MIRACLE ON AN AFRICAN SAFARI
I must admit that I didn't rough it much on my first trip to Africa. Actually it was a planning trip for my first mission to Kenya, leading a group from Grace Point along with a team from Houston Northwest Baptist. But God taught me an amazing lesson on the trip, experiencing what I consider a miracle and encouraged me that I was on the right course and in his will.
I had recently taken the missions pastor position at Grace Point in San Antonio, moving from Hyde Park in Austin where I'd spent 20 years on staff. I had to fill some high expectations as it was Grace Point's vision that everyone in the church go global at least once in five years. So our first trip to Africa needed to be a success to give us some momentum.
I traveled to Africa with Pastor Dwight Davis from Houston Northwest Baptist. We stayed in a 3 bedroom lodge at a large national park in South Africa north of Johannesburg. We were joined by two other pastors from Africa, one from Kenya and the other from South Africa and we spent three days planning our mission trip and how we were to help an orphanage in Kenya.
On the second day we got to experience a picture safari, no guns on this trip. So we loaded up in a Range Rover which had three bench seats, open air for great viewing of the amazing creatures.
The three other pastors jumped in the top row, which left me to sit on the second row with a couple I didn't know, a mother and son from Scotland. The son was about 30 years of age and this was their dream vacation that they had been planning for years. And the safari was the highlight of this trip of a lifetime.
We took off and made our way through the park stopping to see zebras, giraffe, rhinos and all sorts of animals and birds. Near the end of the trip we pulled up along side of a mother lion and her cubs, which were just off the road about 15 yards away. We were instructed to stay in the vehicle and not to make any sudden moves. We were very exposed, with no top to the Range Rover, so it was an exhilarating, yet unnerving experience.
During the safari which was about two hours long, I got to know the couple beside me. I talked mostly with the son and soon found out that he had become a Mormon about two years earlier. I asked him questions about his faith and then shared what some of the differences were between my Christian faith and Mormonism. I told him the biggest difference was that Mormon's believed you had to earn your way to heaven. Their faith was like most all religions in that it was based on works. Where the true Christian faith is based not on works but on God's grace as I shared from Ephesians 2:8-9.
He readily agreed with my assessment of the Mormon faith, saying he could see that they were very strict about following rules that would lead you to salvation which was what he didn't like about the religion.
I'm not sure how it happened, but by the end of the safari this Scottish Mormon wanted to accept Jesus Christ and be freed from the rules and legalism he was experiencing. He prayed to receive Christ and agreed to meet with us again the next day.
I just couldn't believe what had happened. Here we were experiencing a trip of a life time and this young man was receiving a gift of eternity! Even on a trip when all of your attention should have been on these incredible animals, I was far more interested in sharing the living water with this man and what was more incredible was that he was not distracted by the beautiful scenery or the amazing animals.
But God was about to do more. This new believer came to our lodge the following day and we talked some more about his new faith and encouraged him. The lodge had a small swimming pool on the porch. It was smaller than a lap pool and just a little larger than a whirl pool sauna. Almost like a large baptismal, provided just for occasions like this. I baptized him in the pool and we prayed with him and his new life in Christ. What was also amazing was that Dwight Davis had brought one book to read on the trip, thrown into his suitcase as an after thought. It was The God Makers, a book about the Mormon church and what they really believe. Dwight said he didn't know at the time why he brought the book along, but does now.
This experience really encouraged me as I could see God's hand directing me to follow Him. It was an affirmation that I was in the right place and God would provide me many more opportunities, adventures and miracles along the way. For the former Mormon, he and his mother came to South Africa to experience God's wonderful creation and in addition got to experience God for eternity!
IN THE CROSSFIRE IN RIO
"We are not in Texas anymore!", I recalled one of our team members remarking as our mission team sat in a church in the heart of Rio de Janiero, Brazil trying to make sense of the crazy events of the past three days. We were getting some counsel from two different Brazilian pastors concerning two hair-raising experiences since we had arrived in Rio four days earlier. The first occurred following a Sunday night worship service in the small Juaniza favela (Brazilian slum).
We had divided our mission team into two groups for worship at two different churches. The larger group went with pastor Daniel Camaforte to his church in the favela. We were doing most of our work with his church. I kept a smaller group with me as I was preaching in the church which was our lodging for the week, located closer to the downtown area.
The team at Pastor Daniel's church had a great worship service and were fellowshipping with the members of the church outside in the courtyard beside the main road of the favela when the Rio police drove into the favela. All of a sudden, shots began to ring out coming from the drug gang in the favela directed at the police. The church members were suddenly in the crossfire of a shootout between police and the drug gang.
Pastor Daniel quickly and calmly urged everyone back into the church. He directed all of our team into a back room to avoid being hit by stray bullets and waited for the shooting to die down. During a lull he tried to get our team to leave but the shooting started once again, and so the team returned to the room. Finally the shooting stopped and Pastor Daniel got our team back on the bus and walked down a couple of blocks beside the bus to the exit of the favela to make sure we were safe.
You can imagine how disturbed and worked up everyone was when they returned to the church where we were staying. Two of the young ladies explained that they had just returned from the small store a couple of blocks from the church before the shooting occurred. If the police had come in a minute or too sooner, they would have been right in the middle of the shootout.
Needless to say, our team spent a restless night but got back to work the next day doing some construction on the church in the favela and ministering to children.
The following day, Tuesday our team took the morning off to go to Copacabana beach. On the way back to the bus, about 10 of the team were walking through a nice neighborhood. Four of the team had stopped in a magazine stand to buy some refreshments. I was about 20 feet back from the stand when I heard a shot ring out. Now we were all very sensitive to the sound of gunfire, and so my first reaction was someone was shooting at us, the Americans. I heard someone yell get down, and I fell face first beside a tree. I looked up and saw a Brazilian man staggering from the magazine stand muttering something in Portuguese. The front of his chest was covered in blood. Obviously he was the one who had been shot. Todd Riddle, our Singles minister hollered "let's get out of here. Run!" I wanted to help the man but I couldn't understand just what was happening. I'm sorry to say, my fear took precedent over the care of the man and I along with the others took off toward the bus. As I began to run I saw some police on the far corner of the street and hollered for everyone to walk fast. I didn't want the police to think we had committed the shooting.
We made it back to the bus where we met the rest of the team. There I found out what had happened. Those that were in the magazine stand said a young Brazilian man was in the stand with them. He pulled out a gun and shot the manager in the chest and took off running. They didn't know exactly why he had shot the manager, perhaps he had been caught stealing something. But you can imagine how distraught they were. One of the ladies on the team who was in the magazine stand just wanted to go home. She had been involved in two shootings within days of the mission trip.
We had planned to go to another favela to do a sports camp with kids that afternoon. But the shootings had unnerved the team to the extent I thought it best to take the afternoon off and allow the team to process what had happened and pray. I asked both the pastors, the pastor of the church in which we were staying and Pastor Daniel from the favela to talk to the team to help us understand what had happened. It was interesting the different perspectives from the pastors. The pastor of the church where we were staying, which was in an upper income area of Rio, was very surprised at what had happened. He said he had lived in Rio a long time and never had witnessed anything like this. Pastor Daniel, on the other hand, said it occurred all the time in the favela and it was something that those who lived in the favela dealt with on a regular basis. He assured us that God was in control but that we should realize that we were in a dangerous place.
We prayed a long time and then talked about how none of us had been injured, that God had protected us. We prayed for the man that had been shot and later heard that he was in critical but stable condition. We prayed for the people in the favela, for Daniel's church members who lived in the danger zone. We prayed that our mission would not be deterred, that fear would not cause us to divert what we were called to do in Rio.
That night our plan was to go to the Favela in which we were to work in that afternoon, where I was to preach. I told the team that I was going to go and anyone that wanted could go with me but if there were any that felt uncomfortable, they could stay behind. Everyone would understand. All but a couple of the team went with me. We had a tremendous service where I challenged the men to step out and lead their families and the church. Afterward the pastor of the church took us to a house which had an open porch that overlooked the city of Rio. A lot of the favelas as this one are built on the side of the mountain. The view was unbelievable. The pastor introduced us to a man who had once been a drug lord and sold drugs from this very spot. The former drug dealer explained that had given his life to Jesus Christ and walked away from his old lifestyle and now led a Bible study on this porch where he once sold drugs.
The pastor then asked me, "Pastor John, would you like to meet the Drug Lord of this favela?" The question caught me somewhat by surprise. My wife, Barbara was with me and I glanced over at her to get an idea of what she thought about this. I could tell she was very concerned but she gave the approval, saying "I understand, it is up to."
I looked over the team and asked Nick, one of our young guys if he wanted to go. He agreed and we took off along with the pastor, our Brazilian guide,Cesar and a female translator. There are no roads in the favela, just a small path up through the neighborhood. It was dark and very creepy, the only light coming from inside the houses. We would stop from time to time to visit with the neighbors as we made our way up the mountain.
After some time we stopped to talk to some men that were sitting on a porch alongside the pathway. They were dressed in army camouflage, three on the porch with several others hanging out behind them. I leaned over and asked our translator if this was the man. She said yes, he is the Drug Lord. I still remember his name, Carlos Gabriella, and he was much younger than I anticipated, in his mid twenties.
I was introduced to him and I began to tell him about our interesting adventures with bullets and shootings. As I told about the shooting of the magazine stand manager, he looked very agitated and indicated he would like to find the man who did the shooting and deliver the punishment. I was to learn that the drug gangs acted as the police of most of the favelas. They keep order and control over their neighborhoods.
I remember talking to him about King David of the Bible and how David was a leader but was not a perfect man. In spite of his sin and shortcomings as King, the bible said he was a man after God's own heart. I told him that I realized he was the leader of this favela and I urged him to be a leader like David. I encouraged him to be a man after God's own heart, that God would forgive him of his sins if he just asked. I asked if I could pray for him and he said yes. I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him. I was told he had just become a new father and so I prayed for his new baby boy. A funny thing was that the translator told me that Carlos' baby was a girl, not a boy, but she had translated girl for me! Whew. Thanks for catching my mistake!
As I think back, this was an incredible opportunity to speak not only to Carlos but to all those who were around listening in. This would have been lost if we had decided not to go back into the favela because of the shooting. And the shootings actually gave me a story to sort of break the ice with the Drug Lord.
I recalled the words I spoke in a sermon recently which so applied to this mission. "God has prepared you for something great and He wants to be your guide. And If you are not pursuing a dangerous quest with your life, well, then you don’t need a guide. If you’ve settle in your mind to live as though this is a fairly neutral world and you are simply trying to live your life as best you can, then you can probably get by with the Christianity of tips and techniques. But if you intend to live in the Story that God is telling, and if you want the life he offers, then you are going to need more than a handful of principles. You are going to need a guide. There are too many twists and turns in the road ahead, too many ambushes waiting only God knows where, there is just too much at stake for the enemy. 'Narrow is the way', said Jesus. How shall we be sure to find it? We need God intimately, and we need him desperately." We certainly needed to to rely upon Him totally this week in Rio!