By Randy Hurst
Behind some sparse shrubs, my father crouched beside his
friend Vic Warwick as the glowing, red-and-orange morning sky framed the
silhouettes of huge bull elephants lumbering up from the water hole. When my
father glanced over at Vic, he saw tears glistening on his cheek in the morning
“What’s wrong, Vic?”
“Nothing,” Vic replied. “It’s just that I never saw how
beautiful Africa is until I knew Jesus.”
My father’s friendship with Vic began one hot afternoon when
he walked into the only hotel in town to buy a bottle of Coke.
Vic was sitting alone at a table in the small hotel
restaurant, so Dad went over and introduced himself. He learned that Vic lived
many miles away over rough roads and worked as a gold miner. As their
conversation ended, Dad invited Vic to our house for tea.
That began a lasting friendship between the two men and
their families. When Vic came to town, he stopped by our house. On occasion,
our family traveled to Vic’s home.
Vic became “Uncle Vic” to my sister and me. We often went
camping with the Warwicks in the East African
wilderness so Dad could film the incredible wildlife for which East Africa is
so well known. I still remember sitting by the fire at night and hearing the
roar of lions near the camp.
More than five years passed when, at a Christmas Eve
Communion service in an African church, Uncle Vic bowed his head and asked
Jesus to become his Savior and Lord. His life was changed, and soon most of his
family also became believers.
Africa is beautiful, but that early morning by the waterhole
Uncle Vic spoke the truth. To those who know Jesus, the dazzling scenes —
the thunder of Victoria Falls, the majestic slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and the
teeming wildlife on the Serengeti plain — are
even more breathtaking.
For any missionary kid who grew up in East Africa, the
memories of life there are indelibly ingrained. Who can forget viewing the
blazing colors of the African sky at day’s end and dropping off to sleep to the
sound of beating drums?
This year I journeyed with Regional Director Mike McClaflin into the African wilderness again. The dramatic
images of wildlife evoked memories that seemed like yesterday, not 50 years
ago. Rumbling in a Land Rover through the Masai Mara
plains, we saw giraffes, zebras, lions, buffalo and elephants — the big
game for which Africa is famous the world over. The images on these few pages
show a glimpse of the continent’s uniqueness and the beauty that lies within
Rwanda: Blood on 1,000 Hills
Eleven years ago, I returned to Africa for the first time in
40 years. I went to Rwanda, site of one of the worst genocides in history. In
1994 an eruption of tribal hatred resulted in 100 days of brutality that left
almost a million people dead. Bodies littered the roads, fields and hillsides.
Too numerous to bury, they were left to rot in the African sun.
Rwanda is called “the land of a thousand hills.” From the
capital, Kigali, we drove 40 miles through the serene beauty of lush green
hillsides. After passing through a military checkpoint, we reached a village
that symbolized the appalling inhumanity that took place four years earlier.
Standing in a church, I was drawn to bright pinpoints of
sunlight beaming through countless bullet holes in the ceiling. I imagined
1,200 hearts beating in frantic terror and then stopping — one by one.
Villagers had run screaming and dragging their children into
the church for sanctuary, believing no one would kill them there. But soon the
stained glass shattered as soldiers from the rival tribe shoved machine guns
through the windows and opened fire. The victims who didn’t die from the hail
of bullets were clubbed or hacked to death.
In an underground crypt behind the church, I viewed the
skulls and bones of more than 5,000 nameless villagers. The white skulls of the
1,200 killed in the church were on the left. On the right were the discolored
skulls of those who died in the surrounding fields. All had been placed
respectfully in orderly rows — a stark contrast to the brutal chaos in
which these people died.
The smell of death was suffocating. I took short, shallow
breaths to keep from choking. Several times I climbed out of the crypt to
escape the stifling atmosphere. My head dropped to my chest involuntarily
— in shock that such a scene could be real.
With inhumane brutality, people were commonly forced under
threat of death to kill their neighbors … and even family members if a marriage
had mixed the two warring tribes. Few people died from bullets; most were killed by clubs or machetes. More people died in
Rwanda than in all the concentration camps in Nazi Germany during any 100-day
period of World War II. The Nazi death camps were systematic extermination.
Rwanda was random butchery.
Assemblies of God believers endured unimaginable suffering
and tragedy during those 100 days of terror. Before the genocide, more than 200
believers worshipped at Kigali Christian Center, pastored by General Superintendent Jean Gatabazi and his wife,
Christine. Afterward, only 20 members were left. Of the 12 Assemblies of God
churches that existed in 1994, six were left without a pastor.
I asked Christine Gatabazi what
church services were like after the genocide. She replied, “At first we didn’t
sing or even preach … we just prayed and wept.”
But today the church in Rwanda is victorious. Kigali
Christian Center is packed to the walls on Sunday mornings. The church
exemplifies the compassion of Christ. At the time I visited, every family in the church was raising one or
more children left orphaned by the genocide.
The number of congregations in the Rwanda Pentecostal
Assemblies of God has grown from 12 to 150. In all congregations, Christian
believers from both warring tribes worship together.
Against the backdrop of Rwanda’s violent past, the church
stands as a testimony of God’s healing grace and transforming power. In
believers’ hearts, the specter of death has been replaced by the divine life of
the Holy Spirit. Worship is a joyful celebration of life.
I have worshipped with believers on every continent, but
nowhere have I witnessed more tender affection between Christians than in
Rwanda. At the dismissal of the Sunday morning service, the people embraced en
masse — not in perfunctory greeting, but in a sacred benediction that
demonstrated their happiness in gathering as the body of Christ. Light is
nowhere brighter than in the middle of darkness, and joy is nowhere as free as
where sorrow once imprisoned the soul.
Rwanda was a dramatic threshold that awakened the American
church to the crises and violence erupting in Africa. But other major crises
constantly threaten. For decades, what Mike McClaflin often refers to as the “drama and trauma” of Africa has been repeated many
times in diverse and tragic forms.
While the Rwanda genocide marked the most extensive
slaughter of people in Africa in the briefest period of time, the African
continent has been plagued by horrific crises for decades.
The Congo crisis is the worst since the Rwanda genocide in
1994. An intense tribal conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes and
indigenous Congolese is seemingly without end. An estimated 5.4 million people
have died since the violence began more than 10 years ago.
Of the civil and ethnic conflicts in Africa, many are
tribal, some are racial and still others are religious, with much of the
animosity aimed at Christian believers and churches.
Sudan has been overwhelmed by a long-standing civil war that
has led to massive internal displacement. People of two very different cultures
commonly live side by side while remaining antagonistic to each other’s
The Darfur region of Sudan is considered one of the most
unreached places on earth. Of Darfur’s more than 5 million people, fewer than
100 are known to be Christian believers. The children of Darfur have seen
things no one should witness — including their mothers being raped and
their fathers executed. Some have seen their younger siblings’ heads dashed
open against trees. They have fled burning villages and wandered for months
through the desert. Their homes are irretrievably lost, their families,
decimated, and their minds, seared with images that will haunt them all their
lives. An estimated 2 million internally displaced people live in Darfur. And
they are the fortunate ones. As many as 500,000 others have been slaughtered.
In December 2007, intertribal violence broke out in Kenya.
Near Eldoret, a town in the central Rift Valley, a
mob set fire to Kiambaa Assembly of God while people
were inside. After rescuing four children, Pastor Steven Mburu fled the flames but was attacked and viciously beaten. Within a month, more
than 1,000 people in Kenya were dead and an estimated 600,000 left homeless.
Though the root of the violence stemmed from ethnic hatred, AG adherents
absorbed much of the abuse. Nearly 400 churches were destroyed, and more than
70,000 AG believers were displaced. The attacks on AG people led some to
mistakenly believe that Christians were being targeted for persecution.
Recently, Nigeria has seen the most violent confrontation
between religious extremists and Christians in Africa. Hundreds of refugees
have been pushed out of their homes, and children have even been murdered while
at school. Earlier this year, a Nigerian AG pastor was killed after he was
chased down, his hands and feet cut off, and his face slashed. His attackers
then poured gasoline on him and set him afire.
Probably no other country in the world is in greater
economic crisis than Zimbabwe, a nation of 11.3 million. Since 1980, the
nation’s economy has spiraled downward. A third of the population has fled the
country, and 90 percent of those who remain are jobless. Life expectancy is one
of the lowest in the world. AIDS, cholera and other diseases claim the
Mike McClaflin, Africa regional
director, says, “The misery index of the world is defined by the African
continent. On any given day more death, dying, hunger, despair, people
movement, rape, pillage, AIDS deaths and inhumane treatment take place in
Africa than in any other place on earth.”
Though surrounded by crises, violence and death, the church
in Africa is flourishing.
The Victorious Church
Parallel with Africa’s abundance of misery and death, the
church is growing in ways early missionaries could not have dreamed.
Our early leaders set before the Fellowship this challenge
in 1921: “The Pauline example shall be followed as far as possible by seeking
out neglected regions where the gospel has not yet been preached and by
establishing self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating national
churches in all regions.”
We do not transplant the American church. From the earliest
years of our Fellowship, Assemblies of God missionaries have established
indigenous churches to support and govern themselves. The word indigenous means
that something begins, grows and lives naturally in
its own setting or environment. Our mission is to plant local bodies of
believers that will live and grow without dependency on the church that sent
Though the missionary character of the Fellowship was
established from the outset, it was not until this strong emphasis on
establishing indigenous churches that the overseas growth began to accelerate.
Nowhere in the world has the explosive and multiplying growth
of indigenous churches been more evident than in Africa. Twenty years ago, AG
national fellowships in Africa numbered 11,130 churches with just over 2
million people attending. Today, they have grown to 61,821 churches with more
than 15 million members — a membership growth of 650 percent, averaging
32.5 percent per year!
Church growth in individual countries is even more dramatic.
In two decades the number of churches in Malawi has grown from 202 to almost
4,000, an increase of almost 7,000 percent. In Tanzania the number of churches
has grown from 400 to 3,400. Church membership has exploded in Burkina Faso,
growing from 200,000 to more than 1.1 million. In Kenya, the national church
has increased from 55,000 members to more than 1.1 million; in Nigeria, from
602,000 to almost 3 million, which is almost equal to the U.S. AG Fellowship
national director of missions for the Burkina Faso Assemblies of God, clearly
expresses the ultimate effectiveness of indigenous principles. When I
interviewed him, he shared: “When God put it in my heart to organize a missions
program, I was skeptical. I didn’t think there was any way an African church
could be a sending church. But God convinced me otherwise. As I taught the
value of missions and giving, every church that gave saw their incomes
increase. Christians were taught to tithe — not with money, for there was
none — but with agricultural products or whatever else God had given
them.” The end result of teaching African churches to be self-supporting has
been that not only have they become self-reliant, they
also have embraced a vision for missions.
Today, nearly a quarter of Burkina Faso’s 4,000 AG churches
participate in missions, supporting 180 national missionaries to 60 unreached
people groups — an amazing statistic, considering many churches are
located in remote villages where most residents are subsistence farmers. As
with U.S. AG missionaries, African missionaries must uproot their families,
move to unfamiliar places and embrace cultures that are not their own.
Despite the daunting challenges facing African churches,
their focused passion to share the gospel drives believers to proclaim Christ
and establish His church among the many remaining unreached tribes in their own
nations as well as in other countries.
This is how most of the unreached will be reached in Africa
— through the missionary efforts of national churches that were
established on indigenous principles. Not only are they self-sustaining, but as
they mature and strengthen they also multiply and replicate among cultures
other than their own.
AIDS: A Growing Pandemic
Added to the tragic and abundant deaths in Africa caused by
starvation and violence are the vast multitudes that die from disease.
More than 1 million die from malaria each year, trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness) kills 50,000
each year; and thousands die from a variety of waterborne diseases. Africa also has the largest number of
children with heart disease caused by rheumatic fever. Hookworm infection
occurs in almost half the region’s poorest people, including as many as 50
million school-aged children and 7 million pregnant women.
But the greatest health crisis in human history is the HIV/AIDS
pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
With just over a million people, the small country of
Swaziland in southern Africa has one of the highest percentages of adult deaths
from HIV/AIDS. More than 220,000 people — almost one-fourth of the
population — are HIV-positive, and 15,000 are under age 15. Since the
country’s first AIDS case was reported in 1986, the epidemic has spread
relentlessly to all parts of the nation. Life expectancy is now only 32 years.
Several years ago, we interviewed Sammy Kuriuki.
AIDS was his family’s life story. Sammy’s first wife and two children all died
of a mysterious disease several years earlier. He was told they suffered from
tuberculosis. He didn’t know they died of AIDS and didn’t know that he, too,
Sammy then married Ann. Their two children died before the
age of 2. Sammy had unknowingly passed the virus on to his children and to Ann. More mystery — more heartache. Finally, the
truth was uncovered.
Unable to deal with the reality of losing four children, his
first wife and eventually his second to the disease, Sammy decided to commit
suicide. His attempts failed, he later believed, because of divine
intervention. Soon afterward, Sammy and Ann heard the gospel and accepted
Christ as their Savior. They began sharing their newfound peace with others.
Ann died a few weeks after we interviewed her, but Sammy continued ministering
to AIDS victims and leading them to Christ. Several months after Ann’s death,
Sammy also died.
Tragically, their story is one among millions.
AIDS in Africa is the pestilence of the ages and is causing
the greatest crisis of physical suffering in history. Yet this growing pandemic
receives little exposure in secular news. The statistics are almost impossible
to comprehend. The disease has killed more than 14 million Africans since 2000.
More than a number, each statistic has a name, a face and a
story. Each suffering person is known and loved by our Heavenly Father. Each is
a person for whom Jesus gave His life.
Most of the dying are in need of
more than relief from physical suffering; they need the message of Jesus Christ
and His gift of everlasting life. The African church is equipped and ready to
effectively offer the word of life to those who have not yet found Christ.
When I returned to East Africa for the first time in 40
years, the most powerful and poignant reminiscence that stirred within me did
not come from the majestic beauty of the wildlife or the blazing sunsets. It
was hearing again the exuberant, joyful voices of African believers singing
praises to the Savior. Such a sound can’t be adequately described. It must be
Most of the more than 60,000 Assemblies of God congregations
in Africa gather to worship in simple, even crude structures. Often there are
no walls, and a thatch-covered roof offers shade from the sun but not shelter
from the rain. But the wholehearted worship within must bring great joy to the
heart of God.
Witnessing the African believers’ impassioned worship
reminded me of a conversation between Mike McClaflin and an African church leader years ago. When Mike asked him what drives African
Christians to be so effective in evangelism, the leader replied, “We’ve never
forgotten the desperate state of our lostness —
and we’ve never forgotten the great price Christ paid to save us.”
The joyful song and fervent witness of redeemed Africans
reveal great hope for Africa’s future. In a unique way, Africa’s desperate
circumstances have formed a wellspring of something beautiful. Because of the
grace of Jesus and the life of the Spirit, the darkness caused by incredible
poverty, violence and disease makes the light of Christ shine even brighter.
RANDY HURST is communications director for AG World
View world.ag.org for more photography of Africa.
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