Faith never knows where it is being led, but it loves and knows the One who is leading.
Ten years ago this week, we stepped onto American soil after having been forcefully expelled from thriving ministries in Ivory Coast, West Africa. I honestly did not know what end was up or if I was supposed to be relieved to be back in the states or mourning yet another change. Just coming off the death of my brother, our oldest starting college, and at the beginning edge of a new ministry, it seemed surreal that we would already be experiencing displacement. Again.
Below is an excerpt from chapter eighteen of my book In Every Place where I write about our second and final evacuation from ministry in West Africa (the first is told in In This Place).
You can find the chapter almost in its entirety on my author Facebook page.
In the Dead of the Night
Five weeks passed quickly. After visiting with my parents and seeing that they were doing rather well, and having helped Michelle to settle in at Liberty, I boarded yet another plane and flew back to Ivory Coast to reunite with the rest of my precious family. The three of them had come down to Abidjan to meet me, even though Stefanie had to miss a day of school to make the trip. I showed them pictures and talked of the experience about putting Michelle in college, describing her room, her roommates, and her reactions to being on her own. Content to be with my three loves, jet lag soon got the best of me. I went to bed early as the three of them started a new movie I had brought back in my luggage. The plans were to head back to Bouake the next day after doing some grocery shopping. That was our plan.
Slightly irritated by a sound making its way into my slumber, somewhat disturbed by the feeling of someone staring at me, I inched open my eyes to see Jeff’s beautiful brown eyes peering into mine - willing me to wake up. Before I could comprehend even where I was and what time it was, he barreled out the latest news. The girls had awakened him while it was still dark outside, telling him that something strange was happening in the city. Heavy gun and artillery fire relentlessly sparked the black sky like fireworks. Jeff remembers thinking: I hope this is just army maneuvers, but deep inside he knew better. When light edged its way into the early morning, he went to the top floor patio of the guesthouse where a man was holding a radio close to his ear and looked worriedly towards downtown. Jeff asked him what was going on. It was as Jeff suspected, but much worse. Rebels had attempted to take over three cities in the country, but had not been entirely successful in Abidjan. However, Bouake and another city had been completely taken under rebel control. Bouake?
In the twinkling of an eye, everything changed...again. The four of us sat together in the living room of our apartment and talked about the situation. Trying to process the fact that we would not be traveling back to Bouake that day, Lauren and Stefanie started crying. They asked us hard questions. Unanswerable questions. We were extremely concerned about the Holmes family and others in the city of Bouake. To echo our fears, rockets and artillery fire continued to vibrate the building. Having hardly any food in the apartment, we ate from the snack items I had brought back from America for the first day. Stefanie, Lauren and Jeff had no extra clothes - packing only for a brief overnight stay. Thankfully, I had brought a few items for each of them from clearance racks while shopping in the States. We tried to take our mind off what was going on by going through all the Action Packers packed full of stuff from the states.
By the fifth day after the attempted coup, more people seemed to be moving around the city. The government troops were slowly getting a handle on the rebel activity - at least in Abidjan. In Bouake, our coworkers, John and Merri Holmes, were in a completely different situation. Mortar, rockets, and gunfire were constant. The Holmes family camped out most of the time on their hallway floor away from windows for fear of stray bullets and rockets being launched just northeast of our homes. After talking with them on the cell phone one day, we were extremely concerned for their safety. The International Christian Academy community was also put right in the middle of the fighting several times that first week. It was a horrid time for the staff, their families, and many of the students who were experiencing the attacks without the support of their parents. We were thankful, so thankful, that Stefanie did come with Jeff to pick me up from the airport. Otherwise, she would have been staying out at the school when all the fighting started.
As the long, turbulent week passed and the political condition of the country deteriorated, we looked toward the inevitable possibility of evacuating to the States. If the situation continued, most likely the Abidjan airport would temporarily shut down. Our window of escape could be a narrow one. Prudence was the name of the game, so we sought God in prayer and kept our ears open to what other missionary groups were deciding to do. It took almost a week before the Americans and French were allowed to evacuate the city of Bouake. John Holmes had done his best to retrieve a few things that we would need from our house across the street. Beyond that, we realized we would not be able to go back and recover anything else in our house.
My journal of September 25, 2002, reads: You can only imagine all the thoughts going through our heads right now. We love our ministries here so much, but it seems they have all been taken away from us for some reason. At least for the time being. Please pray for us to have God’s wisdom, God’s peace, and God’s strength during this time. We want to do what is exactly right for us. Within a week, the entire country was feeling the squeeze of impending war. Gas was scarce, grocery stores were not restocking, and banks were running out of available funds. The country was collapsing before our eyes, and surprisingly, momentum was building in favor of the rebels.
So, What Next?
The day came for us to travel to the airport with the exact four action packers which I had brought back with me from the States just ten days earlier. Because the airport was located on the opposite side of town from our guesthouse, and we would need to travel through some dubious areas, we put the children in the middle part of the car, telling them to keep their heads down. The thirty minute taxi ride, in my memory, induced a vulnerability like I had only experienced while traveling into Liberia during the middle of civil war. Perhaps it was because our daughters were with us and a taxi driver had control of the steering wheel instead of Jeff. Praying earnestly for God’s protection, we felt the palpable difference in tension as we crossed over to the other side of the city. There were checkpoints everywhere, but because they were manned by govern- ment soldiers, we were not given too hard of a time. The gleaming steel of AK-47s held tightly and the rigidity of the soldiers on guard underscored the degenerate conditions the city was under.
Riding through the city, I felt a strange detachment, which I assumed was acting as a protective coating over my raw nerves. There was a calmness even in the projection of calamity. It was like I knew this was an ending. A shift of some kind. I felt no longer connected to that place. Keeping those thoughts to myself, we hauled luggage, kids, and a cat into the airport.
Walking out on the tarmac, I looked up at the gray skies and felt the thickness of the humidity hugging us. I also felt the reality of what it all meant.
My journal of September 26, 2002, reads:
We know that you will all be relieved when we are out of Ivory Coast, but you must understand that ONCE AGAIN - for the second time in twelve years - we are faced with walking away from our ministry, our precious African Christians, and a whole house full of memories. The “things” are insignificant. But walking away from our ministry and people whom we love so dearly and have poured our lives into is nearly breaking our hearts. Pray for us as we seek to hear from God. For what He has for us next.
Having stowed away our carry ons, we sat down heavily in our seats and were silent for a few minutes. Jeff was deep in thought. So was I. There was a sadness which went beyond what was immediately happening. That shift again nudged at me. Something was different, but I could not tell what it was until Jeff slowly looked at me with those beautiful, but soulful brown eyes. As I heard the clicking of his seatbelt, I heard him say, We’re not coming back. Not here. I am sure of that, but I don’t know what that means. Looking up, he prayed, God help us know what you are doing.
Nodding, I took his hand for a moment and we both smiled...sadly. Bravely. Neither of us knew what else to say. But this I did know:
Wherever it was, God was already there. As He had always been. In Every Place.