this bitter tragedy, God has worked out great blessings for them and for the work. Melanie’s life, though tragically shortened, would have a profound impact on the future work in Kenya, and later in Uganda and the Sudan.

SPIRITUAL TRUTH #4And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

A Gospel of Power

“Would you bless my child?” The mother had brought her little baby to us as the service was coming to an end. It was a common custom among the Africans to bring their children to the missionaries to be blessed. We were glad to do it even though such blessing rituals were not part of our experience growing up in America. As we held the child we felt various objects tied around the waist. “What are these?” we asked. “Charms to protect our children from evil spirits.” Charms, evil spirits! These too were not a part of our experience growing up in America. It wasn’t long after we arrived in Kenya that we learned how profoundly different their world was from ours.

When we first came to Kenya, our plan was to establish strong, healthy churches. We preached the gospel, held Bible studies, and gathered the believers into small church fellowships. Our emphasis was on solid Biblical doctrine, good organization, persistent visitation and loving benevolence. We thought these would be a winning combination that would bring great success. However, we discovered our plans had left out a very important ingredient. Power!

In our Western scientific world-view the spiritual realm is separate from the physical. To us, sickness is caused by a virus or bacteria. Inability to become pregnant has a physical problem and a physical solution. In the world of modern science and education, there is no room for angels or evil spirits. In the modern world the spirit realm does not connect with, interact with, or affect the physical.

We soon learned that Kenyans and Ugandans don’t see the world that way at all. For them there is a strong tie that binds together physical and spiritual realities. There are no accidents. Everything that happens physically is a result of spiritual activities. Crop failure, a sudden death, a dip in business, trouble with a neighbor, inability to have children, sickness, and a host of other physical things is directly connected to the spirit realm. When such problems occur, the answer is to go to one’s witchdoctor so he can discern what spiritual problem has created the physical crisis and then what charms or sacrifices are needed to put things right.

We were particularly surprised to see belief in witchcraft and evil spirits embraced even by the more educated and “modern” Kenyans and Ugandans. For example, lawyers may send an assistant to a distant homeland city to purchase charms to help them win a case. They will then wear these charms on the belt loops of their western suit. A defendant in a lawsuit may place a charm in his mouth to give him persuasive powers during testimony. National soccer teams hire powerful witchdoctors to help them win international tournaments.

The Kenyans’ and Ugandans’ belief that physical events have spiritual causes, affects their approach to Christianity. It is a lens through which they interpret scriptures; an unseen foundation of belief and values that often remains unchanged even after they become Christians. Then, when crises come, these deep beliefs resurface, creating issues for repentance and Christian discipleship.

Interacting with our East African brothers and sisters caused us to reflect more than we had on the reality of the spiritual realm. The experience led us to rethink our own assumptions about how we believed. As we looked closer at the biblical stories we began to see a much closer relationship between the spiritual and physical realm. If the problem for our African brethren was too much faith in the supernatural power of charms and amulets, our problem was perhaps not enough faith in the supernatural power of the gospel. In time, our own understanding of the importance of the spiritual realm grew. As it did, we began to change our own approach to presenting the gospel. Instead of merely dismissing or ignoring issues of demon activity or witchcraft, we began instead to emphasize Jesus’ power over the spirit realm. Spiritual power! We came to see this as a critical element to gospel preaching in Africa (and an element far too often overlooked in the preaching of Western Christians.) The East Africans needed to hear a gospel that has power to cast out demons, heal diseases, protect against the Devil, and do miracles. They needed to hear a gospel that did not separate the physical realm from the spiritual. We needed to hear that gospel as well.

We came to Kenya and Uganda to be teachers, but we have often been the ones taught. Specifically, our understanding of the spiritual realm has been greatly expanded. In some ways, the Kenyans and Ugandans understood the Bible better than we did because the world of the Bible was more like their world. The world of the Bible included the spiritual realm and took it seriously, more seriously than the world we had grown up in. We learned that different parts of the Bible resonate more deeply with them than they do with us. In time our preaching and teaching began to include more of those stories and Biblical principles which addressed the spirit realm and spoke so directly to our African audiences. Living in their world has helped us to respect the spiritual realm far more and to appreciate that the gospel we preach truly is a gospel of power.

SPIRITUAL TRUTH #5For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. Ephesians 6:12

When Our Unity is Attacked

A few years after we began the work in Kenya, we became acquainted with Mike and Karolyn Schrage who were living and working in the remote area of Pokot, north of Kitale. When the doors closed to that mission effort, rather than leave the field, they asked about joining our team. The Schrage’s were supported by Independent Christian churches in America. In 1906 there had been an unpleasant division between Churches of Christ and Christian churches and over the years the two fellowships rarely cooperated in ministry or missions. After discussions with the elders at Quaker Avenue however, all concluded that the combined efforts would be good for the kingdom. The Schrage’s began working with us January 1987. Later, long-time friends of the Schrage’s, Dan and Traci Harrod from Oregon, joined the team in 1988.

The union of our families on the field brought great blessing and resulted in incalculable fruit for God’s kingdom. We were able to penetrate more areas with the gospel. In addition each couple brought unique gifts and spiritual strengths to the team. In particular, the Schrages and Harrods added a depth of spirituality to our team. The united mission team also brought thousands of believers from supporting churches in America into relationship in their joint support for the mission work and strengthened their unity together in Christ. The psalmist wrote, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity… for there the Lord bestows his blessing” (Psalm 133:1, 3). The pleasant relationships on the team, the growing blessing we felt on our work and the positive networking among churches in the States all confirmed to us the truth of that scripture. But soon the unity of our team was to come under Satan’s attack and the future of the work would be imperiled.

In 1989 our team was gearing up for an intensive outreach into the village churches. The zeal of many of the African church leaders had stagnated, and it became obvious to us that there were significant sin problems. Through prayer and discussion, we settled on a new plan. Whereas we missionaries normally went out individually in order to cover as many areas and churches as possible, we decided this time we would go two-by-two to every church. Additionally, instead of visiting that church for only a few hours, we would spend one night and two days at each place. Lastly, our teaching would focus on the need for repentance, using the Achan story of Joshua 7 as a basis. We developed new teaching tools, arranged a schedule of visits, and invited some of our more mature Kenyan brothers to travel with us to each place.

The outcomes were significant as we witnessed the Spirit convict church leaders and members of their need for repentance. We had never before witnessed such deep response to our teaching. Repentance in various forms including public confessions, renewed vows and even the burning of items of witchcraft were common and dramatic.

Then Satan struck back. We were not surprised that the kingdom of darkness would respond to this advance on the gates of hell, but the severity of the retaliation staggered us. The enemy attacked our team’s unity by using a trusted Kenyan brother who was also a respected church leader. One of our team members accused this brother of stealing. Later we would discover the accusation to be true but at the time it was hard to believe and the team became divided over the accusation. Satan had cast a brilliant stroke. This brother was one of the few Kenyans we trusted as much as we trusted each other. This rift threatened to destroy the unity of our team and undermine the good work that had been done.

We continued with our seminars, but now, instead of going out in strength united, we were wounded, less sure of our relationship with each other and consequently less effective. Our unity had been damaged. Divide and conquer — that is a classic military strategy, and has always been the mode of operation preferred by the chief rival of God’s kingdom. What happened to our team? Satan’s blow damaged us. It took more than a year to resolve all of the controversy between the four of us missionaries. But the team overcame the blow. We remained committed to God’s kingdom and to one another and carried on in spite of the hurt and doubt we felt. We believe God honored our team for the decision to remain committed to one another through that difficulty. In time our relationships became even stronger, partly because of our struggle. In fact, by God’s grace, twelve years later the four of us men—Shawn, Mike, Dan and Kirk––returned to Kitale to do significant follow-up work together, even through three of us had returned to live in the States. Even now the bonds between us and between our families remain strong.

Conflicts in relationships are inevitable, especially with those who are closest to us. Our four families in Kenya saw other teams disintegrate because of relationship problems. Our own team could have suffered a similar fate had we nursed our grievances and considered our offenses more important than the work of the kingdom. What a great tragedy that would have been! It would have allowed Satan to destroy the good work done already and prevent the great blessings that the next 16 years of work together would bring. The success of the kingdom depends on the relationship between leaders in the Kingdom. For Christ’s sake, we need to heal damaged ties. God is grieved and his kingdom suffers if we march ahead for the Lord and leave a trail of burned-out and broken relationships behind.

SPIRITUAL TRUTH #6If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. Mark 3:24

More Than We Ever Dreamed, Immeasurably More!

When the congregation accepted the challenge to send two missionary families to a little town in Kenya twenty five years ago, the project seemed overwhelming. But the church agreed to launch out in faith. We thought our plans were pretty big. But God had bigger plans to do far more than any of us would have ever dreamed or imagined.

God had plans for more territory. The little town of Kitale, Kenya was a mixed tribal area and so from the beginning the work impacted multiple tribal groups. The significance of that did not become clear until the Kenyan Christians began to mature and embrace the vision of missions themselves. Soon they helped set up a mission into the Marakwet region, a area off limits to Westerners. The Kenyan churches set apart Peter Simotwo and Felix Sanduku to go into that area and the territory of our mission expanded. Later when the mission team came to the end of their ten year commitment, the work expanded again. The Hayes moved with the Schrages to Nairobi, Kenya, and the Tylers moved into Uganda to establish a new work in Mbale, Uganda. But God was not finished. After the work in Uganda was well established, our team was invited to help start a new work in the Sudan, another area difficult for Western missionaries to work in. Again, the Kenyan Christians answered the call and set apart two more of their own, Kennedy Obura and David Bikokwa. These two men, with their families, have moved to Nimule in Southern Sudan and are now building the foundation for the kingdom there. Meanwhile, the church at Quaker became more mission minded and became significantly involved in missions to Laos, Malawi and the Ukraine.

God had plans for more missionaries. The original team sent to Kenya has grown in number over the years and has included at various times over eleven full time missionary families and dozens of teachers, nurses and short term workers. In addition to that, one of the unanticipated results of the mission work was the impact it would have on future missionaries. Since 1988 there have been over 70 interns who have worked with the team. From those interns have come new missionaries to Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo in West Africa, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania in East Africa and the Ukraine. Two of those interns, Phillip and Laura Shero, ended up back on the team in Mbale, Uganda. Some are now making plans to go to Angola in Southern Africa. In addition now to Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan, that’s ten countries (and still counting) impacted by the original decision to go to one.

God had plans for more ministry. Not long after arriving in Kenya the missionaries became aware of the plight of abandoned children. Newborns were left by their mothers in clinics or worse, on the streets. The community government was ill-equipped to care for these children, and felt no great urgency to do so. So the Kitale Children’s Home was born. A little less than twenty years later, the forty children so imperiled as infants, have been raised, schooled and are preparing for a promising future.

No country has been more devastated by the AIDS epidemic than Uganda. One of the tragic consequences of this disease is that it leaves behinds “AIDS orphans,” children whose parents have died of the disease and have no one to care for them. Christian Relief Fund, which helped establish the Kitale Children’s Home, has now set up a ministry especially for these children, the AIDS Orphan Project. Funds are collected and given to church leaders to assist in the cost for food, education and medical needs so that these children are able to remain in their villages and be cared for by their extended family. The program administrators now work alongside the Mbale Mission team, once again expanding the ministry of the mission.

From the beginning the mission plan was to set up Bible studies for people. When the work moved to Uganda, the number of students grew much larger, coming not only from Uganda, but also the surrounding countries of Kenya, Tanzania and even the Sudan. Through the gracious giving of many, additional land was purchased, multiple facilities were built and over 15,000 books collected and shipped enabling the Messiah Theological Institute to flourish as a major biblical training center, teaching over 400 students. But God’s vision is even larger. Recently church leaders from across the continent of Africa gathered in Mbale to begin laying the foundation for an African Christian university in Mbale.

The writer of Hebrews concludes the 11th chapter by referring to the many stories he does not have time or space to include in his letter. It is the same with us. There are so many more stories that could be told, such as the conversion of witchdoctors, the conversion of many Muslims to Jesus, Thomas Korir and the development of “Agri-group,” George and Diane Franklin and See Ministries, and the many stories of the impact of the mission work on the growing unity of churches in the States. Years ago God invited us to be co-workers with him in Kenya. The initial invitation seemed daunting enough. We had no idea about all that would eventually be asked of us, the full scope and magnitude that this initial mission work would eventually involve. But that is another lesson learned. God’s plans are always bigger than our own. Just as he multiplied the loaves and the fishes, a woefully inadequate offering to feed thousands of people, so he takes our inadequate efforts and resources and accomplishes “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work in us.”

SPIRITUAL TRUTH #7Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20, 21