|Hennie in Malawi ordaining 300 elders into ministry.|
Today Mario and I trekked across Johannesburg to spend a day at Cornerstone Church for a meeting we call “Africa Planning Time”. It ended up being more than a meeting to us, but rather a guttural soul-cry to something deep inside of us. God, Himself, brought us to Africa to preach the Gospel to all nations with the people who attended the meeting today with us.
These men and women have moved countries, sold homes, have no retirement programs or IRA’s, drive dusty bakkies (pick-ups) that are equipped with flood lights to shine on a meeting in the bush (the middle of nowhere) and have families who have sacrificed them for the haunting call to go out – to spread the Gospel where few feel comfortable going. Someone has to do it: it’s these guys.
In the middle of them all is a man named Hennie Keyter.
I met Hennie the day I realized that the call of the Apostle was real and for today. It was 1999 and we were in L.A. at a convention for church leaders. He challenged us with an invitation: come to Africa and be changed. We didn’t even have passports.
The next year, after much deliberation, we accepted the invitation. With the help of our family and friends we were able to go to Africa for the purpose of joining a team in the poorest nation not at war: Malawi. The trip was meant to help build the existing church in the rural areas, and it changed us in a way that is noticeable to the rest of the world.
I remember arriving by plane, being picked up by the team, going out to the bush, arriving at a small and desperately poor village and setting up camp. That night we were scheduled to preach in the village square, and we prayed with a team of mostly South Africans from afternoon until sunset.
By the time I opened my eyes, I realized we were in a place that was so far removed from any town or city, the stars were from horizon to horizon. From there, we lit kerosene lamps and began to walk to the village square. The young children who escorted our team were brimming over with joy, singing “Jesu ndi wonga, wamayo, wam bu ya ya....” (Jesus is mine, mine forever...). I followed the lights, my arms covered with goose bumps and my eyes brimming with tears. I didn’t speak a word of Chichewa, but I knew they were worshipping.
It was just the beginning. The rest of the trip was one miracle after another. The Bible exploded and its truth and practical application made my belief in God explode.
By the end of the trip we confided in Hennie that he had seriously messed up our lives. How could we go back to our lives and be satisfied? In us, we had a burning desire to live like this: a calling was awakened in us.
Hennie wasn’t impressed.
“Of course you feel this way now,” he smiled. “We’ve held your hand this trip. Try doing all of this yourselves. Can you organize a team and come out here with your own equipment? Can you preach? Would you be willing to serve under harsher conditions? Do you think this calling is specific to Africa? Could it just be that the trip has ignited a desire to see the Gospel preached in other nations?”
His questions were well researched. He had heard promises before of others who wanted the goose bumps but not the cost.
Hennie was hard to argue with. He never asked us to do what he, himself was not prepared to do.
After graduating from seminary at a tender young age, he ventured out into Africa to live out his dream: preaching the Gospel. His manual was the Bible, and his wallet was faith. He soon met and married Rita, his wife and had Anton and Mari, his kids about the same age as our own. By the time we met him Hennie had worked into nearly every country in Africa and had been part of building up churches in cities, villages and places that didn’t appear on maps. He had faced firing squads, had six rounds of Malaria and was tough-as-nails, but as tender for Jesus as anyone we had ever met.
So, in 1999, he seemed like a modern-day Paul (the apostle), travelling and fathering hundreds of churches that held him in high esteem.
In all of my life, I had never wanted to be like anyone as much as I wanted to be like Hennie.
Travelling with him carried certain demands: it was Hennie’s way or no way. We could never be tardy for anything; we could never complain or expect special treatment. We were soldiers, and the expectations were as stringent as they were understandable. We loved it.
For three years we travelled in and out of Africa before we decided to move to Johannesburg. In moving, we left everything- namely, our families. Our daughter (17) came with us and turned 18 in South Africa, our new home.
The costs of international travel are hard to count. There is, of course, the financial, but there are also hidden, unexpected costs that pop up like moles at the most inconvenient times. Even the most disciplined of disciples gets tired and discouraged. After miracle after miracle you would expect that you would never lose faith; you would never complain.
In my quest to be the best at international travel and the apostolic calling and working in team, somehow I became wounded and we pulled back. After two years of serious travel, we told Hennie that we were resting for awhile.
In “resting” from international travel, we became more active in our local church. As much as it sounds different, the work of ministry in South Africa is very much African, especially into the townships. We weren’t by any stretch wasting our time here (or idle), but it was a very different calling.
In the two years that followed (until now) we were active in building a large community center that our church now meets in. We were part of a church plant into the township, built up new leaders – encouraged existing ones. Mario was asked on to the team of elders at Junction, and our lives were still constantly dependent on what God wanted for us that day, at that moment.
Still, our hearts yearned, at times, for our friends in other nations: Leston and Stanley; Edwar and Mary; Boldo and Ganji; Amos and Soji... especially during times of political unrest, war and famine.
So today, as we walked into the meeting as representatives of Junction Church, we quickly became excited as we saw everyone. It was like having a part of your heart woken up again.
When we saw Hennie, we realized it had been almost two years since we had even had a coffee together. Busy-ness is a strange thief, able to destroy relationships as we struggle to complete the urgent things in our lives. “It’s good to see you,” he said, hugging us. “It has been too long.”
As Mario chatted with Hennie, I sat with Rita for the beginning of the meeting, talking about everything from our kids and grandkids to our gym schedules. By the time we made our way to our seats we had chatted for nearly half-hour, barely scratching the surface.
“We must make a plan to get together,” she said, in her Afrikaans accent.
“How about I make us dinner?” I offered. She agreed and told me she would look at her “diary” (calendar) and get back to me.
The meeting began and soon gave way to friend after friend sharing about what God was doing in each country. Hennie was given a spot to share, to encourage the rest of us. As he did, tears came into my eyes, thinking of how he changed our lives by the example of his own. How he bravely dared us to get out of our comfort zone and come to a rougher, less cushy, more edgy place in our faith.
“We serve the God of the impossible,” he began. “What we say is impossible is nothing for God to do. We can pray for cities and he gives us nations. We have a calling to go out and preach the Gospel into every nation. If we wanted to see people united, this is it...”
He encouraged us all not to grow weary and to continue in what God called us to do. Then he shared something deeply personal:
“Mario and Janet have moved country and have stayed here. They gave up everything to come and serve God in Africa. Mario left a position of great importance in his career to come here, and that is because the call of God means everything to them.”
I sat, stunned, as one of our greatest heroes honored us in a room filled with folks that we love working alongside of, and admire. I wasn’t embarrassed, what Hennie shared was truth. Still, it was a loving statement in a room filled with so many inspirational people... and it assured us we were still close to his heart.
Mario and I looked at each other after he sat down, and smiled, kind of dumbfounded. It was incredible.
As I type this tonight, I can say that our lives have had many seasons here. There was the moving season, the travelling season, the building season and then there is where we are now.
Having received a permit for permanent residency less than two months ago, we are now faced with a question: what is the season God has before us now? What are the possibilities?
That’s the God we serve.