Tools and Willing Hearts
Pastor Julius is a friend of mine. He leads one of the largest congregations in South Sudan. And like pastors everywhere he faces daily challenges. Although these challenges are not unique to his membership, they are different from those in our western churches.
For example, when a member’s child is dying of malaria, is it dishonest to use part of the Sabbath School offering to buy that child medicine? Should individuals from the community be welcomed at the church service if they are too poor to own clothing? What is the best way to dis-fellowship a church member who is also a rebel commander and continues to commit murder? In South Sudan these are everyday problems Julius must handle with prayer and tact.
If that weren’t enough, Julius plants and leads churches in a wartorn and totally undeveloped region— something that requires extraordinary characteristics. He is persistent enough to ride his bike 100 miles to start a new congregation, but also patient enough to study with a family for years before seeing them baptized.
Although he works in such difficult conditions, Julius presents a gospel that is simple and genuine. His own relationship with Jesus Christ is very apparent, and that gives him great influence in the community.
Julius is one of the hundreds of lay pastors and Global Mission Pioneers who bear the bulk of the burden for the Adventist work in Central Africa.
Frontline Builders is a small team of young people who work to provide tools and infrastructure for these faithful workers. Their congregations meet under mango trees or in mud huts. Their schools are attended by hundreds of students but have no chalkboards, books or desks.
It is an unparalleled honor to work with these pioneers and supply them with permanent buildings, training opportunities and other community projects that support and enhance their efforts.
Our work developed out of the Outpost Centers International ministries in Africa, where our parents were missionaries. As refugees told us the needs facing the church in South Sudan, the Lord put a burden on the hearts of myself, my brother Jared and our cousin Caleb Knowles to go help these people. We soon learned, as so many others have, that a willing heart is all the Lord needs.
At the 2000 ASI Convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a group of ASI members committed to help make our dream a reality. I doubt if there is any other group that would have taken this risk on such a young and inexperienced team. (To me this is such a unique and amazing aspect of ASI, that so many young people have been encouraged and assisted to go and follow their dreams for the Lord).
Because of a long civil war, South Sudan is left woefully underdeveloped. There are no phone lines, fuel stations or shops, and the miles of paved road could be counted on one hand. On our first trip into Sudan it became very apparent that travel would be a major challenge. Land mines, bombed-out buildings and the rebel checkpoints marked each mile.
Now and then we would pass aid trucks that were broken down or stuck in massive mud holes. Some had been waiting for weeks or months for spare parts. One driver, whose truck was both stuck and broken, had built a small hut to live in while he and his assistant waited. They sounded optimistic that the dry season would arrive soon.
Heavy on our minds, of course, was how we would ever get construction materials to the church and school building sites. Every nail, roofing sheet, and bag of concrete would have to be dragged through this mess.
It was amazing to see small hand-painted signs reading “SDA Church” in almost every community we passed through. Laypeople or Global Mission Pioneers had started these congregations, and in many locations they had started a primary school for the children as well.
It was thrilling to witness the scope of what these people had accomplished. Despite 20 years of civil war, having no conference administration and only one ordained pastor, thousands of members were faithfully meeting each Sabbath.
After we met with community and church leaders, several locations were selected for us to being building. Once we arrived at a construction site we would set up camp, begin the endless negotiating with local authorities, and set about purchasing supplies. Many long days were spent collecting raw materials like stone, sand and water. People came from miles around to watch the buildings go up, most of them having never seen this process. In the evenings a local pioneer would hold meetings for the community. It was always a special reward to see those with whom we had been working give their hearts to the Lord.
Over the following years our work expanded to include a mobile clinic, agriculture training and other community programs. We partnered with church leadership to build a facility where pastors and pioneers can come to spend several months a year getting training in ministry and evangelism. Soon we received requests for building projects in other fields.
Along with construction projects in Chad and Uganda, our team has spent two summers in Mongolia. Adventist Frontier Missions started the work in Mongolia through the persistence and dedication of the Jolly family. As a result of that initial seed, there are now Global Mission Pioneers in dozens of the small towns across this primarily Buddhist country.
One of the challenges these groups face is having an affordable, warm place to gather for worship. Temperatures through much of the Mongolian winter are below 0°F, often reaching minus 50°. The two churches we built were in remote towns, and we used mostly local materials to build the warmest possible building. There are still groups of Mongolian believers in desperate need of a church building. We plan to return to Mongolia to support the work there.
During our time in these many mission fields, we have been continually amazed and inspired by the work of local missionaries and laypeople. One of the most inspirational to me is Carlo, another pastor in South Sudan.
In the mid 1980s Carlo attended an evangelistic series and gave his heart to the Lord. Shortly thereafter he felt called to begin working as a missionary among his own people. This was during a time of fierce fighting between rebels and government troops. Most people had fled deep into the bush and were literally living day-to-day like animals. Those fortunate enough to escape the fighting were faced with starvation and disease.
Carlo began traveling on foot from one camp to the next, ministering to the people. It was difficult and depressing work, being as he himself had nothing, much less anything tangible to offer. But he did have something to share, the hope and love found in the Bible. Small congregations soon sprang up throughout the region. Carlo would spend each Sabbath with a different group, preaching and offering encouragement.
Several years passed. One day a group of believers asked to be baptized. As he had done many times before, Carlo explained that he was not an ordained pastor and so they would have to wait. But the people became impatient, saying they had been believers now for five or six years, and with the war raging they could be killed any day. They asked Carlo to find a way to baptize them.
So he decided to walk to Uganda and see if he could make arrangements with a pastor there. The 200-mile trek took Carlo more than a week. When he arrived in Uganda and found an Adventist pastor, Carlo explained how desperate the situation was. But he could not convince the man travel back with him.
With a heavy heart Carlo returned to his people with the sad news. They took the news quite well, and even seemed encouraged that there was indeed a pastor who could baptize them. After the rainy season, Carlo led a large group over to Uganda, where they were baptized. Carlo, Julius and the other people we work with are an inspiration for our team. We look at it like this: if Carlo, with his limited opportunities and resources, can find a way to work for the Lord, then surely we can. The Lord has greatly blessed these faithful workers and made them effective witnesses in their communities. He longs to do the same for us.