Assemblies of God SearchSite GuideStoreContact Us


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 light.

“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 it.

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 worldview.

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 chronically malnourished.

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 the missionaries.

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

Jean-Baptiste Sawadogo, 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, was HIV-positive.

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 experienced.

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 Missions.

View for more photography of Africa.

E-mail your comments to

E-mail this page to a friend.
©1999-2009 General Council of the Assemblies of God