Newsletter - Africa (april 2015)
VISITS TO WEST AFRICA
This covers two visits to West Africa, one in August 2014, and the other in February 2015. Much work in France and formidable challenges facing the missionary work and the production of books prevented me from writing earlier. The economic situation we experience in the West is hitting us hard right now, and it is difficult to know which is the right way to go forward, retaining the focus on the original vision of publishing and preaching the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ alone in a dark generation.
Both times, I visited Ivory Coast and Benin. The Lord has blessed us with a number of open doors, new and old, and we are so thankful for these occasions.
I was invited by the Gagnoa Church in August 2014 to preach at their Bible camp. This camp has taken place for a number of years now and it is a great opportunity for many believers who are generally isolated to meet with likeminded brethren and hear the preaching of God’s Word. There were about 90 people present at the camp this year.
I had not been to Ivory Coast for 6 years. Political unrest and trouble with obtaining a visa meant that I could not go. The country has known civil war, and there seems to be both weariness with the troubled situation and the hope of a possible new start. Time will tell which is going to take place. It is true that only the Gospel has the real answer with the changing of hard hearts, but not many are ready to hear.
Last time I was there, the situation among Grace Churches was at a low ebb. Many had become lukewarm and were busy with pursuing secular goals rather than taking the work of the Lord to heart. Based on that, I must confess that I did not expect much, and it was more as an encouragement to my brother preacher, Paul NGoran, that I had accepted the invitation.
Contrary to my expectations, I found an encouraging situation in several areas. Under Paul’s leadership, the church in Gagnoa has grown in maturity and several fine men are helping Paul and Vincent Dua, the two main preachers. There are also occasions for preaching in several places in the area.
The camp was an occasion to hear some good teaching from the Word of God, and to share with others about their situations. Several discussion times were organized, with the leaders and with the young adults. These were occasions to study what the Bible says about living the truth in a difficult world.
The church in Abidjan has also grown in spiritual strength, with a core of fine young men and ladies who were new to me. The church is now led by Alex, a young man who is very dedicated and full of zeal to know the Lord better and live in His will. One of the challenges (in other churches too) is that many of these young leaders are first generation and have no model to relate to. There is a need for specific teaching in the practical aspects of a life lived for Christ in the modern world, both as individuals and as churches.
The men in Abidjan have produced small tracts and booklets which they print cheaply and make available to others through modern technology. They created “The Gospel for All”, a Facebook page where they publish articles presenting the good news of salvation in Christ alone. Many people from a number of countries have joined the group and benefit from this teaching (some via Google translation tools !). It is so heart-warming at times to read some of the comments. I was struck by the fact that most centre on Christ and the grace of God that is in Him.
Radio work & preaching
Fréquence-Vie, the main Christian radio station in Abidjan, asked me to record several sermons. It was easy as I was staying in the same compound. I had a good time of fellowship with the technician there, especially after preaching, and he had many questions
Two local secular radio stations in Gagnoa also invited me to speak. One journalist was as keen to draw me onto political subjects as I was keen to avoid them. When I sought to bring the conversation round to the Gospel, he was polite but not really interested! On the next occasion, we made sure that I was just able to preach. Such a ministry is difficult to assess and we must rest on the fact that God uses His Word to touch the hearts of His sheep.
Otherwise, it is all thin air and seconds flying away I preached in several churches near Gagnoa, a spin-off from the book ministry of Vincent Dua. Vincent is very active in getting around with the Europresse books and the message of free grace. I am so thankful to the Lord for this dear brother. He manages to get into places where I guess angels would hesitate to venture!
I returned to Ivory Coast six months later. Gagnoa had organized a short seminar for leaders. This was something which had been held regularly in the past, but somehow it had stopped. This time, though it was only for one morning, about 30 men came, some from the other side of the country. The morning ended with a general discussion and it was clear that many of the men were very keen to meet others as they tend to be very isolated most of the time. It appears that there is a great need for such meetings to take place on a regular basis. Paul NGoran is looking into this.
I was invited to preach in Agboville, a small town an hour away from Abidjan. A few years ago, the message of Free Grace had a great impact on a man from the town. He was then in northern Mali, 1500-2000 miles away, and met one of our first students in Mali who opened the Word to him! A little crowd gathered to hear the preaching, including the village chief – quite an experience in African culture! Present at that meeting also were two men who have a prison ministry. It was very humbling to see their dedication for such a difficult work. Let’s hope that they carry the true message of freedom into these places!
My main source of joy, however, is not all the activity, but the strengthening and growth of churches and individual believers who are ready to take the Gospel into the surrounding world. It is so encouraging to see men in Africa taking the initiative in serving the Lord rather than waiting on the West to provide and run things. It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in my eyes!
In August 2014, Paul and I went together to Benin. Parakou is a large city in central Benin, and the church there had invited us to teach the young adults (in particular, but many others came too!). We were asked to present the foundations of the Gospel of grace and their practical implications for real life. Again, a young leadership feels the need to be taught to think biblically in order to translate truth into the life of the church and individuals. If we believe truths which are so clearly centered on God and His purpose of grace in Christ, it should make a difference,
especially in a religious world which is seeking to establish a righteousness based on works.
It is so encouraging to see a younger generation stand up to answer the call from God to serve Him in a dark day. But there is a great deal of ignorance and a real desire to learn. Our time in Parakou was very blessed among these dear people. Of course, preaching there is very colourful, with the pigs roaming around and the little goats trying to get into the chapel!
We then went to the Bohicon church’s Bible camp. As well as being our colleague in the distribution of books in Benin and Togo, Julien Naka is the pastor there. Several fine preachers in that church go regularly to the neighbouring towns and villages to preach.
There were just over 400 adults at the camp, plus what sounded like a zillion kids running wild everywhere! Ten preachers took part in the teaching, and the level was good. Several of these men have done our Preachers’ Course. Such times are a welcome opportunity to meet many people from all over the country, as well as some from Togo and one from Burkina Faso. But the camp is bursting at the seams. Imagine catering for this crowd on a shoe-string budget! It was interesting to see the friends very busy on the day we had hard-boiled eggs for lunch. Rather than give each person an egg to peel and eat, they peeled about 500 eggs in the morning!
During the camp, I was involved in several spontaneous sessions with young adults. They have many questions and often no one to answer. We looked at what the Bible says in answer to their particular concerns. This often lasted until very late at night (and during siesta time!). I was thankful for good health! Some of these young men and women are outstanding in their spiritual maturity, and I am so blessed to know them.
I went to Benin again in February, following on from my visit to the Ivory Coast. Paul and Vincent came later by road. On arrival at the Abidjan airport, I was told that my flight had been cancelled and that there was no other flight with that airline for a week! It took me a couple of hours or so to secure a seat on another flight, but leaving at 19h40 instead of 11 am. Then, as I was checking in, I was told that that flight was delayed till 22h30 because of a mechanical problem. So, I was blessed with 14 hours’ wait in the airport!
It was a blessing indeed as Alex, the young pastor, stayed with me. He plied me with questions and it was again so refreshing to see the desire of this young man to learn from God’s Word. At the departure gate, I also talked to a man from Mali who bought a copy of Thomas Watson’s “A Divine Cordial” from me. He said he was neither Christian nor Muslim, but a traditionalist. May the truth touch his heart and free him from the dead traditions of his ancestors, as was the case with Saul of Tarsus so long ago!
North of Benin
Before Paul and Vincent arrived, I went with Julien to the north of Benin, to the church in Banikoara. The church is showing obvious signs of spiritual growth after several difficult years. It was a joy to hold a few meetings and to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.
On the way, we stopped for a few days in Parakou, again to meet with the little church there as in August. We also had one night in the missionary hospital in Bembéréké to preach to a group of nurses and other staff. Several students on our Course work at the hospital, and it was good to share the Gospel with them. As we got near the hospital, we had a flat tyre, exactly in the same place as a year previously. A few hundred yards away was a repair shop (one wonders if this was not just a coincidence!). The tyre was repaired the next morning for the grand sum of
one US dollar! Then we were on our way.
The 2015 Grace conference
The “2015 Grace Conference” was held in Bohicon once again. No one is able to remember how many such conferences we have had, but it has become a regular feature on the calendar of many friends. It lasts from the Thursday afternoon to the Sunday morning, when all the participants join the friends from the local church and cram into the nice chapel they have.
The attendance this year was just under 100, a record so far. In particular 6 or 7 men came from the little Bible school in Sinendé (not far from Bembéréké). I had been invited last year to teach for one day at the school, and these men came as a result. They were led by André, a Frenchman who has never lived in France, and who teaches at the school.
For the most part, the teaching at the conference focused on translating the truth of the Gospel of Christ into everyday life, individually and for the church. This is important in order to avoid transforming the grace of God into a system of man. The level of teaching was good and that led to a couple of sessions where questions were asked of the speakers.
Another encouraging side was the fellowship between the participants, many of whom did not know each other before. The presence of a few wives was another new feature this year.
Vincent, my colleague from Ivory Coast, went from the conference to Burkina Faso, a country situated north of Benin. Pierre, one of our students from Ouagadougou, traveled with him and served as a guide during Vincent’s visit. Pierre seems to have been raised by the Lord to help us with this new field. He may be, in time, an Anchor point for the book ministry and the Gospel there. Since my return, he has been in contact and indicates that he wants to devote himself to distributing the books and preaching the Gospel of grace in his own country. Vincent was in Burkina for a couple of weeks and made several useful contacts.
I was in Haiti for four weeks in November and December 2014. This is the subject of a separate newsletter.
Central African Republic
The situation in Bangui, the capital, is slowly getting back to a semblance of normality, but it is difficult to know what is going on outside the city. I have recently heard that one of our students was shot dead by the Seleka (Islamist militia). Firmin, our young friend involved with selling the books there, has seen about ten members of his family die a violent death. The last one, an older brother, fell victim to thugs who rule most of the city.
The brethren there are still meeting around the Word every other week on the Saturday afternoon. A number of people join them for these times. Together, they listen to the recording of a message or to a couple of radio programmes. Then they share the needs of the work of the Gospel and they pray together for that. It is so encouraging to see their faithfulness all through the civil conflict which has rocked their country for the past two years.
Our young friend Gildas continues to sell the books wherever he can in the city. He also went recently to Pointe Noire, the second city in Congo, and made several good contacts. I plan to visit him next August, should the Lord open the way for that.
Operations in Cameroon and Gabon are at a standstill at the moment. I would like to go to Cameroon in August if at all possible, in order to help restart the distribution of books, but the situation there seems very confused.
After a long spell without any publications, we have just reprinted 4 titles and another 8 will follow very soon. A few years ago, we had a nasty surprise in discovering that most of the files for our existing covers had disappeared into thin air, as can happen with modern computers. The Lord has led us to a very good graphic artist whose father is also involved in publishing good Christian books in Romanian. Our friend has produced very attractive covers.
Hopefully, restarting with these publications will set the whole process back into motion. However, this highlights the difficulty of the general economic situation, where we have to juggle between the various aspects of the work. Support for the missionary work has dwindled over the recent years, and we have not had the means to keep books in print
One major hurdle today is to get the books to Africa. We used to have a regular route to do that at reasonable rates, but that is no longer possible. Outrageous postal rates and long delays with shipping are major obstacles. I met with a few people in Abidjan who may be able to help. But there is still much to be done before the books are available again. This is an urgent and serious matter for prayer, as our friends on the ground, who are basically evangelists or colporteurs, find it increasingly difficult to generate interest among the people they meet. New books always attract attention and lead to sharing the Gospel.
Some years ago, we published significant quantities of booklets written by John Blanchard, one of our authors. These are popular presentations of the Gospel, starting with a common question people ask (“Is Jesus really risen?”, “What is there after death?”, “Where is God when things go wrong?”, etc.). These are very popular, and we hope to do more. John has also written a larger book which I think is superb for teaching younger church leaders. “Major Points from the Minor Prophets” looks at the message of these often unknown parts of Scripture, the Minor Prophets. I hope that we will be able to translate and publish this book which would be so important for Africa.
One important matter for prayer is, once again, the question of help and eventually succession for me. The workload is just too much. With the new generation of leaders coming to the fore in several areas of Africa, I need to be more available there to help and advise. This demands time, concentration and energy, all of which are eaten up by various administrative tasks here in France. I am all too conscious of the task to be done and of my inability to do it properly because of having too much to do. The Lord knows, but His people can come before Him to ask Him to supply the person of His choice.
Thank you so much for your support and for praying regularly for the Word to have an impact on hearts and lives in the French-speaking world. William Carey used to say to his supporters: “Hold the rope while I go down into the well”. I want to adopt his words and invite you to team up with us as we go to these fields white and ready for the harvest. God’s sheep are there and need to hear the voice of the Shepherd.
Over recent years, several friends have asked for my schedule when I go on a mission trip, and many pray every day for the activities of the day! And the Lord, who inspires prayer, also answers by opening several doors.
May all things be done for His glory and for the advancement of His kingdom!