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One night recently, my wife Diana and I returned from a long trip and took the Flyaway bus from the LAX airport to our home in one of Los Angeles’ suburbs. The bus was about a third full when we boarded, but quickly filled up as additional passengers came on at other stops around the airport.

I soon became aware of the conversation between a man and a young woman in the seats across from ours. Since the aisle was very narrow and the man was less than three feet away from me, I could follow snatches of their conversation, even though they were speaking softly. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, with an East European accent, she in her late teens or early twenties.Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 7.26.03 PM

At first the conversation reflected that of two people meeting for the first time, he asking her questions about where she was from, her reason for coming to Los Angeles, her name, family life, likes and dislikes. She was from South America, visiting the USA for the first time, traveling alone, and contemplating attending college here.

He complemented her on her beauty, said that he was a photographer who had been responsible for giving many models and actresses their start in Hollywood, showed her his iPad photo portfolio of glamorous young women, and started pitching her on how he could do the same for her.

I glanced across at them and saw how smoothly and charmingly he was making his pitch, and how innocently and engrossed she was in what he was offering.

I suddenly became very concerned for her.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 8.11.37 PMOver the years there had been many criminal cases of girls and young women coming to Los Angeles to seek their fame and fortune, only to vanish, be murdered, drugged, enslaved, and forced into prostitution here or abroad by sex traffickers. Many of them were met and befriended at train and bus terminals or at airports by smooth-talking men who convincingly weaved their webs of promises and visions of glamor, only to entrap and ultimately destroy them.

Was he one of those men? Was she one of those gullible young women? Had he targeted her as a lone traveler outside the airport? Why had he chosen to sit down beside her when there were so many empty seats when he came on the bus? Were those photos on his iPad legitimate photos that he had taken of real women, or were they copied from websites and magazines and used as his own to ensnare women?

Were my questions and concerns baseless, just wild imaginings from my jet-lagged mind? Or were they promptings from the Holy Spirit who gives us the gift of discernment and leads us into all truth? (1 Cor. 12:8-11; John 16:13)

I shared my concern with Diana, and together we kept watch through the remainder of the bus ride. Our concern grew when we saw them exchange cell phone numbers.

When we were about five minutes from the bus terminal, the bus driver announced over the intercom that passengers needed to have their bus tickets ready in order to pick up their suitcases and exit the terminal. If they didn’t have a ticket, they could use their credit cards to buy one at the terminal. Cash would not be accepted.

The young woman exclaimed, “Oh no, I only have cash!”

He assured her, “That’s all right. I’ll pay for you.”

She thanked him, and he went on to offer to give her a ride to anywhere she wanted to go.

Their conversation tapered off soon after that, and I looked over at him and saw something that startled me and deepened my concern even more—his eyes were closed, his head was tilted back against the headrest of his chair, and he sighed deeply and smiled as he gently stroked his chest, as if congratulating himself.

The image was of a man who knew that he was about to reel in his catch, that his prey was undoubtedly about to be snared. He exuded total confidence that he had caught this one.

No longer was I unsure about this man. I believed that he meant to harm her. But what was I to do?

I did not want to leave the bus terminal and leave her with this man, and I didn’t relish the idea of confronting him when we got off the bus to reclaim our luggage, but if I had to, I would. But what would I say? How would he react? No doubt, it would create a scene in front of the other passengers, bus driver, and baggage attendant.

So I prayed. I asked God to surround the young woman with his protection and to keep her from being harmed by this man. I asked God to give me the boldness and the words to intervene when we got off the bus. And I asked God to protect me from harm in what I was about to do.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 9.51.10 PMWhen the bus arrived at the terminal, we all disembarked to wait for the attendant to unload our suitcases from the bus. I was about to approach the man when the young woman saw a friend waving to her from behind the railing. In the friend’s hand was a bus ticket!

The young woman ran to the friend, hugged her, took the ticket, and went back to get her luggage.

I quickly went over to the friend and said, “Excuse me, your friend met a man on the bus, and I couldn’t help overhearing what they were talking about. Please tell her that she should not trust him and should not go anywhere with him. If she does, her life could be in danger. She should have nothing to do with him!”

The friend’s expression was one of surprise when I suddenly approached her, but as my words and urgent tone sank in, her expression brightened and she thanked me profusely.

Just as quickly, I stepped back and returned to Diana who had been watching the man hover around the young woman as she waited for her suitcase. Our luggage was the last to be unloaded from the bus, and by the time Diana and I gave our tickets to the gate attendant and headed for the taxi stand, the young woman and her friend were gone.

The man, however, was frantically trying to get his credit card to work at the automatic teller machine, which seemingly wasn’t cooperating.

During the short taxi ride to our home, I silently praised and thanked God for how quickly he answered my prayer and averted the young traveler from having to go with the man into the night. And I prayed that she would heed the warnings I gave to her friend, especially when the man undoubtedly would try to reach her on her cell phone.

Since then, I’ve continued to pray for God’s protection over her and that she might come to know Jesus Christ as her savior. And I’ve prayed that the man, whatever his intentions that night, would also repent of his sins and follow Christ.

I might never know if her life was in danger that night, but over the years, as I have grown in my faith walk with Christ, I’ve learned to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit, for sometimes it really can mean the difference between life and death.

****

Recently my wife Diana told me of an experience she had, and I got her permission to share it with you in this blog post.

She was showering one morning, and was feeling distant from God when she remembered some words from the December 5th devotional reading in Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling:

“Whenever you feel distant from Me, say: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place!’ Then, ask Me to give you awareness of My Presence. This is a prayer that I delight to answer.”

So she prayed, ”Jesus, please show me your presence today.” Although she didn’t know how he would show her his presence, she finished showering and went about getting ready to run some errands that morning.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.42.31 PMTarget had advertised a Christmas ornamental red truck, but she had been unable to find it at several Target stores. She finally went online and found one at the Glendale store and ordered it. Having to pick it up in four days or lose it, she decided to face the early morning traffic to make the trip over to Glendale from our home in Granada Hills.

She showed her ID to the clerk at the service counter of the Glendale Target. When the clerk brought the red truck to her, Diana realized that it was bigger than she had imagined, but it was still very cute with a snowy wreath on the front grill and a snow-covered tree in the truck’s bed.

As she turned to leave the counter, a woman who had been sitting nearby came over to her, and Diana immediately saw that the woman was wearing a Christmas sweater that had a red truck woven on the front that looked just like Diana’s red truck!

“Oh, what a darling truck!” the woman exclaimed at the sight of Diana’s truck.

Diana pointed to the woman’s sweater and said she must have gotten it at Target. The woman said no, that she had had the sweater for many years, as well as an ornamental red truck, although it was slightly different from the design on her sweater or Diana’s truck!

Seeing the eager longing in the woman’s eyes, Diana offered to go and see if the store had another red truck for her. The woman said she’d stay right there at the service counter.

Diana sped off to the Holiday section on the third floor where the truck was supposed to be, but her heart sank when she didn’t see any trucks on the shelf. As she got closer, she was thrilled to see that there was one left—way back against the wall—so she grabbed it and raced to the escalator.

Another shopper on the escalator noticed Diana with the truck and remarked how cute the truck was. When Diana told her about the woman who was waiting to see if there was a red truck for her to match her sweater, the shopper smiled and said she was glad that Diana had found this last truck for the woman.

As Diana returned to the service counter, she was disappointed when she didn’t at first see the woman. But the woman appeared from behind some shoppers and her face broke into a big smile when she saw Diana with the red truck. The woman thanked her again and again for going to the trouble to find it for her, saying that Diana had made her day. Diana told her that it was she who had made Diana’s day with her expression of delight at seeing the truck.

Stella

Stella

The woman hugged Diana and introduced herself as Stella and that she is from the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. Diana introduced herself and told her that she is from Granada Hills. When Stella shared that she has family in Granada Hills, and named the street and the house in which the family lives, Diana recognized the house as being about half a mile from our house! Even Los Angeles can be a very small town.

Having overheard the conversation between Diana and Stella, the clerk at the service counter remarked that this meeting was meant to be.

Diana looked at Stella and the beloved red truck in her hand and on her sweater, and told her that she had to take a picture of Stella. She pulled out her cellphone and snapped a couple of poses of Stella, and felt like she had just made a friend. And as Stella said goodbye and thanked Diana a few more times, both women hoped that somehow they would meet again.

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Diana

Diana drove back home, smiling as she thought of Stella and her newly found red truck. Then the thought hit her—Jesus had indeed answered the prayer she had made in the shower. He had been right there in Target orchestrating a divine meeting between two red truck fans. And in that meeting he brought delight and Light into the lives of a group of strangers in a chance meeting that none of them could have created on their own. And they were all blessed through that meeting.

How many times do we feel far away from Jesus, but do not ask him to draw near to us and make us feel his presence?

Diana hopes that we’ll remember to pray the next time we feel alone, because as she learned that day, Jesus’ presence is only a prayer away. And he delights to answer our prayers.

*****

Sarah Young, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2011) p. 356.

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Silhouetted within the doorway was a group of street children drawn there by the pulsing music of the church’s young musicians and dancers. The sight of the children saddened me because they reminded me of the countless numbers of children I saw roaming the streets of Bunia and the countryside—victims of a corrupt government system that was robbing them of a proper education that could lift them out of their country’s poverty.

Watching them in that doorway, I wondered if there was any hope for the children of Bunia to have a better life.

By the time our mission trip ended, two things gave me hope.

The first is the way in which God is using the Bunia Francophone Evangelical Church and other churches in the area to bring healing, reconciliation, and positive change to the people in the region through evangelism, discipleship, education, and in challenging leaders in politics, business, and the armed forces to serve with justice and mercy. Transformation is happening, many people are coming to Christ, and the swelling ranks of children, teenagers, and young adults in the services and youth groups are strong indicators that lives are being changed.

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One of the many youth groups at the Bunia Francophone Evangelical Church

The second is the amazing story of one of our team members, Neema Paininye Banga, who started life in a tiny, remote Congolese village to very poor parents, yet, by the grace of God, she grew up to earn a Masters degree in psychology at an American university, and returns to the Congo each year to minister to the people of her village.

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Neemah Paininye Banga

Neema’s story began when her own mother, Julienne, was a child in the village of Gwane, and an American couple came to the neighboring village of Assa, and established a mission church where they taught the people to sew and crochet, and shared the Gospel. Curious about them, Julienne went to meet them in Assa and heard the stories of Jesus. Julienne accepted Jesus as her savior, then brought her mother, Ziana to hear the Gospel stories. She, too, became a Christian.

Ziana, who was one of the wives of the Gwane village chief, was ostracized by the chief and his other wives for converting to Christianity and forsaking their witchcraft practices and worship of dead ancestors. So she and Julienne fled to Assa and took refuge in the mission, where they stayed for many years, learning the various crafts of needlework. It was there at the mission that Julienne met and married one of the young men, Jean-Christophe. They had seven children, of which five survived, Neema being the fourth.

However, Jean-Christophe died of a lung disease when Neema was one year old, so Julienne stayed in the mission to mentor the other widows of Assa. To earn a living, she worked the fields of a farmer. The missionaries gave Neema and her sister school uniforms and allowed them to attended the mission school for free. After school, the sisters walked several miles to help their mother work on the farm until dark, after which they would return home to gather wood and fetch water before doing their homework. Neema was five years old at this point.

Neema’s 13-year-old sister, Eugenie, was sent to Bunia to stay with a family and attend high school. She finished high school and started college, but dropped out to marry Idi Taban, a business owner.

When Neema was ready for high school, Eugenie sent for her to come and live with her family in Bunia. Neema babysat, cooked, and did other household chores for the family, and Idi paid for her high school tuition.

In 1997, as the civil war was about to break out, Idi moved his entire family, including Neema, to Nairobi, Kenya. He paid for Neema to attend an English school, and she did so well in her studies there that he later paid for her to attend a Christian university in Nairobi.

Neema became close friends with her American roommate who was there on a study-abroad program. When the roommate returned to America, she persuaded Neema to transfer with her to the same university—Eastern University in Pennsylvania. Again, Idi paid for her travel, tuition, and board to attend Eastern University.

Still, Neema worked in the student cafeteria and as a nanny to earn extra money while carrying a full credit load, and earned a bachelor degree in psychology. She then enrolled at the University of Georgia in Atlanta to pursue a Master’s degree in psychology. It was there that she met and married Dhego Banga, a man from Bunia who was working on his Ph.D. Neema subsequently dropped out of her graduate program to have the first of their two children.

When Dhego finished his Ph.D., he moved the family to San Francisco to start a new job. Once they were settled, Neema resumed her studies and earned a Master’s degree in psychology at San Jose State University.

In 2013, Neema was burdened for the people of the Congo, especially those in the village of Ango where Julienne and many of the villagers had fled when rebels invaded Assa during the civil war. Neema realized that the necessities of life—clean water, affordable health care, and good nutrition—do not exist for the villagers of Ango, who live hopeless, helpless lives, and wake up in the morning not knowing when they will have their next meal.

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Neema traveling by canoe on her 4-day journey to Ango

So once or twice each year, she leaves San Francisco and flies to Bunia with basic supplies such as hygiene products, clothes, and nonperishable nutritional foods. She then travels for four days by bus, truck, and “budda-budda” taxi bikes over bone-wrenching dirt roads and in dug-out river canoes to reach Ango.

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Neema meeting with Ango villagers

Once there, she meets with family members and villagers, provides them with needed supplies, and shares the Gospel with them, leading some to Christ. There is no longer a mission church for the people,  the missionaries having had to return to America when the civil war started. With no one left to carry on the ministry, the villagers slipped back into the old ways and beliefs in witchcraft and worshiping dead ancestors.

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Neema with some of the widows of Ango

So Neema fights back the darkness by teaching the villagers about Jesus, healthy living, and by starting a charity in America to benefit the people of Ango and the region of Bas-Uele. She knows that hers is presently a one-woman struggle to sow the seeds of progress in Ango, but she believes that this is a task that God has entrusted to her and that the harvest is in God’s hands and timing.

The image of the six silhouetted children is fixed in my mind, not with the sadness that I initially felt when I took pictures of them, but now I view them with hope—hope nurtured in prayer that, like Neema, God will lead them on their own redemptive journey in which they will grow up to serve his Kingdom and bring change to the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Please visit Neema’s website at www.achearts.com and support her ministry to bring relief to the people of her village. Thank you.

****

The Conversion of Paul

The Conversion of Paul–by Luca Giordano (1690), Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy

Only someone who has personally experienced the powerful, life-transforming love, grace, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ can boldly claim that nothing compares to the priceless gain of knowing him. Such a person was Paul the apostle (Philippians 3:8)

In a society in which he had some of the highest and most impressive academic, professional, and religious credentials and achievements, along with an esteemed family pedigree going back thousands of years to the founding of the Jewish nation, Paul was a rising star that burned brightly in his zeal to uphold the laws of Judaism and to persecute the followers of Jesus Christ.

All that changed as he travelled on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians and he encountered the risen Jesus in a dazzling blaze of light from heaven (Acts 9). As a result of his decision to follow and serve Jesus, he lost everything, and gave up every thing that previously mattered to him—his high standing in Jewish religious and political society, his credentials, and his thoroughbred pedigree (Phil 3:4-9).

Even his immediate and extended family probably rejected him, and since he was a Pharisee, it is likely that he was once married, but his wife might have died by the time of his conversion to Christ, or left him after his conversion (see Creasy and Burk).

Paul realized that all the things that he thought were important in his life before Christ were powerless to save him and bring him into fellowship with God. So he dumped them all as utter rubbish—excrement! (Phil. 3:8)

It was only through his faith in Jesus Christ that saved him and offered him the priceless gift of knowing Christ, and he declared:

For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. As a result, I can really know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I can learn what it means to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that, somehow, I can experience the resurrection from the dead! (Phil. 3:9-11, NLT)

When Paul wrote about knowing Jesus Christ, he was not referring to intellectual knowledge alone; he meant the personal knowledge that comes from the most intimate relationship and union between two people—and he found that in Christ.

And as we, too, become one with Christ through faith and intimate knowledge of him, we experience the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, power that enables us to:

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 11.07.20 PM• Die to our sinful nature, so that we can live transformed for him and like him

• Share in his suffering and be comforted by him, so that we can comfort others in their sufferings

• Someday rise from the dead in new resurrected bodies, fit for eternity in God’s glorious Kingdom

And so like Paul, forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, we press on towards the goal of being all that Jesus Christ saved us for and wants us to be, and we strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Jesus Christ, is calling us up to heaven. (Phil. 3:13-14)

Until that glorious Resurrection Morning, we who have experienced the grace and forgiveness of our sins through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, must choose each day how to live in gratitude to our Lord.

Gloria Gaither

Gloria Gaither

In that vein, Gloria Gaither, my sister alum from Anderson University, penned these words as a prayer and a hymn that capture her commitment to live for Christ. As you listen to the words and music performed by the Gaither Vocal Band in the video below, I hope that you will be inspired to live each day experiencing that priceless gain of intimately knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

I Then Shall Live

I then shall live as one who’s been forgiven;
I’ll walk with joy to know my debts are paid.
I know my name is clear before my Father;
I am his child, and I am not afraid.
So greatly pardoned, I’ll forgive another;
The law of love I gladly will obey.

I then shall live as one who’s learned compassion;
I’ve been so loved that I’ll risk loving too.
I know how fear builds walls instead of bridges;
I’ll dare to see another’s point of view.
And when relationships demand commitment,
Then I’ll be there to care and follow through.

Your Kingdom come around and through and in me,
Your power and glory, let them shine through me;
Your hallowed name, O may I bear with honor,
And may your living Kingdom come in me.
The Bread of Life, O may I share with honor,
And may you feed a hungry world through me.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

******

Please note: If you cannot open the video, click the title of the post to go to the actual blog site.

BY ALLI NEWELL

Allí Newell holding one of the youngest members of the Bunia Evangelical Francophone Church

Allí Newell holding one of the youngest members of the Bunia Evangelical Francophone Church

August 10, 2015

As I sit here at home, getting ready to start my first week back at professional development for school, my heart is wrecked. Literally wrecked. As in, I just starting tearing as I made coffee, like really, really good coffee.

Being back just a week, it feels as though I am just now readjusting to the reality I was witness of in the Congo.

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Alli speaking to educators

To process the stories I heard of war-torn communities, incessant rape and sexual abuse, lack of education, lack of access to clean water, the stories of pain can go on. YET, the deep sense of Hope and Joy is alive in Bunia. People worship freely and loudly. Their laughter is contagious and their smiles are healing. Their eyes are on fixed on today, but see the horizon of tomorrow.

Teachers are craving change and more education, children have hope for the future, students want better schools, women want help out of abusive relationships, police and politicians want to lead without corruption, leaders aim to rise up other just leaders.

So when I get the good intended question of, “How was Africa?”, I respond with “amazing, life-changing, incredible.” But my response should really be, “How much time do you have?” Because the stories I have need to be heard, but will probably wreck your heart, too.

Alli with the children of Bunia

Children seeing their images in Alli’s smartphone

But isn’t that what we are called to do? To share our stories? And not just the filtered, life-is-awesome, Instagram photos, but also the hurting, sad, or conflicted stories we are witnesses to or walked ourselves. Isn’t our call to have our hearts hurt for those who are hurting, to feed the hungry, to heal the hurting, YET at the same time fully rejoice with the hope and promise of Christ. Yes! I think so.

So, I have stories to share. Stories that have changed me, wrecked me, inspired me, and allowed my eyes to see Hope differently.

Thank you, Africa.

+++++++

BY JORDAN COOPER LEE

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Jordan speaking at a gathering of police officers in Bunia, DRC

In the twelve years since the civil war ended in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the country has been seeking to rebuild itself. And for the past six years, The Bunia Evangelical Francophone Church has been partnering with Bel Air Presbyterian Church to put on personal development conferences to help transform the country. As a member of Bel Air Pres and a Los Angeles Police officer serving in South Central Los Angeles, I was invited to join the 2015 mission team to speak to the Congolese military and police.

In the year spent preparing for this trip, I felt woefully unqualified for the task. But biblically speaking, that is exactly who God uses. He equips the called. By the time I got to the Congo, I realized that God has been developing me and giving me a foundation of training and experience in military leadership, sociology, poverty alleviation, at-risk-youth development, police community relations, gender violence, and ministry. I was able to synthesize all of these to come alongside the Congolese church and aid them in their quest for restoration of their country.

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Jordan with the police chaplain and senior officers

Police: After spending a week talking with Congolese police officers, learning what issues face them, and studying the city up close, I was able to speak about the corruption that was keeping their country in poverty and how it was up to them to break the cycle of corruption. At one point, I thought I was going to get arrested for my boldness, but God paved the way and they were completely receptive to the ideas of integrity in all things, respect for all people, and how to gain trust in the community they serve. They asked me for copies of my talk and asked me to return next year.

Military: In an audience of military commanders, General Kaseekiela and the head magistrate of the region spoke on war crimes, genocide, and the rules of engagement. When it was my turn at the podium, I challenged the commanders to see their profession and leadership as a calling from God to serve the people, and I spoke of how a country can only develop when there is a foundation of security. I explained that the Congolese church’s efforts to help the people in business development, education, and health care would be fruitless if people are not safe and cannot trust their government. Many of their business leaders are weary of importing products into the country because of the many levels of graft and extortion they must pay, and many young women won’t go to school out of fear of sexual assault while walking there.

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Security guard trainees meet with Jordan

Security Trainees: The Bunia church puts on vocational classes for young men (many of them former child soldiers) to become certified as private security guards so they can find employment in the city. Some of these “security boys,” as I called them, guarded the compound in which we stayed, and I quickly befriended them. They asked me if I could come speak to their class. I expected six of them. Forty-two showed up with pen and paper. We ended up meeting three times and had discussions on why and how to live a moral life amidst an untrustworthy government.

Youth: Along with one of the other Bel Air Pres high school volunteer leaders, and Maddie, the high school member on our team, I spoke at a youth conference for about three hundred 16-28 year-olds. Using my experience in youth ministry and working with at-risk youth and inner-city Los Angeles gangs, I discussed issues of faith, morality, and choices. I also spoke on the theology of respecting women and used my love for my sister as the foundational narrative for the talk.

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Jordan with some of the orphans

Orphans: We also worked with “House of Grace,” an orphanage the Congolese church supports. I really had no idea what to say to young boys who have lost their parents in the civil war, who don’t have beds, or a toilet, or light once the sun goes down. Maddie, who had raised funds back home to buy beds for them, presented the first of these beds to them, and I briefly spoke on the concept that we can’t choose the circumstances we’re born into, but we can choose how we treat each other.

Women: My favorite part of the entire trip was not planned at all. One morning, I awoke thinking about a talk I had given on female safety to the high school girls at my church. In a country where about 90% of the women are victims of domestic violence and about 80% are victims of sexual assault, I thought this Bunia church is the place that needs that information, so I pitched it to Pastor James.

Women gather with Jordan to share their stories of abuse

Women gather with Jordan to share their stories of abuse

Less than twenty-four hours later, I was speaking to a room of about hundred women on how to use their instincts to recognize danger, and how to protect themselves from domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking in a society where they cannot rely on law enforcement. We also talked about the need for them to remove their sense of shame as victims, because shame and secrecy are the tools predators use to remain at large to continue their evil. Women began speaking of their traumatic experiences to the group, and it was such a powerful experience for them, they asked me to come back the next morning to answer more questions.

Throughout this mission trip, God used me in ways I never knew were possible. I’ve been serving in Third World countries for a decade now, much of it in the medical field, but this trip was unique. A dear friend described it as filled with “Moses moments” in which God calls you to a task that is so overwhelming and unprecedented you don’t know how to process it. That is where I find myself.

++++++

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Entebbe, Uganda: Team members from left: Will Bredberg, Scott Prewett, Dr. Emmanuel Bellon, Jordan Cooper Lee, Stephanie Seim, Maddie Reasner, Alli Newell, Buck Rea, Jonathan (our Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot), and Derrick Coy

Our eight-member team left Los Angeles in July to visit the city of Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where we joined four African team members to speak at a conference on transformational living.

Sponsored by the Bunia Francophone Church, the conference was designed to help people gain new skills with which to climb out of poverty and to encourage reconciliation and transformation among the inhabitants of a city and region struggling to recover from civil war, rebel invasions, and tribal genocide, and in which 40 percent are unemployed and 80 percent underemployed.

Our team divided up into smaller teams of two and threes, with members bringing their expertise and skills to share in seminars and workshops with over a thousand attendees.

Our teams met with:

• Pastors from a variety of denominations to teach, train, and encourage them in their very difficult ministries of growing their churches

• Politicians gearing up for upcoming elections, and challenged them to reject corruption and to uphold justice. Many of the politicians publicly made the decision to follow Christ at the end of our meeting

• Top-ranking officers from the army and police forces, and challenged them to be “peace guardians” who serve justly. Many of them answered the call to commit their lives to Christ

• Established business owners seeking to grow their businesses, and men and women seeking to start and build their own small businesses

• Youth groups from surrounding areas, and from a boys orphanage, all eager to hear from our younger team members

• Teachers, principals, and administrators from public schools struggling to teach within a broken educational system

• Professors and administrators from universities and higher education institutions with limited resources to help students prepare for a modern labor force and globalized economy

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Teachers from Bunia and surrounding areas

As a member of the education team, I spoke to schoolteachers and administrators from around the region. Acknowledging the challenges that continue to face them in the DRC—an education system devastated by war, school buildings destroyed, thousands of children slaughtered along with their families, many children forced to become soldiers, entrenched corruption throughout their government and education system, teachers not getting paid for months, and seventy percent of secondary students absent from school on any given day—I reminded them that:

• They have one of the most important roles to play in the rebuilding of their nation—that of educating their youth and adolescents who will determine the future of their nation

• They are not alone in their struggles, for together as educators, and together with churches like the Bunia Francophone Church and others throughout the DRC, they can become a unified voice of hundreds of thousands of educators working together to bring about change and improve the education system

A public school classroom in Bunia

A public school classroom in Bunia

• They must find ways to work together beyond the lonely confines of their classrooms—encouraging and supporting each other, mentoring the newer and inexperienced teachers, and developing strategies to change the education machinery within their city, their province, and across the nation

• With most of them having only “O” and “A” level school-leaving certificates as their highest qualification to teach, they need to keep learning and striving to earn higher qualifications and degrees—no matter their ages

• Teaching is a holy calling, citing Jesus as the supreme teacher who called his disciples and many of his followers to be teachers (Eph. 4:11-12; Rom. 12:6-7; Titus 2:7), and citing from the Bible fifteen characteristics of transformational leaders and teachers

I also reminded them of the words of the apostle James that “we who teach will be judged more strictly,” and I called on the male teachers to stop the abusive practice of demanding sex from students in exchange for higher grades.

I also spoke to university professors and administrators, and introduced them to a program of transformational partnerships between African and U.S. universities and institutions of higher education—a program sponsored and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in association with Carnegie Corporation of New York, Higher Education for Development (HED), and the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU).

The program is designed to help universities and institutions:

• Improve the professional development of faculty and staff

• Strengthen their capacity to prepare students for the realities of a modern global labor market

• Strengthen the use of technology in learning

• Develop sustainable revenue streams

Several faculty and administrators expressed interest in forming such partnerships, and have been communicating with me since my return home as they begin the process of applying to the agencies.

The highlights of our time spent in Bunia include:

One of many choirs, bands, and dancers celebrating during worship

One of many choirs, bands, and dancers celebrating during worship

• The exuberant and joyful worship of God by the congregation and its many choirs, dancers, worship bands throughout the week and culminating in three services on Sunday

• The many decisions made for Christ throughout the week and at the end of the Sunday services

• The warm hospitality and care shown to our team by members of the church

• Pastor James Byensi treating our team to a trip out to the countryside to see the beauty of the land

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Finally, I wish to thank all those of you who contributed financially and prayerfully to make this trip possible. Grace and peace to you all.

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Following is a reflection by the youngest member of our team:

My name is Maddie Reasner, and I am a 17-year-old high school student in Los Angeles, California. This was my second time to Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last time I went I was 13 years old, and I worked to set up a computer center in the church so that people in the city could learn how to be computer literate for free. This time back, I worked with the House of Grace Boy Orphanage, and I brought an additional 10 computers to add to the Bunia Young Technology Center.

Maddie speaking to an audience through an interpreter

Maddie speaking to an audience through an interpreter

I’ve been back from the Congo for over two weeks now, and it has been hard to get back into the every day. I wish that by now I had a simple and clean answer to the question, “How was Africa?” but I don’t, and I don’t know if there will ever be a concise answer that is true to the experience I had. Being back in the U.S., it is easier to just pretend like the world of the Congo—the corruption, the pain, the grief, the suffering—does not exist…BUT IT DOES! And I am called to be a witness; I’m called to testify to what I saw. I’m called to testify to all that God is doing, and to testify to all of the hurt and helplessness felt by the Congolese people.

When we encounter God in a “mountain top” experience, we are called to come back into our everyday. In 1 Kings 19:15, after Elijah had experienced God’s power through the wind, the earthquake, and the fire on the mountain, God said to Elijah, “Go back the way you came through the desert.” God says to go back to the everyday, to the foot of the mountain where a large crowd waits (Matthew 17:14).

I have to tell the stories of the Congo no matter how heartbreaking and gut wrenching they may be, because that is why God had me there. God had me in Bunia, not only for the work that I would do there, but also so that I would have the opportunity to be a witness back in America, and that I would be able to share the heartbreak that needs healing, and the victory that needs celebrating in the lives of my friends in the Congo.

Boys from the orphanage

Boys from the orphanage

One story I want to share is when we visited the orphanage. When we arrived at House of Grace, the sun had set and the sky was getting darker, we heard the boys joyfully singing all together, but we couldn’t see any of their faces. The lack of electricity was one resource they weren’t at all concerned with. We sat around and answered their questions, and we asked them questions. When asked what is the most beautiful thing, one seven-year-old boy answered, “That Jesus loves me and saved me,” while another young boy answered that the most beautiful thing he will ever see is “a family telling [him] to come home.”

We enjoyed a whole evening getting to know the boys without even being able to see their faces. Many of these boys were child soldiers; others had lost their parents and all family members in the civil war. While they had every right to be solemn and depressed, instead they were filled with joy, an extraordinary joy that they recognized came from their Heavenly Father.

It was hard to leave…the American in me says that I failed, I did not complete my project, I did not “FIX” all the problems in the Congo. But God says no, just be a witness to his goodness in the midst of this evil, and see him move and change people’s hearts, which in turn can change the country.

God is stirring in the country. We witnessed a joyful, on-fire worship and praise among the Congolese—people who have nothing, but give every ounce of their selves to glorify God. We saw 150 people give their lives to Christ. Additionally, one of our team members, Jordan Cooper had the opportunity to be the first outsider, EVER, to speak to men of the Congolese Military about serving God while serving his people. We also saw 90% of a room full of politicians give their lives to Christ. Moreover, in the next year Bunia will have an election for their first governor, an opportunity to put someone they trust in power. There is hope beginning to rise up in Bunia.

Maddie with pastor James Byensi

Maddie with pastor James Byensi

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A recent series of text messages from a family member asking me about the rapture – an event in which God would suddenly snatch away into the clouds all Christians from earth before the end-time atrocities of the Antichrist – led me to reexamine what the Bible teaches about the subject.

The idea of the rapture was first introduced by Puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather in the 1700s, followed by theologian John Darby in the 1800s, then popularized in the 1970s by Hal Lindsey in his book, The Late Great Planet Earth, and by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in their Left Behind series of books in the 1990s. It is also a doctrine by some evangelical preachers and denominations based on their interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, but also of Matthew 24:27-31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-53; and Revelation 20:4. (Wikipedia)

According to their interpretation of these passages, Christians will be snatched away to be with Christ in heaven before the tribulation happens, leaving behind unbelievers to suffer under the worldwide tyrannical and destructive rule of the Antichrist for seven years. Christ will then return to punish the Antichrist and his followers, and rule the earth for a thousand years, before pronouncing final judgment on all who have ever lived. This is known as the pretribulation rapture or premillennialism (before the one thousand years of Christ’s rule).

Besides pretribulation rapture, there are variations of beliefs on when the rapture will occur – midtribulation, prewrath tribulation, partial tribulation (all three happening during the tribulation), and post tribulation in which the rapture occurs at the second coming of Christ. (Wikipedia)

But 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 shows that the apostle Paul was writing about the resurrection of the Christian dead at Christ’s second coming (the first coming being his birth in Bethlehem). The Thessalonian Christians were worried about what would happen to their fellow believers who had already died before the return of Christ, so Paul assured them that:

“We who are still living when the Lord returns will not rise to meet him ahead of those who are in their graves. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with trumpet call of God. First, all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and remain with him forever.” (1 Thess. 4:15-17, NLT)

I’ve highlighted key phrases that are important in comparing the other scripture passages with the above Thessalonian passage. For example, the phrase “caught up” in verse 17 was translated in the Latin manuscript as rapiemur, derived from raptus and raptura (a kidnapping, a carrying off, taken away). This Latin translation came from harpagisometha (caught up or taken away) used in the Greek version of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, while a shortened form, harpazo, is also used in Acts 8:39, 2 Cor. 12:2-4, and Rev. 12:5. (Wikipedia)

The Matthew 24:27-31 passage lists some of those same phrases and gives us a specific time when Christ will return – after the tribulation.

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt. 24:29-31, ESV)

So, along with Matthew specifying the time of Jesus’ second coming as happening immediately after the tribulations, the similarities in these two passages include:

• The Lord or Son of Man returning from heaven or coming down in clouds from heaven

• His arrival will be announced with loud trumpet sounds from his archangel and angels

• He will gather his elect – Christians both living and dead, with the dead raised first – and take them up into the clouds

These similarities are also seen in the 1 Corinthian 15 passage which adds one key phrase – the last trumpet:

“ But let me tell you a wonderful secret God has revealed to us. Not all of us will die, but we will all be transformed. It will happen in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, the Christians who have died will be raised with transformed bodies. And then we who are living will be transformed so that we will never die. For our perishable earthly bodies must be transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die.” (1 Cor. 15: 51-53, NLT)

The last trumpet is important because it links all three passages and their trumpet references to Revelation 11:15 (in which the seventh and last trumpet will announce the second coming of Jesus Christ) and Revelation 20:4 in which Christ resurrects the Christians martyred during the tribulation, and reigns with them (and the rest of his elect) for a thousand years.

So, these passages from I Thessalonians 4, Matthew 24, 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 11 and 20 are unified in showing:

• Christ’s return occurring immediately after the tribulation

• He will come down in clouds from heaven

• His arrival will be announced with a seventh and last trumpet blast from his archangel and angels

• He will gather his elect – Christians both living and dead – and take them up into the clouds (in the same way that he was taken up at his ascension)

• His elect, including Christians martyred during the tribulation, will rule with him for a thousand years

There is one more passage – Matthew 24:40-41 – that is used by the rapture proponents to describe the snatching away of believers into heaven:

“Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding flour at the mill; one will be taken, the other left.” (NLT)

But this passage must be interpreted in light of the preceding verses 37-39 in which Jesus teaches that his second coming will be like in the days of Noah when the people did not heed Moses’ warning about the coming Flood and went about living life as usual. When the Flood came, it “took them away” or “swept them away,” depending on the various translations. It is this destructive sense that one must interpret the phrase “one will be taken” in verses 40 and 41. The ones that are left behind are the ones that are saved from destruction, as were Noah and his family.

The doctrine of the rapture, as an event in which God will suddenly snatch away all Christians from earth before the tribulation of the Antichrist, is a misinterpretation of these scriptural passages and, therefore, is not biblical.

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