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When I was a small boy, my Dad became a missionary.
As a five-year-old, I saw my Dad ran up to the house, legs flying faster than I had ever seen. “Joy!” he called to my Mom, his voice charged with excitement, “we’ve got our visa!”
He wasn’t celebrating a new credit card. We had been stuck for months waiting for the nation of Nigeria to decide whether they would issue our family entry visas to come live in their country. Only oil companies and doctors were being accepted. Now, unexplainably, they had issued visas to the four of us.
Within a week, we packed all the bags we could handle and boarded a Pan-Am flight. It bounced across the capitals of West Africa until we arrived in Lagos. That’s where we climbed down out of the plane and stepped into another world.
Heat! Dense air, pregnant with humidity and pungent smells. Palm trees lining runways. Crowds of porters, policemen, and entrepreneurs all vying loudly to become the agents we evidently needed if we ever wanted to escape the airport.
My little sister and I hadn’t stood out much at home, but in Lagos we could have been two blond-headed unicorns. Every head turned and a wall of eyes followed us everywhere. White kids in black Africa were, and are, something worth staring at.
We settled near a town called Ogoja. The people spoke Bekwarra instead of English. Just five miles away in every direction were other languages. Eastern Nigeria is a patchwork of distinct languages. The women in the markets held up their fingers to give their prices.
Fear of the spirit world was palpable, even to a five-year-old. It was just under the surface, often protruding out through the skin of African society in the form of small juju huts in front of houses or remnant fragments and spills of odd spell-sacrifices left to threaten intersections. Faces were lined with centuries of fear—a terrifying fear of demons that killed children, separated friends, destroyed what you loved, fanned the flames of plagues, demanded sacrifices which impoverished families, and incited warfare. Fear of high places, fear of far places, fear of the gods you had to worship, and above all fear of fresh running water, in which river-people lurked and crept out at night to kill the unsuspecting.
Why had we gone to Africa? Not to become famous, although by virtue of my skin color, I certainly did. Not to spread American culture, because Africa already had its own, which was often uniquely wise and delightful. Not to crush people under more religion, either.
We went to Africa because our God wanted to set free the captives who had lived all their lives in fear. He wanted to liberate those who had never known peace. He wanted to release that which was unique and delightful in them from its captivity to sin, fear, and death. He wanted to show the people of Nigeria that to become a Christian African was to discover the best possible way to be African, and the best way for Africans to know and glorify God.
God is on a mission. In spite of our limited perspective, He’s inviting us to come along!