Lessons in Faithfulness

by Bruce Okkema

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”  Proverbs 3:5-6

I learned the above text as a young boy and it has always encouraged me. As I traveled with two mission teams to Uganda and Kenya this past October, these verses have assumed even more significance and power. Just before I left on the trip, a friend sent me a card of encouragement which quoted Luke 19:26 from The Message: “Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of.” While I had no plans to do so, these words proved to be quite prophetic.

I was asked to join Pastor Keith Doornbos and Dave Altena from Providence Christian Reformed Church who were going to Uganda for the first time. En-Gedi has been involved over the past few years with Water Missions International on a project to supply safe water for villages in Uganda. For that purpose, I went with Dan Aukeman last December on a successful site preparation trip for six sites. Since that time, the equipment has been ready for shipment, but we are lacking the promised official documents that will allow its duty-free importation into Uganda. So I welcomed the opportunity to go with Keith and Dave in whatever capacity I could help them, and to work with the Ugandan officials to try and break the impasse with the paperwork. I also wanted to visit as many of the water project sites as possible to explain why things were taking so long and to encourage the villagers not to give up hope.

Water Missions International then asked me whether I would consider extending my trip by a couple of weeks to survey some sites in Nairobi, Kenya. They had a sponsor for a project there, but nobody available to do the site assessments which I had been trained to do. After a couple of days considering this, we decided that this too was a call from the Lord, so I accepted.

At the time we accepted, we knew little of conditions in Nairobi, and I did not know the man from California who would be joining me there, nor did I know any of the ground arrangements. As we talked to missionaries past and present, we quickly realized that I was about to step into a serious situation. Over the past five years, refugees have been fleeing from Sudan, Somalia, Congo, and all parts of Kenya to Nairobi, and huge slums have grown up in which crime is one of the few ways to survive. A white foreigner walking those streets alone is a very likely target for mugging or even murder.

We began praying for the Lord to provide a local contact to help us, knowing that these poor people desperately need both kinds of Living Water. Soon after, Lois was doing errands at a local business with missionary ties, and she asked if they had any connections to Kenya. “We surely do,” they said, and they pointed her to Rev. Arnold Newman, who with his wife, Marilyn, have been missionaries in Kenya for more than 35 years. I don’t think I could have found anyone in the United States who could have been more helpful for my situation in Nairobi, and here they lived a few blocks from my house! Marylin Newman knows Nairobi like the back of her hand, and is well connected in mission and government circles through “Special Ministries”, which she established there 20 years ago. She has established seven “Hope Centers” all around Kenya, that provide food, shelter, and education to literally thousands of children in Kenya.

I told her about my purpose for going, and about the Living Water System that would make virtually any kind of fresh water safe for drinking. She told me about her critical need for clean water at the Hope Centers and I offered to add her sites to my list of those to be surveyed. By the end of the day she had offered me her vehicles, her cell phone, her office, her computer connection, and her complete staff to serve as guides! The picture I have in my mind is of the Lord’s hands reaching down and pushing us together – clean water for Marilyn and safety for me. Mary, I, and Lois left Marilyn’s home that evening thanking the Lord for this miraculous turn of the situation just a couple of days before I was to leave!

In Uganda, things went very well for all the ministry things, including a number of first-time commitments to accept the Lord Jesus. We were so happy about this, but at the same time, all the phone calls to arrange a possible meeting about the water units in Kampala with the President or his representative were bouncing. Time was waning rapidly, but on our third day we received an invitation to meet the President’s personal Secretary, Mr. Sikubwabo, at his home. He said he was prepared to present the President’s favorable position on this issue to us so we eagerly dressed up and drove over. When we arrived it was completely dark and all power was out. We banged on the gate, honked the horn, flashed our lights, and called all the cell numbers we could think of, but there was no response. After more than an hour of waiting, it began to rain and we had to make a decision about what to do. We concluded that there must have been a mix-up or some problem that prevented the secretary from returning home from Kampala. (I learned the next day that the Secretary was indeed home, but his servants had chosen not to wake him from his nap.)

On the last day before we were to leave Uganda, Pastor Keith asked me to speak to the Lay Pastors’ Conference. I welcomed the opportunity to speak about En-Gedi’s ministry of teaching and providing resources to individuals and those in ministry. I shared some examples of how similar their culture was to that of the Bible, and how in many ways their own ministries were like that of Jesus. I also shared that we wanted to provide physical living water to augment the living water of their teaching. At the end of our time, and honestly at the end of my hope, I asked if these 300 or so would please pray that the impasse in the bureaucracy could be broken.

It was with mouth wide open, 15 minutes later, that I received a phone call inviting me back to the home of Mr. Sikubwabo. I had much packing to do before our 5:00 AM departure the next morning, but that would have to wait! The secretary greeted me warmly, apologized for the previously missed appointment and proceeded to tell me how he had cleared his entire schedule that day to work on the issue of accepting the water units tax free. At the end of the evening he promised me that the President had agreed to sign a directive to the various departments and that we would have this within 14 days! Not only that, he insisted that when we would return to do the installation of the equipment, we must be his guests and that he would sacrifice a goat to celebrate – he actually showed me the wood we would use for the fire! When I returned to report these last-minute events to the team, they were now the ones with mouths wide open, and there was great rejoicing that our prayers had been answered so unquestionably!

Amazing Experiences in Kenya

On the wings of this victory, I was flown to Nairobi and greeted at the airport by the team from Special Ministries and Mr. Dan Dill, from Ascend Ministries. They are delightful people who treated me with great hospitality and respect. Words cannot express my gratitude to them and to “Momma” Newman, as she is called by them, for their kindness and protection. Through their efforts and those of the African Evangelical Enterprise team (AEE), led by Joseph Mulinge, we were able to complete all of the water surveys in the slums of Nairobi, in outlying Kenya, and at the Hope Centers that we had planned to visit. There were so many experiences that could be told, but I will just choose a couple that especially indicated the strong presence of the Lord to me.

On my second day in Kenya, Tuesday, October 21, we were to go into the Korogocho slums of Nairobi, home to more than 300,000 people. As indicated earlier, that human beings can exist in conditions like we found there is almost beyond belief. Because of the desperate conditions, stealing is a way of life. When white people show up, they are immediately marked as a targets. Hawkers, beggars, and thieves all want whatever money and valuables we might be carrying. And since death and disease are so common there, life is cheap; taking out a white man for his money, regardless of why he came, would go virtually unnoticed. I didn’t realize the severity of the situation until I was into it, but Dan and Joseph had taken the precaution of hiring two soldiers with automatic weapons to accompany us during our work day. I asked Joseph what would happen to us if the soldiers were not present and without hesitation he said, “You would be killed.”

There we began experiencing a custom that I didn’t understand. When a man offered to greet us, he would usually put his left hand on his right forearm before extending you his right hand. Without knowing why, I began doing this too and it was warmly smiled upon. When we arrived in the heart of the slum, a man who appeared to be drunk came running through the crowd. He reached out his hand as if to shake, but it was only his right hand. As we began to accept it, Brother Martin intercepted him with a martial arts maneuver which drove the man to his knees and running off screaming in pain. We could see that in his left hand was a knife! The common technique is to grab a person by their right hand, pull them close, and then either slit their throat or stab them. I then learned the reason that friendly people shake hands as I described above, is so that you can see both hands before you accept their greeting. I don’t know what would have happened if Martin had not stopped that man, but I do know that the situation was completely out of my hands.

At another point, even with the soldiers present, the mullahs came to confront us. They were very upset that we were coming in the name of Jesus to help the people in their area. We knew that Jesus wanted us to be there, so we went about our business, but we began noticing that the soldiers began nodding to us as if to say, “Over there is another one and another.” Word got back to us through Martin that the mullahs were sending word around the neighborhood to summon their troops. They were attempting to gather sufficient numbers to overpower the soldiers and make their move. Again, Martin made the call that it was time to leave and we were able to leave without incident.

I was very glad to be finished (I thought) with the slums of Nairobi and get out into the surrounding countryside for the rest of our work in Kenya. I have never seen such a beautiful country as this, with its amazing contrasts of rugged mountains bordering the Rift Valley, and with the incredible African wildlife, and the beautiful Masai people. In this land, some people were living like they have been since biblical times, and others lived like they were in New York. We met so many wonderful people – my heart pours out to them in their hardship and poverty. There is much that can yet be done to share the love of Christ with them physically and spiritually.

On the last day of Dan’s time in Kenya, we were asked to do a survey at the compound of the Church of God in East Africa, which we were told was adjacent to the Kabira slums in Nairobi. We agreed to do so since it was supposed to be a place to which we could easily drive in and out. Once again, our measure of “easily drive” was different than the Kenyans and we found ourselves as the sole vehicle driving west into everybody else crawling east in three lanes on a “two-way” street. Futile efforts to nose our way through the gridlock called for a change in plan, so Joseph turned off into a side street. After a few hundred feet, we found this to be even worse. We were in the heart of the slum and it was very muddy. As we tried to maneuver through the sea of people walking on this narrow street we were soon stuck sideways between two shops. We asked our guide, James, if we were anywhere close to the church, to which he gave the standard African answer, “Yes, it’s just nearby.”

We did not have the armed soldiers with us because we had been told there was no need for this. I suggested that I go with James to take pictures while Dan and Joseph stayed with the van. So I stripped myself of all my valuables except my camera and headed out. Had I known what I would be seeing, I would not have gone. This slum, home to more than a million people, stretches 6 km along the railroad tracks and is fully as wretched a place as Korogocho. Raw sewage ran in the streets – which were slimy black mud paved with millions of old shoes and rags. In most places there was a dry path, but not everywhere and it was so sad to see the little children sitting in the filth. I did not dare to stop and take pictures, but did snap some as I was walking – which was very fast. The total width of the street was no more than 10 feet with encroachments of vendor wares vying for that space. There was no question that I was seen as a potential solution for their next year's income. I knew that it would take only one hand reaching out from among those racks of clothing and I could have been pulled from sight. It was a very uneasy situation, but the need here was very great and I knew that many of you were praying for me so I kept going.

Upon arrival at the church I found it full of women just sitting there waiting for handouts for their children. With the pastor translating into Swahili, I told them I was there in the name of Jesus Christ and that he saw their plight. I spoke some words of encouragement to them and sent your greetings and love and promised that we would try to help them with clean safe water. Imagine the effect of a church providing clean safe water in the name of Jesus in the middle of a slum of more than a million people!

The pastor wanted me to stay and greet many more people, but I told him my friends were waiting for me and were not any safer than I was. I asked him if he would walk out with us and he agreed to do so. I must tell you that I was very relieved to be out of there alive, but very happy that in one form, Jesus could appear to all those desperate people that day.

It is difficult to be away from your loved ones for a long time and to be placed in uncomfortable and dangerous situations, but the memories, appreciation, and inspiration looking back from where we have come, were mountaintop experiences that will carry our ministry into the years ahead.

Miraculously, through all of this and much more, and with much exposure to insects and disease, traveling thousands of kilometers on dangerous roads, passing highway bandits, and brushing against ghetto thieves, I was not sick a day, nor even scratched. We did not miss one day of our planned mission. Please accept this story as a humble lesson in faithfulness. I know that things do not always work out this way, but wouldn’t you say the Lord was definitely there?

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."
                                                                                           Ephesians 3:20-21

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