Thursday, December 11, 2014

God was watching over those sitting ducks

God had miraculously provided planes and missionary pilots to evacuate Leanna, many other missionaries, and missionaries’ children, students at Rethy Academy.

It had been a life-and-death situation for all of them. Vicious soldiers were heading their way, and they were demanding money and food from everyone in their path. They left a trail of kidnapping, rape, looting, and murder with machetes.

Barbara Thomas had said of those days, “We were sitting ducks.” She and her family weren’t new to violence and evacuation. “This time we might not get out alive,” she had said to herself.

Looking back on those days Leanna says, “God had orchestrated situations to make things less stressful. One Africa Inland Mission couple, Steve and Debbie, had come to Rethy to celebrate their son’s birthday just before the situation in our part of Zaire became so tense.

“As the situation deteriorated, they decided to stay and Steve played a key role in communicating with other mission leaders.

“Debbie, an experienced teacher, took over as principal after our principal was evacuated with a serious health issue.

“Having them there helped provide the stability and leadership needed in a time of crisis.

“All in all, this was one of the times that was far from easy, but it was also a time I could really see God at work.

In the days the followed we were reminded again and again that “God is good all the time—in the words of that special song that had become our theme through that difficult time.”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A VERY memorable Thanksgiving

I think—no, I know—they were stunned when they arrived in Nairobi.

Leanna and a hundred others at Rethy Academy, a school for missionaries’ kids, had been evacuated from Zaire in the midst unspeakable brutality and very real threats.

In a letter home I had written about that period of time, “The International Red Cross reported that terror spread like wildfire and that in the midst of panic, violence, and bloodshed, people by the hundreds of thousands fled to the hills for safety.” (from Chapter 20, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

Truckloads of angry soldiers had asked directions to Rethy Academy and they were heading that direction. News reports told of soldiers demanding money and food from everyone in their path, leaving a trail of kidnapping, rape, looting, and murder with machetes. And if they had arrived at Rethy, they’d surely have prevented an air evacuation of students and teachers.

Like Barbara Thomas had said, “We were sitting ducks.” She and her family had evacuated before, but This time,” she said, “we might not get out alive.”

Yes, they were sitting ducks in a variety of ways (see earlier blog posts), and the BBC was reporting on their plight.

But they were praying. We, their friends and colleagues in Nairobi, were praying, people back home in the States were praying—and by God’s miraculous grace, the plans of the soldiers were thwarted and everyone evacuated safely to Nairobi. You must read about it in earlier blog posts! Don’t miss it!

Like Leanna said in last week’s post, at the little village airstrip near the Ugandan border, “the mood on board was subdued as we took off, but  laughter and chatter filled the plane as we crossed the Kenyan border. Weeks of wondering had come to an end. God had gotten us safely out of the country.

For us in Nairobi, the unthinkable violence and its ramifications left us shaken. We had longed to do something to help our friends during those frightful days, but all we could do was pray.  Once they arrived in Nairobi, however, we could take action, and we did. Many of us opened our homes to the evacuees, and a gal named Jan moved in with us. She had come to Nairobi on her way to teach at Rethy but, due to the violence, she moved in with us.

While all that was happening, people back home in the U.S. were celebrating Thanksgiving.

I wrote this letter to my granddaughters the day after Thanksgiving. (Our daughter, Karen, was a teacher that year at West Nairobi School, for missionaries’ kids, which my husband, Dave, had opened in September. He was in the U.S. on business at the time I wrote this letter.)

Dear Maggie and Emma,
We have never celebrated Thanksgiving here because it’s not a Kenyan holiday. It’s a regular workday for us, but this year I yearned to come home after work and feast on a Thanksgiving dinner.

Turkeys here are expensive, but the thought of no special dinner left me feeling blue.

Yesterday, however, Thanksgiving Day, your Aunt Karen drove me to the store after school. I brought home a whole chicken and, while it roasted, I prepared stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and a salad.

Just before we sat down at the table, Karen remembered that the last time I returned from the States, your great-grandma sent a can of black olives back with me.

Then we remembered that on another trip your grandpa brought a can of cranberry sauce—two perfect additions to our meal!

Karen, Jan, and I enjoyed a delicious candlelight Thanksgiving dinner with soft music in the background.  (from Chapter 20, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

That was a Thanksgiving 
we’ll remember for a long, long time. 
God had done so much for so many of us!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

That Thanksgiving God used rain, mud, and quick-thinking missionary pilots

… Just before Thanksgiving, we learned that truckloads of soldiers were headed in our direction. We were quite concerned. If they arrived in Bunia, it could make evacuation by air impossible. If they came to Rethy, we didn’t know what might happen but we were praying, colleagues in Nairobi were praying, people back home in the States were praying.

And then, it started to rain—hard—and those truckloads of soldiers got stuck in the mud! (We heard rumors that they were having to hunt for monkeys in the forest to eat.) Because of the rain, we were able to finish the school term.

Finishing the term, however, meant that children whose parents worked in other parts of Zaire needed to fly home—but that could be a problem. Ongoing rains left the airstrip soggy and would make it difficult to get their planes off the ground.

But then the rain stopped just in time to make their flights possible!

I remember having Thanksgiving dinner with several other missionaries. One of them was a veteran teacher who had evacuated from Rethy during the Simba rebellion.  Several of us plied her with questions about what had happened then so we’d understand what might lie ahead for us.

On Sunday afternoon after the students left, we learned that a decision to evacuate would be made if a certain city fell. On Sunday evening, we received confusing reports that the city had been taken by French troops. This was enough for mission leaders to decide we needed to leave. We would evacuate over the course of two days.

My name was on the list for one of the first two flights out.

I arranged to pay my language tutor and others who had worked for me and to leave some of my possessions in their care. They could use them, and keep them if I didn’t return. I stayed up late burning papers that I didn’t want to carry but also didn’t want to have in the wrong hands.

The next morning, I was out at the airstrip early. Our two small mission planes ferried us to the Bunia airport where we began working on permits to leave Zaire legally.

As we did this, our missionary pilots realized that the airport was tense. The situation in town was volatile, and two foreigners who had been there to train soldiers wanted out immediately. They were pointing their rifles and cocking them in the direction of the local man that Africa Inland Mission employed to help with logistics at the airport. I understood their action pretty well, but I was glad I didn’t understand what they were saying—they were speaking French.

Our pilots were concerned: The DC-3 was scheduled to fly us out of Zaire, but what if it landed while those men were hanging around?Would they commandeer the plane?

One mission pilot volunteered to fly those men out on a smaller mission plane, and the DC-3 was diverted to Uganda. That meant that the pilots who had taken us to Bunia in their small Cessnas would have to fly us to an airstrip near the Ugandan border.

That little village airstrip became a place where multiple small planes from MAF and AIM dropped off those leaving Rethy Academy or picked us up to fly us to the international airport in Uganda. It was amazing to watch the coordination of these take-offs and landings. I will always remember the teamwork. One mission agency had more planes than pilots. Another mission had more pilots than planes. They shared planes and pilots to get us to safety!

After many of us arrived at the Ugandan border and stood on the tarmac waiting to board the DC-3 for Nairobi, we learned that BBC was reporting our evacuation.

The mood on board was subdued as we took off, but  laughter and chatter filled the plane as we crossed the Kenyan border. Weeks of wondering had come to an end. God had gotten us safely out of the country.

In the days the followed we were reminded again and again that “God is good all the time—in the words of the special song that had become our theme through that difficult time.

Related post:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Soldiers were headed in our direction and then it started to rain

You’ve read about Leanna several times here 
and today I’m eager to share her account 
paralleling that of Paul and Barbara Thomas
during that dangerous time in Zaire—
events that occurred during this very same week in 1996: 
the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Here’s Leanna’s story:

Paul, Barbara, and I had been attending the same conference in Kenya. Our return flight into Zaire (now called Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC) was the last scheduled mission flight for a long time.

We arrived at Rethy Academy, where I was a teacher, to find that everyone was on a state of alert. Each person had a five kilo bag packed in order to leave at a moment’s notice. We weren’t sure if there were enough planes to fly everyone out. We even talked about the possible need to walk to the border with Uganda. That made a difference in what we packed.

I remember reading Daily Light for the Daily Path during this time and coming to Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” I was comforted by this reminder that though we couldn’t trust in airplanes or cars (cars were not allowed to cross the border with Uganda at this time), we could trust in the Lord.

A number of weeks before we had any concerns about war, the principal of Rethy had shared a sermon with our mission community based on the song “God is Good All the Time.” He said the song wasn’t his musical style but he felt the message was important. Little did he know it would become our theme through this difficult time.

Eventually, the alert level was raised and we needed to have 20 kilos packed and ready to go. This alert remained in effect for a few weeks and sometimes I got frustrated wanting to use something packed away. I would ask my roommate if I could just unpack and she, a nurse who had been through an evacuation in the past, would always advise against it.

In the meantime, we listened to BBC and VOA reports about activity farther south and at least once a day we listened to high-frequency radio reports from Africa Inland Mission leaders.  

We felt like we were on a roller coasterSoldiers would arrive in Bunia, the city through which we would travel in order to leave. We always wondered what their arrival meant, but then they would move on and things would settle down for a while.

Through all of this, we continued to hold classes for Rethy students. Some missionaries from areas already affected by the fighting sought refuge at Rethy because it was relatively safe. If they had school-aged children, we incorporated them into our classes. Still other families opted to leave before the term ended, taking their children with them.

As we rode this roller coaster, our school principal began experiencing symptoms of  heart problems and needed to leave for medical evaluation. Before he left, I had my students write him notes and draw pictures. You could have heard a pin drop as they worked. They were pouring much of the stress they had been experiencing into their drawings for the principal.

As the end of the school term neared, just before Thanksgiving, we learned that truckloads of soldiers were headed in our direction. We were quite concerned. If they arrived in Bunia, it could make evacuation by air impossible. If they came to Rethy, we didn’t know what might happen—but we were praying, colleagues in Nairobi were praying, people back home in the States were praying.

And then, it started to rain.…

Come back next week for the rest of this nail-biter.

Related posts:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

“This time we might not get out alive”

Evacuations had begun for missionaries in Zaire including teachers and students at Rethy Academy…. (from Chapter 20, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

Extreme violence in Zaire had broken out in October, 1996, while Paul and Barbara Thomas were out of the country. They were attending their group’s annual conference in Kenya—so they were safe—but their two young sons, Robert and Joel, were at Rethy Academy back in war-torn Zaire.

Evacuation from violence was not new to Paul and Barbara. They'd been evacuated before. From Kenya, they listened to reports of kidnapping, rape, theft, and murder back in Zaire. They did what you and I would have done: They flew to Rethy, right into that brutality, to be with their boys.

Continuing from last week: In her memoir, Through the Outhouse Floor, Barbara writes about arriving at Rethy to be with Robert and Joel:

The retreating Zairean army that had been going toward Kisangani split and a second party was heading our way. In Beni, Zairean solders were taking vehicles from missionaries by force. They attacked the mission station in Nyankunda. News reached us of soldiers raping women, and killing people in Bunia with machetes.…

The church informed us that they had broken the locks on our house [in Lubutu] in order to hide goods from the looting soldiers. Now remembering my lesson from the first evacuation, I prayed with open palms that everything in our house would be distributed to where it would serve the most good.

MAF began evacuating missionaries from both Nyankunde and Bunia. There were now 100 extra people at Rethy Academy. A businessman from the nearby town was kidnapped. Word got to us that the Zairean soldiers were now asking directions to Rethy with plans to loot the hospital and school.

It was standard for every mission station to have contingency plans. Rethy’s back-up plan had always been to walk across the border to Uganda.  But Uganda had recently closed her borders due to Sudanese rebels cutting through Zaire to attack Ugandan towns.  The MAF planes had all been moved to Rethy and to the Diguna mission station nearby. But the only legal way out of the country was through Bunia airport, how occupied by many angry Zairean troops. We were sitting ducks. I thought, This time we might not get out alive.

I was not OK with this. It seemed such a stupid reason to die—because the color of my skin marked me as a westerner who had somehow contributed to the defeat of the Zairean troops? We had gone through so much, and this was how it was going to end? Being hacked into pieces by a machete? Our task, as we saw it, wasn’t finished. We had two more books [of the Bible] to translate.…

The missionary community at Rethy met regularly for prayer, new updates, and planning. A proposed order had been drawn up of whom to fly out first as flights became available. Single women were evacuated first, then a man with a heart condition. Our family was listed as borderline non-essential personnel as far as the running of Rethy…but now the airport was unsafe for further flights.

After several days, an agreement was reached in Bunia to fly a large plane of soldiers to their homes in Kinshasa. This opened the airport.

Paul radioed the church in Lubutu and told them, “Our hearts are full for you. Have strength.”

Katinga and Pastor Unabwako radioed back, “Go well.”

“Stay well.”



We were given seats on the next Cesna out of Rethy.…

(from Through the Outhouse Floor by Barbara Thomas; emphasis mine)

Related posts:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Evacuating missionaries and kids

In late 1996, unspeakable brutality raged throughout Zaire and Rwanda. For several months, people around the world watched television reports of the violence. I’ll never forget some of the scenes, especially pictures of children.

The International Red Cross reported that terror spread like wildfire and that in the midst of panic, violence, and bloodshed, people by the hundreds of thousands fled to the hills for safety.

Evacuations began for the few remaining missionaries in Zaire including teachers and students at Rethy Academy. (from Chapter 20, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

Paul and Barbara Thomas, after working for years among Zaire’s Komo people, were almost finished with the first draft of the Komo New Testament.

In October, 1996, while Paul and Barbara attended their annual conference in Kenya, violence broke out in Bukavu, Zaire.

In her memoir, Through the Outhouse Floor, Barbara writes:

“Defeated Zairean soldiers were retreating toward Kisingani, demanding food and money from every village they passed. Lubutu [Paul and Barbara’s home in Zaire] was in their path. 

“The Komo church radioed us a message to be relayed to us in Kenya. We were a couple of days from our return flight to Zaire and received the message, ‘Don’t come to Lubutu or Mulita. Too many soldiers in the area.’

“The Zairean soldiers were angry. They believed that the church had somehow by the power of the Bible, acted against the soldiers’ fetish and had led to their defeat. When they met a group of four Komo pastors on the road, they forced them to burn their Swahili Bibles and to eat the ashes. The Zairean soldiers burned the old church office that held the stock of Komo [Gospel of] Matthew as well as other Komo literature for sale.

“We could understand why our presence in Lubutu could be dangerous for us and make matters worse for the church leaders. But [sons] Robert and Joel were still in Zaire at Rethy Academy.”

Imagine that! They weren’t even in the same country as their boys—and the boys were in danger!

Paul and Barbara did return to Zaire, but not to Lubutu or Mulita, as they’d been advised. Barbara writes:

“We returned to Zaire immediately after conference, as scheduled, going to Rethy Academy instead of Lubutu, to stay with the boys until we knew how the situation was developing. 

“The church again radioed us, frantic to know if we had received their first message to not return to Lubutu. We assured them that we had, that we were with the boys until we saw how everything developed. We didn’t have to wait long.” (from Chapter 34, Through the Outhouse Floor; emphasis mine)

Come back next week for the rest of Barbara’s story.

Related posts:
An excerpt from Barbara's book, "Through the Outhouse Floor

Thursday, October 30, 2014

New supplies arrived the very day previous supplies ran out

Continuing from last week:

The UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has not been allowed to cross, the Red Cross has not been allowed to cross, Doctors Without Borders has not been allowed to cross, and you won’t be allowed to either.”
Jim replied, “We’ll pray about it.”
I know about you Christian types.” The journalist turned and walked away in a huff.

But before long, correspondents from CNN, NBC, Time magazine, and other news agencies had to wait behind the barricade. They could only watch—and film for the world to see—the two vans drive across the border and reload supplies into Dr. Lusi's ambulances.

Dr. Lusi, a Zairian Christian and orthopedic specialist, had stayed in Goma, Zaire, when relief agencies and almost everyone else evacuated across the border to safety. He was the only surgeon in the one functioning hospital in the entire vicinity. He was desperate for supplies.

I wrote this in a letter to my granddaughters:

Dear Maggie and Emma,

My friend Nancy belongs to a book club here in Nairobi along with Dr. Lusi’s wife, Lyn, a British lady. Mrs. Lusi recently flew to see her husband in Zaire and when she returned, she told Nancy that soldiers wouldn’t let her through the gate at the hospital.

When Dr. Lusi came to talk to her from the other side, she heard a voice, “Mrs. Lusi, we’d like to talk to you.” She turned and saw a familiar face—Christiane Amanpour, the CNN reporter.

Nancy didn’t tell me details of the interview, but this story made me realize that some of our colleagues live in the midst of, or on the fringes of, news headlines around the world.

I received this letter from Denny, one of the two pilots who flew supplies to Dr. Lusi:

“Dr. Lusi shared how these necessary supplies had arrived the very day his previous supplies ran out. God’s timing is never too late.

“I am not aware that any of the major news agencies reported what had happened that day. But I am confident that many of them had to do some thinking to understand why the U.N. and the Red Cross were not able to accomplish what these silly missionaries had just done…. God is the one who did it.

The Red Cross, MSF [Doctors Without Borders], and the U.N. were there watching as we crossed the border. All they could do was watch. God opened the door for us to cross.

A few days later when the border was finally opened under international pressure, the press reported that ‘the first supplies to reach Goma had crossed the border.’ This was not true. A week before that God had opened the door (the border) for [our] supplies for the Christian hospital to cross.” (from Chapter 20, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)

What an honor—what a privilege, what a gift: God let us work alongside such people!

And God let us watch Him work among people who stepped out in faith to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:7).

God let us watch Him work among people who stepped out in faith to help feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and care for the sick.

“I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, 
my brothers, you did for me” 
(Matthew 25:40).