Category Archives: Mission Stories

A Tribute to Colombians–Giving the Credit to Whom It Belongs

God continues to hear the prayers that God will send people to help reap the harvest of souls around the globe. Part of God’s plan involves the movement of the Gospel from one nation to another via missionaries. We can assume that will continue until the second coming. We have come full circle in some countries and are witnessing a new phenomenon in terms of missionary deployment. Nations that were originally the senders, like the United States, are now the recipients of missionaries. The strength of a Christian presence can easily shrink in one or two generations as North Americans and Europeans have witnessed.

Colombian Missionaries and their family members.

Colombian Missionaries and their family members.

Those that hear and respond to the call to work in another culture are the fortunate ones. It is hard to express the honor of such a calling. I can’t say that missionaries are special, but they are privileged. They get to board the ships or airplanes to lands not so different from those the apostle Paul visited. It is their joy to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Globalization has changed so much of the mystic of traveling to a new culture, but the reality of learning and serving in a new culture remains the same. It actually like living two lives.

The missionary life has its ups and downs, its joys and its sorrows. They have the privilege of sharing in a much larger worldview than knowing only one culture. Just learning one new language opens the doors to more people to whom to witness and form friendships.

Throughout history missionaries have received so much credit for what has happened in taking the Gospel around the world. No doubt they have contributed significantly to the growth of the Kingdom of God. But this is only part of the story. Obviously it is God that elevates preaching and witnessing to the event of salvation.

More than 250 people have now returned from a very significant week in Colombia, South America. It is the second time that General Assembly has met outside the United States. This visit commemorated the 90th anniversary of Cumberland Presbyterian ministry in one of the beautiful countries of the world. Those people fortunate enough to visit Colombia witnessed a diversity of successful evangelical efforts. They sat beside cute impoverished children receiving a hot meal in a hot lunch program. They visited a host of Colombians in the Cumberland Presbyterian senior living center—a nursing home funded by our denomination. They worshiped in one or another of our denominational churches spread over the length and breadth of western Colombia. No doubt they were blessed by what they saw and felt.

One evening was set aside for the missionaries that have served during the 90-year history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Colombia to be recognized. It was a joy to remember the joys of the past.

The laity and ministers of the two Colombian presbyteries, Cauca Valley and Andes, reach more than 1,200 people for Christ every year. No one can number the thousands of people that Colombian nationals have led to Jesus; their converts are like the sands of the sea. Their disciples are now living on every continent and nearly every country of the world. So in this way we can say that our denomination has carried the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. We only lack a Cumberland Presbyterian astronaut for the next step into the vast creation of God.

Those of us fortunate enough to have served as missionaries want to express our deepest thanks for everything that pastors and laity have done for each of us. We do not take it lightly that while missionaries often lived in larger houses with more things, drove cars while nationals rode buses or walked, and always worked for a significantly higher salary, our international colleagues loved us as their equal. These brothers and sisters taught us much more than we taught them. We could not have achieved much without their love and hard work. They have walked side-by-side with us as we have shared the Good News and expressed the compassion and love of Christ. What a joy to return to see so many of the people that have enriched our lives.

Missionaries thank God for the privilege to live in countries other than our own. And quite often, we bow in prayer to applaud the courage, love, service, faith, and success of our Colombian brothers and sisters.


“Should You Go or Shouldn’t You?”


The long distance call from the USA was crackling from the bad connection so common in the 1980’s, with repetition I finally got the importance of the conversation.  Mr. Nicks, a retiree from Tennessee, was inquiring about the advisability of spending $1,500 for expenses to do carpenter work at a food distribution site for children in Cali, Colombia, South America where I served as a missionary. I answered quickly, “Please come!  I will send you some details by mail.”

Considerable discussion exists about the value of mission work trips.  People ask, “Should I spend the money for plane tickets and other expenses to volunteer service in a country other than my own or should I write a check for a given project and allow those on the field to hire a national worker to do the same work I would do as a volunteer?  It is a complex question.  The answer to which is not as obvious as one might think!  Actually, as with so many things, both options are valid.

Hot Lunch Program

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that my friend would have spent $1,500 for a mission trip to Colombia, South America.  In those days that same money would have funded 6,000 meals in one of the hot lunch centers.  That translated into a hot meal a day for a year for sixteen children.  On the surface it is obvious the man would have done well to have stayed home and sent his money.  He didn’t!

Instead, he worked from daylight to dark for twelve days building tables and chairs for one of the new centers still lacking furniture.  Again, couldn’t the ten tables and sixty chairs been built by a Colombian providing that person with a job?  On the surface, the man should have stayed in the USA and sent his money.  He didn’t.

Let’s look at the rest of the story as it developed over the next thirty years.  We will never know if Mr. Nicks would have actually sent the full $1,500 plus the money he spent on materials once he arrived.  In most cases it is easier to raise money for mission volunteers than it is for the assigned project. Unpredictable spiritual experiences occur when people travel outside their comfort zones away from family and friends.  Many of their defense mechanisms tumble and they become vulnerable to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  When this happens, people hear God’s call on their life and make decisions that carry the potential to change their lives forever.  Such was the case of Mr. Nicks.

Volunteer on mission trips face a possibility they will come face to face with the reality that the world is bigger than their own country.  And, such a view causes people to begin to pray, “God bless the world, and not God bless my country,”  or, “Give them their daily bread, and not give us our daily bread.”  People on mission trips expand their worldview so the globe becomes more than a sphere with names written on it.  Specific people literally walk on the face of every globe. No one can estimate or underestimate the number of lifetime of friendships formed between people of different countries during effectively coordinated mission trips.  One twenty-four hour home visit may lead to a lifetime of endless enrichment for the family units involved.

In the case of Mr. Richard Nicks, he returned to his home church of less than 100 people in Tennessee and began to receive a monthly Sunday school offering for hot lunches for the children in Colombia.  Over the course of the next 25 years he raised more than $65,000.  Upon his death his son perpetuates his love for the children by establishing endowment that has grown to more than $75,000, hence providing an annual distribution for the program.

Should you go or shouldn’t you go?

Blood Stained Glory

It isn’t possible to relate some experiences with the intensity or emotion they deserve.  How can you capture with words the sacrifice people make to secure religious and political freedom?

The incredible history and culture of China dwelled behind dense clouds of mystery for centuries.  The average non-Chinese only imagined the beauty and mystic of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, or the Terra Cotta Soldiers.  Even Chinese citizens knew little about their country.  Then, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), a leader from the peasant class rose to power with Mao Zedong.  After Mao’s death, he led China through the first stages of a market reform that opened some doors to the West while continuing to severely restrict the religious and personal freedoms of his people.

But, the crack for foreigners was wide enough for me to visit a few churches in Mainland China in 1991.  My second stop after visiting a former Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Sha Kai was Guanzhou (formerly Canton) in hopes of finding the gravesite of Rev. Gam Sing Quah.  Rev. Quah, a young convert living in the USA came under a deep personal conviction to plant Cumberland Presbyterian churches in China, and set sail from San Francisco on October 8, 1908 as an employee of the Women’s Board of Missions of the CPC.  By 1923 he had organized eight churches.  He died in 1937 in Canton, leaving the ministry to his two sons—Samuel and McAdoo.


While in Guangzhou we toured the impressive Sun Yat Sin Memorial.  Sun Yat Sin was a revolutionary and the founding father of the Republic of China.  As we sat down in the nearly vacant auditorium, I noticed my guide from Hong Kong become very quiet as we listened to the music played throughout the auditorium.  The tune was captivating even though I could not understand a single word.  When I glanced at my host, tears were gently flowing down her cheeks.  So, I sat and assumed this was a special moment.


Finally, she said, “You know I am really surprised with this music.   ‘Blood Stained Glory’ is the name of the song. Students listened to it for inspiration in the Tiananmen Square in Beijing before the government massacre two years ago. It’s hard to believe the government would allow it played here at this time in our history.”  Later, I would learn the lyrics of “Blood Stained Glory” tell the story of the price paid for freedom, regardless of the country.

Perhaps I’ll bid farewell and never to return, can you comprehend? Do you understand?

Perhaps I will fall and never to rise again. Will you be forever waiting?

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the flag of our Republic has our Blood Stained Glory.

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the flag of our Republic has our Blood Stained Glory.

Perhaps my eyes will shut and never open again, will you understand my silent emotions?

Perhaps I will sleep forever, never able to wake up. Will you believe that I have been transformed into mountains?

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.

The following link plays the music accompanied by shots of the Chinese struggle for freedom.

I sat in silence long after my host left the memorial.  I felt strangely close to a people’s struggle. Mental images of a young man standing in front of an approaching tank passed through my mind.  Few people that saw that display of bravery will forget those moments of tension.   After the young man momentarily stopped the tank, he disappeared into the crowd and to this day no one knows his identity, although some believe he was arrested and killed.  The facts remain unclear.


I could not imagine at the time how critical the Tiananmen experience would be in opening China to the world.  The largest nation in the world would soon become a global political and economic force.  Unfortunately, there are no reliable figures to demonstrate the growth of Christianity in China since 1989, but everyone agrees that numbers have grown significantly. The lives lost in Tiananmen Square were not in vain.  There are still many steps to be taken for full religious freedom to exist in China, but the wall has been knocked down and spiritual liberty is sneaking in day by day.

As I reflect politically, many people have shed blood in every nation on earth in an effort to secure freedom.  No one should underestimate such cost.

But thinking theologically, only the death and spilt blood of the Lord Jesus Christ has the potential to save every person on the globe from remaining estranged from God.  Oh, that everyone would be given the opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life.  And, so, the incredible need for missions.

“On The Roads of Mandalay”

I have visited orphanages around the world—they always drive my emotion to an unattainable wish to adopt the whole lot of smiling, begging faces.  These love-starved children usually try to make eye contact while silently crying, “Please pick me.”  And, I always leave wondering why the world can’t do a better job of matching lonely homeless children with desiring adults.

God has always urged us to be compassionate with widows and orphans. “The King will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” — Matthew 25:40, NIV


We touch down in Yangon, Myanmar in early 2004 with representatives from World Vision International.  Our goal is to visit some of the sites where Cumberland Presbyterian monetary gifts collected through the Love Loaf Program had been distributed.  These ministries included an AIDS support group, a grade school administered by Buddhist monks, a community directed small business loan cooperative, and an orphanage.  Each visit introduces us to unimagined needs.


As we walk the dusty dirt streets of Yangon, we pass small, unpainted wooden homes on stilts backing up to the black waters carrying sewage to small canals running throughout the slums. This is the only option for the removal of sewage when people move onto undeveloped land and the government is unwilling to install proper public services.  Unfortunately, these moves are always the result of choosing between two miserable options. People leave a meager farm life to wiggle through the hellish tunnel of poverty while trying to find a job and some kind of makeshift lodging.  The transition is never easy and for many it means sleeping on the street under a cardboard box and pilfering through the stinking garbage dumps for something to eat.  We walk by a lot of people carrying very heavy loads balanced on their heads.  I wonder how they bear the burden, but they smile and move along chatting with other Burmese they meet.

Burma is often called the “Land of the Pagodas,” but the graceful white or gilded golden structures are absent in the poor communities.


Our guides ushers us through the large swinging metal doors of a building resembling a small abandoned warehouse.  The outside of the building has obviously been white washed years ago and now carries what I assume is the graffiti of area gangs. Inside, thirty 8-12 year old orphan boys and one smiling girl converge upon us with few inhibitions.  The orphanage director tries to restrain the children, but within a few minutes they are hanging on our legs and trying to converse with us in their limited English.  I am ashamed that I have not bothered to even learn the simplest greeting in Burmese.


We receive a brief orientation and are then privileged to take a seat on little wooden chairs from the mess hall so we can divvy out the stuffed animals, key chains, baseball caps, pens, notebooks and a host of other things that we have brought as gifts.  None of the kids are disappointed by their presents, but it is obvious that they are constantly glancing to see what their friends are receiving at the other gift stations around the patio.  The director then asked three of the little boys to show us their sleeping quarters.


The 40 x 20 feet sleeping area is crowded but neatly kept.  The walls are painted light aqua, stained from years of heavy use, giving me the opinion that the caregivers operate on a very limited budget.  Portions of the plaster have fallen revealing fragile adobe and lathe.  The dampness makes the room feel much cooler than the outside temperature.  The concrete floor has a few rugs spread here and there, but the nap has long since been worn down, leaving only the burlap weave.  The forty wrought iron beds are crowded into two rows that run the length of the room with no space to walk between the beds.  The kids must climb in from the foot of the bed.  Despite this simplicity, my mind drifts to an orphanage in Liberia where four kids often share a double bed.  At least each child has a bed to himself.  I see no sheets or blankets, and only two pillows in the whole dorm.  Each bed has a burlap mattress that isn’t over a quarter inch thick.  It is obviously an effort to keep the children from sleeping directly on the supportive wire mesh.  Each bed has one wooden box approximately 2 X 3 X 2 ft. on it.  And, each box is closed and padlocked.  The boys explain that their box contained all of their earthly possessions—clothes, toys, pictures, and books.  I ask one boy, “Out of everything in your chest, what is most important to you?”

He replies, “My books, I love my books.”  And, he runs to open his chest to show his limited treasures.  In his case, his box is nearly full of books.  I nearly cry when I see another little guy showing his favorite toys; two axles and their remaining rubber wheels.  The body of car or truck has long since disappeared.


None of the children have shoes.  Most of them have never owned a pair of shoes in their life—their feet heavily calloused.  Given the glass and nails so prevalent on all the community streets, the bottoms of their feet must resemble thick leather.  They allow us a peek into the kitchen but the darkness is as empty as the shelves.  Everything is prepared over gas heating elements.  I can only assume that the groceries are brought in on a daily basis or the children will be hungry for the day.  I am so overwhelmed by the experience that I move to the less depressing patio to try to find a few moments alone.  Our guides indicate it is time to go, so we wave goodbye to the kids and return to the quite streets.  My mind drifts to Kipling and his poem “On the Road to Mandalay.”

On the Road to Mandalay

by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,

An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,

An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:

Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —

Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —

Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,

She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”

With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek

We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.

Elephints a-pilin’ teak

In the sludgy, squdgy creek,

Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,

An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;

An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:

“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”

No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else

But them spicy garlic smells,

An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;

On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,

An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;

Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —

Law! wot do they understand?

I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;

For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay,

With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Note: You might be interested in going back to the English period of Burma with the help of a song by Peter Lawson that evolved from Kipling’s poem.  It is interesting to me that my mom introduced me to this poem more than thirty years before I dreamed of going there.  My mother was such an incredible farmer’s wife—a Renaissance woman.

1976—The Day Jaime Decided to Become a Missionary

Coping with drunks in worship services in a middle-class suburban church in North America infrequently becomes a problem, but in Colombian churches it often occurs.  Our churches are commonly on the same street or around the corner from bars, night clubs, and houses of prostitution.  Odds are high that sooner or later some drunk will stumble into the open door of the church for a look.   A drunk is somewhat like a cat; their curiosity drives them where they would not normally go. Sometimes, they will fall in love with the quiet accepting atmosphere and decide to return with frequency.

I always felt tense when some “unknown” character swayed down the aisle.  It was perplexing to await their problematic response to something holy and sacred.  Sometimes, they tried to contradict my sermon or criticize some Protestant practice.  Other times, they were a harmless, humorous distraction as they mimicked a church clown and then disappeared as quickly as they had come.  The most pathetic cases were the winos that would attend and participate with their stunned senses and uninhibited behavior. I tended to proceed as normal as practically possible, ignoring them and praying for their quick exit.

Evangelical Christians are very respectful of the sanctity of the sanctuary—no running, no eating or drinking, and no outbursts of noise.  They demand reverence from their children and all others in the temple of God.  The Armenia Church was a large Gothic structure that would seat close to three hundred people, including the balcony, so one drunk could wobble in without a lot of notice as long as they were quiet.  But when an intoxicated person threatened the solemnity of a service, the church leadership was quite likely to respond promptly and with force.

Mr. Jaime was our most frequent visitor to the Armenia Church.  He appeared at least once a month and most of the time he just took his place in the first pew and sat quietly as if he had no idea of where he was or why he was there.  I am convinced that he didn’t.  He was blitzed beyond sensibility. He was a shriveled raisin of a man that didn’t weigh more than 130 pounds.  He probably survived on the calories he imbibed.  He was really a pathetic creature, obviously demented from his years of alcoholism.  The smashed fellow, with his dilapidated shoebox, would stumble down a side aisle into the first pew and find a place among the young people of the church that also congregated in that section to assist with the music.  It was quite a site to see the old fellow integrate himself into the smallest of a gap among the amused and defenseless youth.

This is not Jaime, but he is remarkably similar.

This is not Jaime, but he is remarkably similar.

All the people within six feet were aware of Jaime even if he entered during a prayer.  There was the shuffling and flopping of his soles that had come loose from the rest of the shoes and the stifling body odor that saturated his clothes.  His own odor was so penetrating that it masked the smell of the alcohol on his breath.  His situation was so vile that it caused nausea for many that were seated nearby.

Poor Jaime never seemed to fully understand what was going on and we were never able to get him sober enough to know the real person that was behind the smell.  (Even today as I write I can still sense the horrible odor.)  His shoebox only contained one item—a copy of the Jehovah Witness “Watchtower” magazine.  It always unnerved me a bit as I began to preach to see him pull out his “Watchtower” and concentrate his attention on it.

Two vivid incidents stand out in my mind in relation to Jaime: the day he attempted to replace the elders of the church and the morning he came to the altar with a personal decision.

In the Armenia church the custom for serving Holy Communion was for the pastor to hand the bread and wine to four elders who then served the rest of the believers.  On one particular Sunday, I called for the elders to come forward to prepare the Lord’s Table. I was startled to see Obdullio, Primitivo, Carlos, William and Jaime!  I instructed the four to go ahead and serve; I asked Jaime to stand to one side.  My hope was to avoid a spectacle.  But, Jaime had other plans, he loudly insisted with his normal slur he had come forward to serve.  “Yo vooy a serviirr laa santaa ceena.”

That did it!  Obdullio and Primitive moved quickly to bodily remove him from the premises.  Again, Jaime decided that he would not be moved without a fight—a skirmish quickly developed.  His cursing was much clearer than his normal conversation.  The more the elders fought to move him the more he squirmed and twisted and swung his arms.  I finally convinced Obdullio and Primitivo to free him.  From there I was able to persuade him to take a seat in a pew with the insinuation that he could help me more from the pew.  But, obviously, the dignity and spirit of the celebration of the love and sacrifice of Jesus had been lost.  People didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Everyone was perplexed and mystified over how we should minister to this poor child of God.  Despite that huge fracas, Jaime still made an occasional Sunday visit.

Several months later in March of 1977, we were making a presbyterial effort to recruit two young single men to leave their homes and serve as workers among the Cholo Indians in the jungles along the San Juan River.  I was preaching on the missionary call at the Armenia Church and could sense that God’s spirit was moving during the service.  Attention was intense and I discerned a spiritual conviction in the eyes of several.  As I preached, I was certain that we would see fruit during the invitation.

As I concluded, I emphasized:  “God needs two young men willing to leave their families to serve as His servants and evangelists among the Cholo Indians.”  Immediately, three of our finest youth came forward, and then as I spoke with them I saw another person start forward.  I cried to myself, “Oh God, don’t let this ruin this service.”  I quietly approached Jaime and asked him, “Jaime, what is it that you want?”  To which he whispered, “I am ready to go to the Cholos as a missionary.”  My mind went into high gear.  How was I to moderate this potential disaster. Instead of trying to dissuade him, I said, “Very good, Jaime.  God bless you.”  As I looked to the crowd and called them to prayer, I could see that slight grin on the mouths of those that had heard our conversation.  I closed the service thankful that most people had no idea of the content of our conversation.

Jaime never made it to the Choco, but he did continue to return to one of his favorite pews to read the Watchtower.

A Cotton Christmas Tree–Not In My House

My favorite color is not green–most of the time.  Christmas amends the rule.  Christmas brings green and red from the color charts and predominantly marks them in my mind.  I want to see and smell spruce.  Christmas isn’t quite right without those two indicators that the celebration of the birth of Jesus is near.

Life in el Quindio, the center (eje) of coffee plantations of Colombia, South America, brings green into view everywhere.  You see the deep shining green of the coffee tree leaves and the more muted greens of the leaves of the platano and banana trees everywhere you drive.  But, the spotting of a classical North American spruce or pine is not only nearly impossible; it is illegal to harvest them in Colombia.  So, the evergreen Christmas tree is not a part of the decorations in Colombian homes during December.


The Watkins family always made a big deal about the search for the perfect tree.  Dad would grab his double-edged ax, and my sis and I would follow his big footsteps in the snow deep into the timber to find the right tree.  Of course, color, fullness, shape and height were the primary selection factors.

In Colombia, elaborate “pesebres” (nativity scenes) are front and center in most living rooms and churches.  If you see a “Christmas tree,” it is a simple limb severed from a hardwood tree and stuck into a five-gallon bucket.  Each square inch of every branch is then covered with cotton; and, you end with a white tree decorated with bulbs and lights.  For me, the “swab” tree is more irritating than helpful in creating the spirit of Christmas giving.  So, during our first treeless Christmas, my letters includes brief complaints about the lack of a “proper” tree.  In other words, in regard to Christmas trees, I am not adjusting well to my new culture.    I keep my discontent quiet around Colombians, but vented my feelings through writing.

As a rule, most North American churches have their share of sympathetic members.  They take the needs of missionaries seriously. Additionally, every church has one or two “can-do” people.  They make things happen.  Betty Frazier was one of those people.  She wrote us a letter nearly every week reporting on her family and the “goings on” at the church I had pastored before leaving for Colombia.  Simultaneously, we were sending our journals to Betty so she could understand our life on the mission field.  No doubt our letters often rested in the same post office going in different directions.

Scan 64 - Version 3

Betty is distraught by our lack of a tree.  She buys a $150 tree on half price in January and spends a morning packaging it for the three-month journey by boat to Colombia via surface mail.  Betty is a very spontaneous person, capable of both bouts of empathy and anger.  Her postal clerk notifies her that the post office cannot mail her immense package to Colombia in one box.  Instead, the post office requires two smaller boxes.  This sets Betty into a spontaneous rant about the government’s unnecessary regulations and exploitation of the public, leaving the clerk in a nervous sweat in the middle of winter.

Later the same day Betty returns to the same post office, tugging her two boxes behind her.  She is not smiling when she pushed them over the counter and into the emotionally bruised chest of the reluctant clerk.  This time the packages meet the code for size and weight.  But the news that the cost for surface mail will be $78.75 stuns Betty.  That is more than she paid for the discounted tree.  Again, she delivers a blistering review of the United States Postal Service; and makes it clear that she wants her complaint passed to the proper authorities including Tennessee’s BB senators-Republicans, Brock and Baker.

The Christmas tree arrives in early July–two massive cardboard boxes, apparently gift wrapped with more than 100 postage stamps of small denominations, all carefully placed by Betty’s loving hands.  We gladly pay the $30 custom fee and return to our home knowing our 1977 tree will be green, the proper color for Christmas trees.

An Air Warrior Is Defined by Battles Fought, not Miles Flown

Many people flying during the holidays go to battle and lose the war.  American Airlines promotes an annual road warrior contest.  The winner writes an essay on his/her most memorable airline experience. I considered entering but assumed they wouldn’t accept my entry since the flights didn’t occur on American.  I usually fly American if possible, but all North American based airlines suspended service to Liberia during the civil wars of the 1990’s.

I would define an air warrior not by miles flown but by the combat endured.  And, my story recalls one skirmish after another.  Even though I have traveled by air to more than 50 countries, nothing can compare to this assignment.

The battle began in New York City when I boarded an international flight to Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Air Afrique.  Sometimes, you get a sense about what will follow by how it begins.  We sat grounded by fog for three hours before take off.  I added the three hours to the projected flight time and prayed that I could shorten the trip with some serious sleep once we left the tarmac.  It is amazing what one sleeping pill and a glass of wine can do at 33,000 feet.

Thirteen hours later we landed in Dakar, Senegal for fuel and more passengers.  The agent booked us through Senegal and the Ivory Coast because there were no direct flights to Monrovia.  I knew my first trip to Africa would be a challenge.  We were some of the first people to visit the country during the brief period of peace enforced by the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group.  Joe Snider, a church colleague, and I made the journey to encourage Liberian Christians and review how we could best help in the country’s rehabilitation efforts.  We would visit the churches, a medical clinic and a boarding school yet to report on the damage to their physical buildings.

Our landing in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, included the amenity that we would be rewarded at nearly every stop both going and coming—a delay.  The layover grew from four to eight hours, pushing back our arrival in Conakry, Guinea to midnight.

The Guinea airport resembled a sidewalk sale with one hundred customers looking for the same bargain in front of one table.  Suddenly and shockingly, two scrappy sweating teenagers grabbed our bags and shouted something in French.  We walked briskly as they led us through a maze of customs, immigration, health checks, and dispatch.  Our self-appointed helpers then tossed our bags into the trunk of a taxi in the dimly lit parking zone, and held up a sign in English, “$20 please.”  Joe knew that was way too high from his previous flights in Africa and gave them $5.  The guys were not happy and undoubtedly cast a few French curses our way as we crawled into the dilapidated taxi and slammed the door.  I was learning that African airports are no place for timidity or kindness.  Instead, the key behaviors are aggression and firmness. We handed our hotel address to the driver, and he nodded, smiled, and mumbled, “I know.  We go.”

Within a minute we left civilization and entered a freaky darkness of a twilight zone.  It took an eternal ten minutes before we would see another vehicle or  a light.  I looked toward Joe periodically and he sat like a stoic monk, evidently not as concerned as I.  My mind played tricks on my insecurity and I finally whispered, “Could this guy being taking us some where to jump, dump, and rob us?”  He just smiled and said, “You worry too much.”

We finally arrived at the tiny hotel where a simple card table served for check in when the attendant finally answered our rapping on the door.  Again, the driver requested $30 and we decided to give him $15.  He kept badgering us through our registration and started to follow us to our room until the attendant turned him back.

This would be a short night because of our 8 a.m. departure.  The next morning we spoke with another traveler and learned the taxi fare to or from the airport was $8.  When we arrived at the airport the baggage boys converged upon us like ducks looking for a piece of bread tossed on the ground.  Finally two guys won the screaming contest, grabbed our bags and pulled us toward their pre-determined path.  It was scary to lose complete control of our possessions and our movement through the airport. We went behind the airline counter, through the a filthy employee break room, and unto the airfield.  The one visible plane belonged to a different airline.  No one had looked at our tickets until that point.  They just assumed we were taking the only departure that day.

We soon learned that our particular plane didn’t fly on Friday.  Our agent had not done due diligence in researching African airlines.  So, there we were, looking for another taxi back to the city with no way to contact our Liberian hosts about the change in arrival dates.

It was good to have a day to rest. Black marketeers approached us in the lobby offering us diamonds; an opportunity we would have in other hotels, coffee shops, and water closets along our journey.

The next morning we were back at the negotiating table with the taxi driver because of our early departure; he insisted that doubled the price.  I had begun formulating in my mind a presentation to mail to Guinness to nominate Conakry as the most difficult airport in the world.  I later changed my mind after a few hours in the Yamoussoukro airport.

This time the baggage boys ignored us and we pushed our way through the throng of people to the miniature airport check-in.  We reverted to the early days of international aviation—no computers, no scales, no respect for lines, and no nothing.  We had fallen right into the center of chaos and the French language.  We literally shoved our way toward the counter as others tried to make end runs around us.  I used my suitcase to block the flow on my right while Joe’s extra thirty pounds slowed the other side.  People warned us that Air Afrique always sold unlimited tickets for limited seating; and the seats were given to the fastest, the strongest and the loudest.  We stepped to bat with the best we had of all three, forgetting all the manners our mothers had taught us.

Somehow, we managed to get our tickets approved and then faced the expected bribe for the custom’s officer as well as the departure tax.  All of this required francs.  Fortunately, we had enough of the currency to pay these fees because it was obvious there was no monetary exchange service in the airport.  We met “Zacchaeus” at the last desk before leaving for the plane. He insisted on seeing our billfold to check for Guinea currency.  He was firm that no Guinea money could leave the country.  He confiscated the last few bills and coins we had.  We were glad to toss that money into his pot to exit the country.

When we climbed the wobbly rusted steps I could see we would be flying on a small W.W. II aircraft.  The well-appointed aircraft included no life jackets, no inflight service, no seatbelts, and no escape orientation. A couple of caps over the oxygen ports were totally missing.  I was thankful there were two people in the front seats, so I assumed we at least had two pilots.

One half of the passenger seats were removed to clear space for baggage and cargo.  It would be misleading to say we had no stewardess.  There was a lady that stood at the entrance of plane to check our tickets, and then disappeared until she came back with coffee for herself and sat down never to move again.

This was my first time to travel with baggage that moved around, made disgruntled sounds and even stunk up the place.  Not only were we hauling local beer, boxes of fruit and vegetables; we had two white bearded goats, one plump pig past ready for market, and several crates of restless white and red chickens.  Wouldn’t you know I sat next to one of the goats that kept trying to nibble on my pant leg?  The brief flight could not end quickly enough.

We arrived in Monrovia 24 hours late and unannounced.  Since Jimmy Carter was also arriving for peace meetings, the tiny airport was buzzing with people.  Our Cumberland Presbyterian hosts were not at the airport to receive us.  We cleared baggage claim, immigration, customs, and the health official—it was so good to hear English again, even if the accent was heavy and difficult to understand.  I learned the importance of having a travel mate in the third world; one person could watch the luggage while the other did necessary paper work and handled all negotiation.

Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of the taxi driver.  We explained we were on a mission trip and he proceeded to charge us three times the normal cost.

(Note: Our visit in Liberia was ten days of unbelievable exposure to sadness and despair.  We did our best to bring some hope, but we left with a feeling the peace initiative would not last.  And, it didn’t.  But, this story only tells the difficulties of air travel.)

When we tried to confirm our flight to Abidjan to leave Liberia, agents told us the flight had been cancelled.  Their next flight was four days later—just what I wanted, four more days in a country tittering on the edge of war and swarming with peacekeeping soldiers.  So, instead we purchased tickets on Weasua Airlines.  I always get concerned when I can’t even pronounce the name of the airlines. Their license would be pulled five years later for safety infractions.

When we arrived the following day to catch our flight, Amos Sawyer, the acting President of Liberia, needed our plane to return from a peace conference in Yamoussooukro, the capital of the Ivory Coast and that we would not be able to fly directly to Abidjan.  Instead, they suggested we fly to Yamousooukro on the plane going to retrieve the President, and then rent a taxi for $30 for the three-hour drive across the Ivory Coast to Abidjan.  That was the only immediate option and we agreed with little thought.  I just wanted to head for home.

Upon arrival in Yamoussoukro, the place was humming with officials, African drummers, bands, young enthusiastic dancers in bright orange and red costumes, and adequate security to dispatch all the presidents of West African countries departing from the peace conference.  When we deplaned, we ran into a significant obstacle.  No one had told us we needed a visa for land travel across the Ivory Coast.  And, we were only getting portions of the bad news in a mixture of French and English.  Finally, we found a bi-lingual Peace Corps worker when we heard him swear in English when all his personal items fell out of his carry-on on the floor in front of everyone.  He agreed to negotiate with officials about the visa and eventually secured a one-day pass for our travel.  Then, when we found a taxi, we were shocked to find out that the taxi was not the estimated $30, but $300.  Such a fee was out of our range of possibility.  Eventually, we booked a bus for the three and a half hour ride to Abidjan for about $25, hoping we could catch our late evening flight.  It was a very bumpy ride on cushion-less seats.  The upside was the blaring Bruce Lee video heavily laced with violence and sexual espionage.

After a one more day delay in Abidjan, we were able to confirm a flight back to New York.  I stopped at the top of steps before entering the plane, and turned my head for one last look at the so-called “dark continent.”  This road warrior was returning exhausted, but unscathed, from the battle.