June 1, 2012

First-Time Missionaries

 I never knew my father. I was born three months after he was killed in the famous Battle of Monte Cassino near Rome during World War II. My father was an Army medic. He didn’t have a choice: the status of conscientious objector was unknown at the time, and conscription applied to everyone, pastor or not, as was his case. Not wanting to bear arms, he opted for the best way to help his fellow soldiers: to be a medic. After saving several of his fellow soldiers, he was wounded and died on the battlefield.
That idealistic picture of a father who worked in a foreign land and gave his life to save others motivated me to become a missionary.
Welcome to Nowhere!
Years later my wife, Eileen, and I received our first call: to teach in our secondary school in Lukanga, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I soon discovered that serving as a missionary was a lot like enlisting in the French Army.
After basic training the sergeants ask each conscript, “What trade are you trained for?” If the answer was mechanic, he was assigned to work in the kitchen. If the answer was barber, he ended up as a truck driver, etc. Similarly, I was asked to teach all kinds of subjects except the one I was qualified to teach. I eventually learned that in order to pass as a good teacher, a professor had to be two lessons ahead of his students.
2012 1515 page34When Eileen and I received news about our appointment, Google Earth didn’t exist, and we had to look at an atlas to find where Lukanga was. It was so small that we couldn’t find it on the map (to this day it doesn’t show up on Google Earth). We were told that the nearest town was Butembo, which wasn’t on the map either. Goma was the only city large enough to show up on a map, and it was more than 175 miles away! Welcome to nowhere!
The second discovery we made was that there are a surprising number of schools, hospitals, and mission stations around the world located in places almost impossible to reach.
We were told to pack our belongings into one big container, since it had to be shipped through Mombasa, Kenya, before going by train to the Zairian border by way of Uganda. Our baggage allowance allowed us to carry the essential items we would need for the three months we would be waiting for our container.
Our journey started on a Wednesday afternoon in Geneva, where we had to fly to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, by way of Brussels. With our two children, aged 4 and 3, we checked our three metal trunks that contained all the possessions we had for the next three months (we thought) and boarded our aircraft. When we arrived in Brussels for our connecting flight, we were told that our missionary tickets would not allow us to take that flight! Pleading that our luggage was already checked to Kinshasa, that we had nothing with us, and that we had two small children availed nothing. The agent told us to put our names on the waiting list for the next day’s flights.
I had just graduated from the university, and had not received my first paycheck. Yet I was expected to find a hotel in one of the most expensive cities in Europe!
We took the train to the local conference office and explained our situation to the treasurer, who quickly found a hotel for us. The next day we left for the airport in good spirits to continue our trip and discover at last where Lukanga was.
Our enthusiasm cooled off when, after waiting most of the day without shopping for any essentials, we were told that the first flight was full, as well as the second and the third. By that time I had phoned the treasurer to make sure our room was still available in the hotel. We spent a second night in Brussels.
The following day, a Friday, after spending the second full day waiting at the airport, we were told that at long last an aircraft with four seats available was leaving that night. Other passengers who heard that our trunks had gone to Kinshasa three days before told us not to bother to check on them at the airport; they would all be gone. Needless to say, this did not lift our spirits much. Here we were with two children, wearing the same clothes for the third consecutive day; moreover, we hadn’t started our ministry, we thought we already had lost everything, and we were still wondering where Lukanga was!
Back on the Ground
After a 12-hour flight we landed at N’jili Airport in Kinshasa la belle (the beautiful), capital of Zaire on the west coast of Africa. The first impression you get when the doors open is the smell and the heat that hits you the moment you climb down the stairs. The outside temperature was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Despite the warnings we had received on the plane, we went and presented our luggage tags to the ground crew, who directed us to another crew. To our perfect surprise and delight, our three trunks were still there, apparently untouched. We were so thankful for God’s care in having our luggage waiting for us.
We expected someone from the mission to be there to greet us, but nobody was there. True, it was Sabbath, but as first-time missionaries with two children, we expected some kind of welcome.
Goma was about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) away, but our tickets took us only to Kinshasa. How were we supposed to get to Goma?
We hired a taxi, loaded our trunks, and asked the driver to take us to the Adventist mission. He hadn’t heard of our church before, and in a city with more than 1 million inhabitants (at the time), he had no idea where it was. We were all thirsty, and our children were crying for a drink. The driver drove us into town and stopped time after time to ask if anybody knew where the Adventist church was! Our trip lasted three hours.
When someone finally gave us directions, we drove up to the only Adventist church in the city just as the Sabbath worship service was ending. The Haitian pastor asked a Zairian brother to negotiate the taxi fare, knowing that a musungu (White man) would pay much more than a local resident.
We soon learned that nobody had heard anything about our arrival, that the local mission had neither a hotel reservation nor airline tickets for us.
We had to find a place to stay until airline tickets could be secured. A capital city has numerous hotels, but since they are all quite expensive, missionaries usually use guest rooms in other Protestant facilities. Unfortunately, all the guest rooms were full for the night, so we made a reservation for the following nights and tried to find a hotel room for one night. After a while the only solution was to “negotiate” a room.
This is the third discovery we made in Africa: you can “negotiate” almost everything, even a red light! At the next hotel we went to, all the rooms were booked; but if we paid a little extra, one could be made available! We had been traveling for more than 28 hours. We were worn out, and sweating from all our pores—and I won’t even try to describe our children.

What Do You Think?
1. What kind of "mission" experiences hav eyou had? How did they change the way you looked at the world?

2. What kind of person makes a good missionary? What characteristics do you have that might be useful in a mission field?

3. If God led you to some kind of mission service, what would you miss most about the culture you live in now?

4. If God called you to mission service, would you be more like Isaiah ("Here am I, Send me!" [Isa.6:8]) or more like Jonah ("But Jonah ran away from the Lord" [Jonah 1:2])?

We settled the amount and climbed the stairs thankfully to our air-conditioned room. What came out of the shower was just a trickle of brownish water that we made do with before collapsing onto our beds completely exhausted. The next day we noticed that the sheets had not been changed since the previous occupants had slept on them.
We stayed in a guest house in the Protestant mission for a week while we waited for our tickets to be arranged by the mission field. But in our haste to leave that expensive, not-so-clean hotel, Eileen realized that she had forgotten her brand-new raincoat in the hotel room.

That afternoon we explained the situation to the man at the guest house while asking him to call a taxi for us. With a sad smile on his face he told us that it was probably a waste of time and money to go to the hotel, because surely the raincoat had “disappeared” by that time.
After the ordeal we had been through that was the last straw for Eileen. She prayed, “Lord, if You want me to stay in this country and serve You, please let me find my raincoat.”
We went to the hotel, and despite the fact that the room had been “cleaned” her raincoat was waiting for her! God used that raincoat to reinforce the fact that He wanted us to be there.
That was our first week in the mission field. We stayed in Africa for 11 years.
Jean-Luc Lézeau is project director for the Hope Project, which produces an Adventist World edition in Swahili. This article was published May 24, 2012.