His raucous laughter startled me. This large Nigerian man had just finished asking us what we were doing in Sierra Leone and our answer seemed to have amused him. With a wry smile on his face, he asked the question that was on his mind, “Why are you trying to sell books to these people when all they care about is their stomach?”
The truth is, that was a pretty good question. In a country with an incredibly high illiteracy rate and recovering from a devastating war, running a Christian bookstore can sometimes seem like pushing a boulder up a mountain. Like everything in Africa, though, I was just learning that the answers can be as surprising as the questions.
Liz, my CLC colleague, and I were walking in the hot sun uphill from our Garrison Street store when we discovered one answer to that simple question. His name is John. (Not his real name) John works for our ministry and was guiding us through the crowded streets. While we were walking, he shared his story. In high school, he discovered our store and a man named George. George is passionate about Christian books and the power of the gospel to change lives.
John grew up in a Muslim home, but was drawn to our store and his conversations with George. It was not long before George was recommending books, talking about Jesus and encouraging John to consider a new path for his life. Shortly thereafter, John came to faith and told his father who graciously allowed John to pursue his new found beliefs. Today, John is helping others who stumble across our store on a daily basis to make good book selections and to consider the truth that has changed his life. You should see him smile when he talks about it.
God is working in a mighty way in Africa. Spending two weeks there reminded me once again that serving effectively often requires an ability to expect the unexpected. Right from the beginning of this trip, things were not going as I had hoped. My normal excitement about traveling had been replaced by unusual anxiety about unfinished work and unfulfilled projects at home. Landing in Monrovia, though, my anxieties seemed to subside as I breathed in the warm humid African air once again. I was delighted to see new directional street signals and stop lights that were fully functional in several key intersections. Things were looking up. So much progress had been made in this war torn country in just the six years since I had first visited.
Our first week in Africa started in earnest on Monday morning with over two hundred and fifty pastors at the conference we were hosting. Dr. Tony Hart, who had traveled with me from the USA, did a great job of starting the training with a whole day focus on the spiritual life of the pastor. From the questions that were asked, it was clear that he was really connecting with the attendees. Things were going even better that I had expected and then we asked about the crusade.
For several weeks, Tony had been preparing to preach at an evangelistic Crusade in Monrovia in the evenings after the pastoral training in the daytime. We were only in the country for a week and he wanted to maximize his time wherever possible and he has a real passion to share the gospel. As we discussed this outdoor event with the planning team, it became clear that there had been some miscommunication and the event had been planned for Wednesday through Friday evenings, not Monday through Thursday as we had anticipated. We would simply have to adjust our schedules. That was fine, except Tony was scheduled to leave Monrovia on Friday afternoon and would not be able to preach that night. Little did we know what God had in store for Friday.
As always, God knows what He is doing, even when we are scratching our heads. At 2:30AM on Friday morning, I woke up with violent stomach pains and rushed to the bathroom only to discover that my traveling companion, Liz, had just been there as well and for the very same reason. We were both pretty sick and wondering what could have caused this. It was doubly concerning because we had been hearing about an Ebola outbreak in the neighboring country of Guinea. Rumors were flying of some confirmed cases in Liberia as well.
By sunrise, things had not gotten much better and now Tony was not feeling well either. Unfortunately, we were scheduled to have the closing ceremonies of the conference in just a few hours. I took some medicine I had been given for just this type of incident, prayed and waited. Amazingly (to me, not God), I started feeling a little better and my strength started coming back. By 10AM, I was listening to the pastors’ share about the significant value of the training they had received. At this point, Tony was lying on a couch feeling very weak and certainly in no condition to preach at a crusade even if he had been available. Liz did not attend the ceremonies at all.
Though I was not feeling 100%, God gave me the strength to stand at the front of the church where the conference was being held and hand out gift packages to all 250+ attendees one at a time for over an hour without having to run to the bathroom at all. I will treasure that moment for a lifetime as I watched person after person and saw their eyes light up as they accepted a NLT Life Application Study Bible and the CLC Bible Companion for their own personal and pastoral use.
We left the next day for the second leg of our trip to the neighboring country of Sierra Leone where CLC has three bookshops. Upon arrival, we were taken to a Christian guest house where the surprises kept coming. As I prepared to go to sleep that night, I sat on the bed and it collapsed. Who knew a mattress would be held up by loose boards sitting precariously on a wooden frame. Fortunately, I had not broken anything – me or the bed – and I was able to reposition the boards. You can believe I slept pretty carefully after that.
In the morning, I awoke to find two flasks sitting on the table outside my room. The previous night, Liz had asked if they had hot water for the showers and they assured us that they did. Little did I know that the hot water did not come out of the shower head, but was contained in the flasks. Now what? After some reassuring instructions from my seasoned Africa traveling companion, I learned the joys of taking a “bucket bath” that many in this part of the world experienced every day.
The following day, we visited our shops in Freetown, had some important meetings and prepared to head home for the evening after work. My African counterpart, Jusu, drove us down the hill from our building and came to a dead stop in the middle of a traffic jam that I was sure would be of little consequence. How bad could a traffic jam in Freetown really be? Three and a half hours later we arrived at a restaurant after having travelled little more than a few miles in that whole time. Needless to say, God was working on my “patience muscles”. Despite the seemingly never ending traffic nightmare we experienced, one thing really stuck out. In a country where various factions had killed, looted and destroyed on these same streets, no one was even beeping a horn. People waited patiently in a situation that would surely have resulted in a road rage incident anywhere else, especially in America. Jusu even took time to chat with people out of the car window while we were stuck giving a whole new meaning to “Christian” community.
As I came to the end of a truly incredible two week adventure, it was clear to me that God continues to be in control. He does work in mysterious ways, but He is working. Next time I travel, I am going to try and do a better job of expecting the unexpected and remembering that His ways are higher than mine.