Reflections: First Week at French Language School

Bonjour! I am writing this in Montpellier, France, pronounced "Mohn-pay-yay", and definitely not how we say the capital of Vermont, which only has only "L", by the way. I want to begin by thanking those of you who support Agape Africa Fund and my ministry, both financially and through your prayers. I am very grateful for our partnership and for this amazing opportunity to learn French. I could not be here without you!


Here... That has actually been a fairly complex word this past week. I left Pittsburgh nine days ago for Montepellier and just over two months of fully immersed French language school. This is a natural next step of my work in French-speaking Gabon where Bongolo Hospital is located. While these few weeks will "only" give me a foundation in French (a missionary's full-time language school experience typically lasts from 9 months to two years), my intention is to come home capable of more accelerated learning in addition to being able to hang out with local French-speakers. You would be surprised how many there are in Pittsburgh! It's kind of like when you buy a new car and it is suddenly everywhere. French speakers have come out of the woodwork and I'm excited to build those relationships.

Here... Montpellier is in the far southern part of France about 45 minutes from the Mediterranean Sea. Its more famous neighbors to the east, Nice, Marceilles, Cannes, etc., get all of the attention and are more expensive to live in, as well. Montpellier is famous in its own right, but just less so than those other Mediterranean tourist destinations. Fortunately, summer holidays are over and the bulk of the tourists are back home at work. This is a city of nearly 500,000 people in the greater area, about 100,000 of whom are college students.


Here... It could also mean in "chez Forquin", the Forquin's home ("Shay For-can"), owned by my host family. I chose this lifestyle instead of getting an apartment because it would provide for a more fully immersed time here (no English at home), AND I am provided with two meals per day - breakfast and dinner. Dinner has been out of this world every night so far. Their home is a cozy one-story 3-bedroom/1-bathroom stucco'd concrete house, maybe 1,500 square feet in total.  While everything is small in comparison, it is thoughtfully laid out and ingeniously utilized. It has a curved terracotta half-pipe roof similar to the others in its neighborhood. All of the homes are walled and have a one-car sliding metal gate. I'm not certain why the enhanced security because the entire Montpellier area feels very safe to me, so far. This can either be the car's entrance to the front garden and garage, or it can be parked outside on the street parallel to the gate, which is what Michel (the father) does. "Michel" ("Michelle" in English) is a man's name here and you wouldn't want to tease Michel about the American difference, as he is a semi-retired life-long French army NCO (I think - its 'hard to make out details at this point) who has been based and fought all over. His protective, very traditional Corsican wife of 37 years, Catherine ("Cat-er-een"), would also not think this amusing. They have three grown children and several grandchildren. I am staying in the oldest son's room (he is in the army, as well, making him the fourth generation service-man). Yes, my host parents older than me! 

Here... Or, I could be in  my comfortable bedroom. While it's wonderful to come home to a family environment, it is also great to have a private space to retreat to, in order to study and relax. While quite small (9' x 12'), it boasts a comfy full sized bed, a corner computer desk, really good closet storage space, an antique chair, and a small bed-sized table. Perhaps best of all, there is a stubby little dorm-style refrigerator (2' x 2') that holds my lunch supplies and drinks. I am responsible for all of my lunches, but Catherine takes care of the rest. An added bonus is that she did my laundry yesterday (Saturday)! All I needed to do was to take it off the line and fold it. (Mom: your son is well taken care of!). I brought her flowers.


Here...That could also be ILA (Institut Linguistique Adenet), my language school (, and select English option). I spend 3.5 hours, five days a week in classes learning French grammar and how to interact in real life situations. For example, we spent an hour on going to the drug store and asking the pharmacist for medicines and advice for all sorts of common ailments. This was timely because half my class of 5, including the teacher, are sick. I hope and pray to be spared a real life drug store visit! So far, so good.

Less than 20 hours of classroom training doesn't sound like a lot on the surface, but this 54 year old has not done serious homework in decades, let alone studied grammar in any language for 35 years! Parts of several afternoons are additional activities or excursions. In addition, I spend as much time as I can reviewing the morning's lessons, building vocabulary lists in order to read the materials in the first place, and grappling with grammar exercises. I managed to get the teacher to periodically explain things in English (yes, all classes are in French including all of the texts and exercises...) and this has made all the difference. The rest of my day is spent walking the two miles to and from school - a mildly hilly (by Pittsburgh standards) 35-45 minutes depending on whether I take the heavily trafficked route or the more scenic one. The temperatures have been in he low 50's early in the morning and mid-70's in the afternoon. The sky is usually (300+ days a year) a crystal clear blue and I have experienced about an hour of rain so far. This is plenty of exercise as I have my full backpack with me and I use it like a one-armed kettle bell to amuse myself. I also listen to either French, music or an ACAC sermon I've downloaded. Then, I eat dinner at 7:00 sharp (remember, this is a military family) while talking with Michel and Catherine (in French). Finally, I do more homework /studying, and having a much-anticipated Skype call or two before turning out the light by 10:00 pm in order to get up before 6:00 am and do it all again. (I stayed up later Friday and Saturday). Believe me when I say so far I'm getting my money's worth!

That was Monday through Friday. I spent all day Saturday studying, with a break for a walk to the supermarket for lunch and other supplies. Today was more study, church and writing this posting. Stay tuned for more about these experiences and other stories next time.

Profile: Alice

Profile: Alice

I met Alice (“Aleese”), a long-time friend of Christine’s, the morning we drove to Mbigou for church. We picked her up at her small home in Lebamba (see “11 Hours of Church” series). An attractive Gabonese woman, she in her 50’s, married, and has several children. Alice is one of the leaders of the Alliance’s Sunday school programs in and around Lebamba, and is also Secretary of the provincial district. Alice was, literally, totally silent the first several hours of that day together, to the point where I started to wonder if there was something wrong. But, on the way back to Bongolo, that concern was well put to rest; Alice really opened up when I asked her if she would share her growing up and faith story. This lady had a lot to say, and an amazing story.

Alice was the first person I met who had a direct, personal connection to the tribal ancestor worship I had heard and read so much about. Born in the tiny village of Moabi, north of Bongolo, she grew up in a confusing religious landscape. Her parents were Catholic so some degree, so they baptized her as an infant. But, as is typical of village life, there is a lot of peer pressure to continue in the old ways. This was certainly true in Moabi, which was ruled by a “Charlatan”, a traditional healer, a witch woman (to the best of my knowledge, this is a female witch doctor).

In spite of their exposure to Catholic Christianity, Alice’s parents bowed to the Charlatan and had fetishes, bracelets, amulets and other jewelry put on their daughter as an infant. In fear to remove them, she wore these long into her teen years. The same was true for her brothers and sisters. Alice grew up attending a Catholic school, and described how the other girls would tease her for wearing the bracelets and fetishes. At age twelve, she was encouraged to be re-baptised, but refused. However, as a young adult, she began to attend a small Alliance church with a friend. She became interested in Christianity and began to compare her traditional ways with the Bible.

Her first child tragically died soon after birth. After the birth of her second child, Alice soon antagonized the Charlatan because, by then, she had begun to severely doubt that what the witch woman was doing was right. While not yet a Christian, Alice had been attending the Alliance church for years, and she refused to have the same kinds of bracelets put on her son. Not surprisingly, this caused much conflict with the Charlatan, as well as inside of her family, especially with her brother, an initiate in the demonic Bwitist beliefs. At about this time, her niece’s babies died one after another, and Alice was accused of being a witch herself, of using sorcery to kill them. Sadly, finding and blaming a scapegoat is still a typical aspect of traditional tribal worship. Her husband defended her and her 4 year old son prayed for her.

Sick and angry all the time, Alice tried to go on living her life. Right about this time, there was a meeting in the church where the Pastor challenged people who were involved in traditional practices to come forward and to stop. She met individually with him afterwards and burned all the fetishes. Alice then became a Christian. At that point, she took off her spiritual jewelry and burned them, symbolizing her break with the past. This was a very critical part of sustaining her faith. Without this step, the typical African convert eventually gets pulled back into the old ways. Alice firmly broke the bonds that had held her her entire life.

Alice’s life changed. She was no longer angry and sick feeling, and this transformation was obvious to everyone in her life. Over time, her whole family, except one sister at this point, has become Christians! Even her Bwitist brother decided to follow Jesus; today, he is an Elder in the Alliance Church. Her sister is an Alliance Women’s Coordinator, and the niece whose babies were dying, now has several children.

Who would have guessed that such a dramatic story lay behind those silent lips? I am so grateful I asked.

Author’s Note: traditional African religion is, sadly, alive and well all over Gabon and other parts of Africa. In many villages, the witch doctor or charlatan rule with an iron fist. Many people still go to them for traditional “medicine” and cures rather than going to a medical doctor. All too often, Bongolo’s doctors have to reverse the infections and other problems of these “cures” before actual treatment of the original problem can occur.


Mega Church

Bongolo’s Mega Church


Mega Church. In America, this title brings to mind gigantic suburban churches set on dozens or hundreds of acres of parking lots and additional specialized buildings. Often measured as having a congregation in the thousands, many truly “mega” churches boast numbers in the tens of thousands. Large churches are measured quite differently here in Gabon. The largest Gabonese church I know of outside of Libreville – a full day’s drive north - is right here at Bongolo Hospital, with approximately 1,000 adults and several hundred children. On a typical Sunday, there will be 300-500 adults at its single service and 150 or so children of all ages. The church and its outlying buildings sit on hospital property, yet it is administered by the national Gabonese Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, or the National church as it is known by.

Built in the 1930’s by Pastor Donald Fairley and several hundred workers, it is visually similar to a plain western church structure. It is basically a very large, rectangular one-room building (except for a small room near the pulpit for the pastor to enter from. It has a picturesque, very steeped V-shaped roof, and rows upon rows of narrow, simple benches with backs. About one third of them appear to have been recently padded to cover up the termite-eaten wood. An elevated stage area is at the far end from the entrance spans the front wall of the sanctuary. There is a large, plain wooden cross on the wall, and, for some reason, the designers chose to install a vertical, four foot florescent light directly on the bottom portion of the cross. The platform is complete with a draped pulpit and multiple plastic yard chairs lined against the far wall. This is similar to many urban US churches, and the pastor, speakers and worship leaders sit there during the service. The band – electric guitar, keyboard and drums - as well as the four-person worship team and 15 member choir is set up to the right of the platform at ground level. The modern speaker system works perfectly, yet the music is deafening – far louder than anything I have heard back in the States. This is fairly standard in Central Africa for some reason, and I have confirmed this with much younger friends here, much to my relief. They have saved me from the awful thought that I have become an old man complaining about the volume!

In the rear of the building, there is a second story bell tower with a single, actual bell, as opposed to the digitized “bells” now in most American churches. As it normally does on a Sunday morning, the bell rang this morning at 8:30, announcing that church was starting. An interesting difference here in Gabon is that that announcement means that the worship team is officially ready to begin singing, and that people should start arriving. The singing, punctuated by prayer breaks, and the “arriving” continued for the next ninety minutes.

Everyone enters through a single entrance, a double door in the center of the back of the church, walks down the center aisle and is directed by an usher to where they are to sit. This would drive many of my American friends crazy! They would not be able to sit in their self-appointed “seat” every week under this system. The result of this is a sanctuary filled full from front to back. In addition, there is no chatting with your neighbors after being seated – it is clear that congregants are there to worship, rather than socialize.

By 10:00 am, the sanctuary was full all the way to the back. I find it fascinating that people are seated by quite firm women ushers. Starting in the very front, the seats are filled row by row, adults in the front, and all but the very youngest children in the back of the church. They are dismissed at about 10:30 for Sunday School (more on that in a moment). After a half hour or so of announcements, the pastor begins his sermon at about 11:00 am, and preaches for at least an hour. His message is simultaneously translated into Nzebi, the local tribal language. After some final singing and praying, the congregation is dismissed. Again, this is quite different from the American church. In a very orderly manner, the ushers begin at the very front and dismiss each row to the center aisle and, single file, row-by-row, the congregation exits the church until the last row is vacated.

When I first attended an African church service, I was nervous that I would not be able to last the three-plus hour service, especially seated on a wooden bench in equatorial heat and humidity. I have been pleasantly pleased to find that, once I settle in, I am generally contented to allow the service to wash over me. By the way, the entire service – singing, announcements and sermon – are all in French.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

How do you start your work days? If you are like many, you go through the same routines Monday through Friday. Mine include Bible reading and listening to a commentary about the passages I just read. Then, from the comfort of my home, I fire off a text (and sometimes prayer requests) of my thoughts to two groups of men I do this study with. Usually, I’m the first one to post, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, there is some back and forth texting conversation, but not always.  Over the last several years, this habit of a morning quiet time has become pretty deeply ingrained to the point where if I do my study at lunch time or, God help me, I miss a day, I feel like something important is lost from my day.

Take that established habit and morph it, and that is what happens at Bongolo Hospital Monday through Friday. In addition to individual quiet times, I am aware of three separate daily gatherings. One is the staff devotions from 7:30am to 8:00am. As this is Africa, those times are more fluid than in America. Approximately, 25-40 employees and missionaries gather each work day to sing worship songs and to listen to a teaching message from one of the hospital pastors, all in French, of course. This wraps up around 8:00 with announcements, final prayer and dismissal. Each time the pastor finishes, it reminds me of an episode of the start of most episodes of the old TV police show, Hillstreet Blues. Every morning, the officers would have a team meeting that included their assignments and any special alerts or warnings. The sergeant always dismissed everyone with, “Let’s be careful out there.” Regardless of what the pastor proclaims in French, it sounds to me like the Sarge speaking.

The other two are just as structured, yet the audiences are different every day. These are the two evangelical talks given by two other pastors. One preaches to the 50-70 patients who have arrived that morning before dawn for evaluation and care (this is a first come, first served system unless it is an emergency), who are waiting for their turn in the main square. The pastor has a captured audience, as these folk need to be nearby to hear their number called. He proclaims an impassioned gospel message that lasts up to 45 minutes, often to responses of periodic applause and cheering.

The other group is somewhat smaller, perhaps twenty patients. This group meets on the elongated porch at “Opthamologie”, the eye center. The pastor, who also works in the eye clinic, preaches for about 45 minutes about Jesus and the difference a life lived in Him makes, to the waiting patients. One common preaching device I have heard repeatedly in the churches is the pastor will loudly call out, “Alleluh!” (Alleluia) and the congregation will respond back with a lusty, “Amen!”, pronounced “Ahhmehn”.

The hospital has grown over the last few years and now treat an average of 40,000 patients per year, across all of the departments. Of those who hear the gospel message, how many actually are actually paying attention? That’s hard to say. Of course, we could say the same thing about weekend church in America. Regardless, official hospital records tell us that nearly 2,400 came to Christ last year – but those are just the ones who reported their faith decision to someone at the hospital. How many others were there? We may never be truly sure.

On the other side of the argument, one could also say that’s a 95% failure rate. That may mathematically true, but another perspective tells a different story: this “failure” averages out to a minimum of 9-10 new believers a day, five days every week! What church pastor wouldn’t want fifty new converts filling his or her ranks every week of the year?! After welcoming them into the faith, these new believers are then plugged into an Alliance church in their village or town, and the local Gabonese pastor takes charge of their spiritual growth moving forward. This amazingly successful dual mission of spiritual, as well as physical, healing is what makes Bongolo such a special place.



Profile: Christine Mfouka

Profile: Christine

Author’s Note: please refer to Part 1 of the “11 Hour Church” series for more background on the events that led to hearing this personal story of victory and faith in action.

It was about the start of the second hour of what would end up being a three plus hour drive from Bongolo to M’bigou to attend church and review the Sunday School program, and I started getting antsy. I don’t know how well you travel – maybe you’re perfectly content sitting still and looking out the window at the beauty of God’s creation, hoping to see something interesting, like maybe a water buffalo or an elephant. But I have a pretty short attention span in general, which just seems to be magnified in the car. Unless I’m distracted, that is.

So, I took a deep – this would be my first interview through a translator and I was nervous - and asked Dr. Renee Valach, typically Bongolo’s Medical Director, but today our jungle driver for the day (I was riding shot gun), if she would mind asking Christine some questions. Christine, my friend from last year’s trip, was wedged in the middle seat of our Toyota Land Cruiser between my newest friends, Emmanuel and Alice. Few things bind people together like road trips! My goal was to get to know all three, so I had decided to start with talkative Christine in hopes the others would get into the spirit of sharing. Married with three children, she is nearing retirement after working at the hospital for over twenty years. She is the Gabonese accountant for the hospital, and has a place on the Committee de Gestion, which makes decisions related to operations. In a larger system, she would be the Controller. Christine works for Eric Hofman, the CFO, and fills an indispensable role; in fact, there is concern about how to replace her when she retires. 

Christine and I already knew and liked each other, and I figured she would quickly warm to the conversation. While on our way to picking up the three of them, Renee and I had discussed Renee helping with translation, but the driving conditions were a lot harder than I had expected. So, I didn’t want to assume to intrude on Renee’s concentration as she continually downshifted to bump and slide our way along the narrow, pot-holed, muddy dirt roads. I asked, and “Sure!” was Renee’s immediate reply. Maybe she needed a distraction, as well I supposed. And we were off and running.

For the next two hours, Christine regaled us with stories of growing up in and around Bongolo. Renee did her best to keep up, but it was like stopping a running river. The third of twelve children, Christine very early on had more responsibilities than many children. While six brothers and five sisters is amazing enough, it pales next to the fact that her mother was married to her dad at just eight years of age! He father, a young man at that point, had been working with Pastor Donald Fairly, Bongolo’s originating missionary starting in the 1930’s. He was under pressure to marry, and he told Pastor Fairly that he was promised to someone from his home village to the north. True to his word, he went off to bring her back to Bongolo. Little did anybody know it would be a third grader! This was scandalous even for Gabon, but fortunately, he was an honorable man and he raised his betrothed as if she were his own child. When she was fifteen, still young but not uncommon there, they had their first child.

Christine’s father started off as an Nzebi teacher (the local tribal language), even though he was Massangou. After trying several careers, he eventually became the local printer for the Alliance’s Bible study and Christian educations materials, which he did for the rest of his working life. By this time, they had moved away from Bongolo. Christine’s mother had had two sets of twins, and this caused problems with the people of their village. In traditional Gabonese ancestor worship, it is still believed that twins are bad luck and, commonly, one twin is put to death in order to ward off evil spirits from causing bad things to happen to the rest of the family or other villagers. Her parents refused to go along with this, which caused many problems for years.

I was really taken aback. This was the first time I had heard an ancestor worship story from someone I know. For the last year, I had anecdotally been exposed to this satanic practice, but it wasn’t personal. I had heard and read tales of demonic initiation rites, drinking poisonous concoctions and sick people going to witch doctors instead of to the hospital. It is one thing to hear of something so alien; it’s quite another to be face-to-face with the reality.

Christine struggled early in school because her parents didn’t know much French (only Nzebi) to be able to help her. But, she became a good student in spite of this. Part of her education was Bible knowledge. As Christine put it, she grew up with lots of Christian head knowledge, but very little heart faith. Like many of us, she did not yet understand the power of combined head and heart as it relates to a relationship with Jesus. This changed forever, when, in her late 20’s, Dr. David Thompson, the founder of the hospital at Bongolo, invited Christine to join more formal Bible school classes that he taught. Under his tutelage, she became a Christian at age 30. She told us, “It all made sense” at that point.

Christine was living then about twenty miles south of Bongolo the large town of Ndende, working at a pharmacy and attending a Pentecostal church. She had left the Alliance church there after being falsely accused of having an affair with an older man who was a teacher in the church. This was a heartbreaking experience as no one would believe her and for some reason the man did not come to her defense. In spite of being part of a Christian community, she eventually moved back to Bongolo because she had felt safe there when she was growing up, with no fear of witch doctors and spirit worship.

Christine has lived and worked at Bongolo ever since. She has since become an influential leader at the hospital, as well as in the Alliance district of churches. While not certain what will happen after she retires, she is confident that God knows. And, that is good enough for today.



(In the photo, Christine is on the left )

11 Hours of Church, Part 3: The Kids

Author’s Note: Please be patient with the spacing of this post? The internet here is very challenging, to say the least! Also, please refer to Part 1 of this series for our team’s
make up in more detail. Five of us from Bongolo made this journey: Dr. Renee Valach, Christine, Emmanuel, Alice, and me. See Part 4 for more about their amazing stories!
Three long hours after leaving at dawn Sunday morning, we finally arrived at M’bigou Alliance Church. Of the 150 or so congregants, we were the only car to drive to church that morning, and we parked about 200 yards away across the road and walked up to the 4-building church complex. The main church dominates the grounds. It is a large concrete block building with a steeply pitched corrugated metalroof. Next to it to the right is the pastor’s home, to the right
of that is a third block building used for meetings. If the vegetation in the back were cut down, the view overlooking the nearby hills would be spectacular! Finally, the kids “shack” of a building is between the road and the other buildings. It seems as if that building was already
there and, as the church grew, it was drafted into service.

Worship had started some time ago, and so the pastor and a couple of other leaders stepped out and warmly greeted us. We were led to the office building, about 100 yards from the main church building. There, we quickly used the fairly modern facilities (translated: an indoor
toilet with a bucket of water next to it to pour in when finished), stretched cramped bodies, and headed across the yard to the church. Thankfully, because M’bigou is at a somewhat higher elevation, it was just enough cooler as well as a bit breezy, relative to Bongolo.

As with other churches I’ve attended here, we were escorted to the front row and seated there (one time last year, much to my surprise, I was seated on the “platform” near the podium, looking out at the congregation!). Worship winded down about ten minutes later, and, after an extended time of “out loud” praying, we were introduced as special guests. Each of us had to stand up, walk up to the platform and stand there until all of us had been introduced. Fortunately, I
was last. Renee leaned over and whispered that I had been introduced as “Dr. Douglas” (“Dooglah” in French). “Cool!” was my quiet response, “As long as nobody actually needs anything medical or calls me "Doogie”, that is!”, which got Renee snickering. After this, there was
a time of greeting each other, and many came up to us, almost in the style of a conga line dance. This part was set to lively music and was more of a dancing hugging greeting than anything in the States. I liked it!

At this point, I followed the others out of the church and we headed to the kid’s building, the main reason for the trip in the first place. We were greeted by about 50 well-behaved children ranging in age from what seemed like 7 to 8 years old up to about 12 years old (after that, they go to big church). Their one-room building’s dimensions are about 25 feet long by 15 feet wide with the double doorway (sans door) located about one third of the way down the side
of the building. The kids were really jammed in there, squished onto wood benches or sitting on rough planks along the wall held by concrete blocks of all heights. The concrete floor was very dusty.

Don’t get me wrong. Kids are kids. There weren’t any true angels in the room. Yes, there were the star students who always put their hand in the air first to answer a question (by the way, every single child who answered a question stood up before speaking, which I thought was
great). Others carried on quietly with each other, and a few looked a little dazed or disinterested. One of my favorites was a much younger girl who kept instigating some little thing – not enough to get her or anybody else into real trouble, but she was moved around a few times
as the teachers tried to settle her down. She had that “look” in her eye that hinted at the leader she will become, and the stress she will cause her parents in the meantime.

Like the adults, they had been worshiping and meeting for well over an hour, but there wasn’t the expected rush of us being a distraction. Their focus and discipline was amazing, actually. Five more adults – two of them white - entering that already crowded room didn’t cause
much of a stir at all. The three teachers somehow greeted us while not losing control of the class. They were singing a simple worship song, but somehow they made it sound grand! I loved their energy and excitement. The only instruments, if you want to call it that, were
three empty rectangular gallon-sized palm oil plastic jugs in the hands of three boys. They held their drums between their knees and were rhythmically pounding away using short tree branches. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

After their song ended, Christine took over and began to teach them a new song. I nearly burst out laughing when Renee leaned over and whispered, “…and Bingo was his Name-O”. The church version spelled out B-I-B-L-E, but the idea is the same: each time through, one of the
letters is dropped until all five are silent. The kids struggled a little bit at first, but soon got the hang of it and were laughing with each other when somebody messed up. The third time through,
nobody made a mistake!

Christine then shared the gospel using five colored squares of felt stapled together. Each color symbolized a major event in the Bible, and clearly told the story of Jesus’s sacrifice, death and
resurrection to save us from our sins. As I am learning is typical here, the story was repeated several times, then Christine got the kids involved to tell it piece by piece. It seemed to be very
effective. Renee had brought a bag of hand-made 5-bead bracelets with them and, at the end of class, each child was given one as a reminder of the lesson. Very cool! I think this will stick with them for some time to come.

Then, we were entertained by a 5 minute skit (“sketch” in French) they had made up demonstrating that without Jesus, everything else – wealth, beauty, education, physical strength – is as nothing. They performed this three times, more and more professionally each time.
After this, they began to work on their next sketch: a hysterical reenactment of the first part of the Prodigal Son story. I’ve never seen any kids act out the partying portion, let alone so effectively! I wish they had gotten to the part with the pigs, but that must be for
another week.

Finally, there was some more singing. At this point, even the Bongolo folks were looking haggard. Renee whispered to me that she dismisses her kids at the Bongolo church at noon as a hint to big church to wrap things up. The opposite was the case here. It was after 1:30 by the
time big church finished. Amazingly, the kids didn’t seem to be in a hurry of any kind, nor were they hungry or thirsty seeming, something I’ve just now thought of.

At the very end, the teachers met with the Christine, Emmanuel and Alice, who gave them feedback and some ideas for what else to do. Overall, while exhausting, the time with the kids was a wonderful experience for me.


11 Hours of Church, Part 2: Bongolo Impact

Dr. Dave Thompson, Bongolo Hospital’s founder, visited my home church,
ACAC in Pittsburgh, PA, a number of times during my years there. Once,
he told the story of when he preached at a village church. I thought
this was interesting because here, a surgeon, not a pastor, is
preaching in an African church! I couldn’t help wondering what he said
to them. He related that he spoke to them about Jesus in French, and
that an interpreter translated his message into the local African
language. I thought this was incredible! The picture in my mind’s eye
was that of a pretty typical American church – maybe a small one, I
supposed – complete with organ or praise band, and maybe a choir. In
my imagination, there would be a pulpit, pews or chairs and a
sanctuary full of well-dressed, attentive people.

As the Josh Wilson song says, “That was then; this is now.” Since
then, I have had the privilege to visit a number of African Alliance
churches. Regardless of size, there is a similar feel to each, from
the big church just down the hill at the edge of the hospital, to a
tiny 1-room wooden structure in a remote village, to this past
Sunday’s M’bigou larger concrete block, high, sloping metal roofed
church. Each of them follow a similar basic order of worship: praise
through singing lasting at least an hour, extensive praying, more
worship, an hour-long sermon followed by some more singing, an
offering and announcements, and a closing prayer. They also tend to be
very loud to the point where 100 feet outside the building is just
right for me. Their services are also quite emotional during singing,
preaching and praying. Open in design, they tend to get a small breeze
blowing through. It is also common for birds and geckos to visit, and
to hear roosters crowing outside. Nobody but me appears to notice!

When I first heard Dr. Thompson, I did not really comprehend how much
of an evangelist he was and is. It wasn’t until coming here last year
that it finally made perfectly good sense that he deliver the same
life-altering good news to a congregation that he would discuss
one-on-one with a patient and his or her family. That day at ACAC was
years before I ever thought I would ever preach anywhere, so this
uniqueness was fascinating to me.

It also turns out Dr. Thompson wasn’t alone. There are numerous people
at Bongolo, past and present, missionaries and local men and women,
who have been doing the same for years. For example, it turns out the
person doing the interpreting in Dr. Thompson’s story is my friend,
Antoine! I met him last year - he has been on Bongolo’s maintenance
staff for over 25 years. Antoine is one of my favorite people here,
and you could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned he
was Dr. Thompson’s “French into Nzebi” translator for years. I further
learned Antoine is also a pastor in his own right, and he faithfully
preaches many Sundays at an Alliance village church about an hour
northeast of Bongolo.

Then, there is Pastor Siko Bambemba who runs the laboratory at the
hospital during the week. Every Sunday, he preaches at the tiny
Alliance church about 45 minutes away – he and his wife, Delphine, get
a ride or pay for a taxi every week in order to do this. My friend,
Dr. Renee Valach, makes a special effort to visit a very remote church
about 3 hours north twice each year. She told me that the first time
she was surprised to be asked to talk by their pastor – after she got
there! She gathered her thoughts, prayed, and delivered a content-rich
message of faith and hope in Jesus.

These are just the people I currently know about. I have a feeling
there are more stories like these to be uncovered. For example, I’m
looking forward to talking more with the hospital pastors (translators
are an issue, for now) who literally preach every day of the week to
patients waiting their turn to be seen. Who else on Bongolo’s staff
has church leadership roles? What is God doing through them? I can’t
wait to find out!


Eleven Hours of Church? (Part 1)

Blog: 11 Hours of Church? (part 1)
March 3, 2017

As a young boy, I remember sitting in the back seat of my parent’s car with my brother, Jeff. We were driving from home in Hamburg, NY to our family Farm, located miles out into the country between Punxsutawney and Reynoldsville, Pa. This drive into north central Pennsylvania was about a three and a half hour drive south from Hamburg. We would stop at the same little restaurant for lunch in Bradford, then get back on the road, again. I often got migraines and car sick from trying to read, and Jeff and I could only play so many games until we started to get into trouble (he always started it, of course, ha!). While this was before mobile video anything, it wasn’t too bad of a drive, overall. 

Yesterday was pretty much the same, but I’m now an adult, the trip happened in an African jungle, and I sat in the front seat. Five of us traveled northeast from Bongolo to the small town of M’bigou (“Em biguoo”) to attend church and to encourage the Sunday School teachers and children. My friends, Dr. Renee Valach, Bongolo’s Medical Director, and Christine (who works in the hospital’s accounting department and lived in the house next to my apartment last year) were the leaders. Also with us were new friends Emmanuel (a math teacher who I met last week when he and his wife, Juliet came to the hospital clinic to be treated by Renee), and Alice (“Aleese”). Christine, Emmanuel and Alice are in regional Alliance Church Sunday school leadership. Renee’s connection is she leads Sunday school at the big Bongolo church (about 250 kids a week), and, perhaps more importantly, she was the driver (I now have my international driver’s license, but didn’t get to drive this trip).  

The distance from Bongolo to M’bigou is a short 38 miles of open road up Route 20 – one or two traffic circles, no stop signs or traffic lights, and very little traffic. In the US, a trip like this from one town to another would take no more than 45 minutes under normal conditions. As I mentioned, however, this is Gabon, Africa, so this is normally a two hour one-way trip! 

However, it had rained most of the night before, and much of the trip to M’bigou was slow, treacherous driving, so the drive there took three hours! We actually got up to 30 miles per hour a couple of times, but nearly all of the trip was on the typical very bumpy jungle dirt roads, with regular side-to-side swerving and downshifting to try and miss the constant, jarringy deep pot holes - and that was the good part! Because of the rain, there were several long up and down-hill muddy sections where we skidded and slipped, just like it was an icy wintery day back home. Then, there were the gigantic muddy sink holes we stopped in front of to strategize our attack. Spread throughout the trip were several rickety hand-made wooden bridges that looked like you could carry off the lumber for other purposes. Fortunately, we were in a large, sturdy 4-wheel drive Toyata Land Cruiser, and Renee is a seasoned jungle driver, and we arrived incident free.

We experienced five and a half hours of worship, Sunday school and follow-on meetings that left me numb and even drained my hardened African cohorts. More to follow next time about my new travel friends – some amazing stories! – as well as the impact Bongolo has had for years on rural churches such as the one in M’bigou. 

By the way, it was dry all day and, fortunately, the roads firmed up quite a bit during the day, so the return trip was only two hours! The new or deepened friendships, stories, God moments and laughing made it all more than worthwhile. 

Capture the Victories

Author’s Note: This has become a much longer entry than I intended. For those of you who would rather read the short version, here you go: up until yesterday, I had a major writing block ever since landing in Libreville nearly two weeks ago. Lots of little stuff had gone wrong since then that all got resolved, but I was still in a funk. Finally, two nights ago – ten long days later – I had my “aha” moment. The stories I am to write are stories of victory over struggle, of overcoming and praising God. I had put too much pressure on myself to do the work God had assigned me. It just hadn’t seemed right to capture “biographies” of people here. I had missed the key point of it all: capture the victories! Within moments, I was sitting in front of my laptop, the words pouring out of me. The writing block was gone and I was filled with wonder at God’s magnificence.

Have you, for no clear reason, ever not been able to do something you’re really good at? All my life, I’ve been a good writer and have never lacked ideas and subject matter. This trip is going to test me this way, as I will be spending at least two of my four weeks at Bongolo interviewing and gathering stories of what God has and continues to do here. But, for the last ten days, I’ve been in the midst of one of those confusing “slumps”. I’ve felt increasing pressure to produce blogs filled with victorious accounts, but I’ve been stuck, not able to write, something I’ve done well and enjoyed ever since high school. But, I’ve had a block since leaving Libreville, the capital of Gabon, for Bongolo Hospital, a nine and a half hour drive south. I blogged once while there, then nothing since. Friends and colleagues back in the States and other parts of the world expected regular blog and social media updates, but I had nothing for them. Don’t lose hope like I started to. Ten long days and nights later, I finally have answers and breakthroughs, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you look at it some of the physical and emotional circumstances of the first ten days of this trip, it makes sense that I wouldn’t be filled with inspiration to write stories about the missionaries, staff and patients here. First, I was exhausted in every way after traveling from Pittsburgh, PA to Bongolo – two days of airports and flying – a six hour difference to adjust to. Second, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean at about 3:00 am, I got up to stretch my legs – I don’t sleep much on long flights – and accidentally spilled an ounce or two of fizzy orange juice on my all-important laptop. Liquid drained out of the keyboard as well as the vent in the back. It was no surprise it did not turn on. Not good.

Then, there was the one and a half days I spent at Bongolo’s Guest House in Libreville, Gabon’s capital city. I mentioned that I blogged once there, but it was very slow and painful doing so from my cell phone – my laptop was still unresponsive. Upon arriving there, I met up, as expected, with a delightful Dutch couple, Arjo (“Arreeoh”) and Adrie (“Ahdree”), who were making their first trip to Bongolo. They had spent over 30 years as missionaries to various parts of Africa, and I took an instant liking to them. While mutually enjoyable, we were still strangers sharing a small, cramped, hot house. The next day, Arijo and I made some planned, needed repairs and did some food and materials shopping. I simultaneously enjoyed and struggled with the alien-ness of big city, French-speaking Africa, as well as jet lag and sleep deprivation. Even though my French was way better than a year ago, it was painfully obvious how much I didn’t know, as Arjo conversed and joked with literally everyone. He is a true extrovert and I felt like an introvert next to him! I fought envy and competitive impulses. All of this took its toll.

Finally, we made our drive south to Bongolo. This is a 9.5 hour bumpy journey over all kinds of eroded dirt roads and pot-holed concrete stretches. Every once in a while, the roads were smooth and newer. Also, we were all jammed into a small, four-door Toyota sedan. All of our luggage that wasn’t jammed into the trunk was packed around us so tightly we could barely move. On top of that, I experience the first truly difficult African person I’d run across: our driver. The normal Bongolo driver, Phillipe, was not available, so they had hired a Libreville taxi driver. I never caught his name, and after he exhibited dominating, control-freak tendencies, I stopped wanting to know and focused on sleeping as much as possible. Needless to say, the drive took its toll on me.

While it was wonderful to arrive back at my African home - I wish I could bottle the sheer joy on both sides at those first meetings - I also felt the impact of other non-physical blows once here. For example, I felt totally inadequate on the construction front, which wasn’t good, because that is one of the areas I’m exploring as part of my permanent role here. There were four incredibly skilled and experienced American visitors in addition to Arjo, who has an amazing African building background, and my good friend, Paul Davis (Maintenance Director) who I didn’t measure up to technically in the slightest. We all got along fine and they didn’t care that I didn’t know as much as long as I worked hard, but I felt like so inadequate next to them - not a good feeling considering I’m the one here long-term. It took its toll emotionally and physically.

In addition, my first four days of working with them were entirely inside the dungeon-like shell of the new eye center we had erected last winter. Back then, before the cement block walls and interior rooms went up, it was a wonderfully open, airy two-structure to work on. But now, it felt like a jail. I don’t like dark, confined spaces, yet there I was. Fortunately, I had brought a head-band flashlight and I made the best of it. But, four days of repetitively wiring 220 and 110 outlets and switches in a dank, dark, dirty confined space also took its toll on me.

Once at Bongolo, my technology struggles continued. I quickly discovered that the microphone for the expensive video camera I’d borrowed from church needed a small, round battery not available here. I searched the case inside and out, looking for the secret compartment I’d missed before. Nothing. Then, I found that it required a specialty cord to download video to a laptop. Geesh! How can I interview people without a microphone? How much capacity does the hard drive have? How can I back up video against loss or – God help me – another accident? Would I be able to complete my mission to gather stories and video to take back with me? This was really discouraging. Speaking of video interviewing, I had no idea how this would actually happen or if I would be good at it. I was scared to I would be seen as intrusive and in peoples’ faces with a First World camera, not to mention possibly running afoul of spiritual ideas that I would take someone’s soul with my camera!

Oh… and speaking of downloading to a laptop, that problem got bigger a few days after arriving at Bongolo. A well-meaning new friend and his wife (they were on home stay in America last year, so we had not met each other until now), were attempting to dry out my laptop in their oven – yes, oven! The pilot light produces low, dry heat nearly unheard of in the jungle and this had worked for them in the past. About two days into drying out - you guessed it – she forgot about it and accidently cooked it, along with some brownies. Needless to say, it was fried – literally! My heart sank, again. I was an emotional roller coaster over this – I wanted to be gracious, yet I was furious! I wanted to forgive them, shrug my shoulders and tell them, “It’s just a thing” and mean it. After all, I was the one who had spilled juice on it in the first place! Yet, I was filled with anger at such a foolish and irresponsible accident. I resolved to talk with them after I’d cooled down, but my imagination went crazy thinking up all of the ways this could become a true, long-term conflict.

That’s a pretty big list, eh? Believe me, it felt like it. But, before you get too far in thinking that I’m just complaining, not praying and giving up, I want to assure you the opposite was true, both during those times of testing and afterwards. I was fighting off these effects as best I could. It took about a week for my sleep pattern to gradually adjust to the 6-hour time zone difference, but I’ve been sleeping normally the last few nights and feel pretty rested. On the long drive from Libreville to Bongolo, we had air conditioning which worked nearly well enough to keep from sweating most of the drive. I napped at least half of the trip, and was grateful for fairly regular stretch breaks. And, the driver, while not the easiest guy to be with, proved to have a good heart and he relaxed some as he got to know us.

Also, God provided solutions to all of the technology problems within a day or two of them happening. I kept asking around about the battery, and found that one of the doctors stockpiles the exact same battery for her use at the hospital, and graciously gave me two. I discovered a method of transferring video from the camera’s hard drive to the removable memory card. And, incredibly, I have the use of a laptop. More amazing, it is my old one that I donated last year, and no one was using it at the moment! Also, my next-morning conversation with the husband and wife went as well as it could have. They were apologetic and repentant, and I was authentic, yet gracious. God showed up and, as we prayed together at the end of our meeting, I had hope this would be the start of a true friendship. We wondered together how God would use the “laptop incident” moving forward.

In each of these situations, and others not mentioned here (such as days of relentless itching from bug bites covering my arms and torso), I chose to surrender and trust God as has become my habit. Yet, even with good outcomes, I still struggled emotionally and spiritually. Perhaps, it was the piling on and I was worn down? I knew I was being attacked by both my flesh and by Satan, but knowing wasn’t enough to dig out. I was in a funk. Days went by.

Finally, two nights ago – ten long days later – I had my “aha” moment. The stories I am to write are stories of victory over struggle, of overcoming and praising God. I had put too much pressure on myself to do the work God had assigned me. It just hadn’t seemed right to capture “biographies” of people here. I had missed the key point of it all: capture the victories! Within moments, I was sitting in front of my laptop. The writing block was gone and I was filled with wonder at God’s magnificence.

Falling In Love

Can you remember what it is like to first fall in love? Take a moment and delve into your relationship databank and pull out some examples. Can you still feel the rawness of the emotions? The highs and the lows of getting to know another person can be completely overwhelming.

Who was your first love?  In my case, it was Mom. Like it was yesterday, I remember looking up into her adoring eyes just after I was born - just kidding. At least I think that's how it happened! I wish I could remember that. Anyway, my first non-Mom love was Karen Wagonner. She lived across the street from us. About all I can remember at this point is she had brown hair and really pretty eyes and she was nice -we would play on the swing set in the back yard together. We were five years old.

Maybe it was your first pet. Mine was a mutt of a dog named Brownie. As an adult, my two favorite dogs were Mabel and Molly. Both were Labrador Retrievers and fantastic dogs. In the cat world, nothing can beat Eddie, who I had for 16 years - he pulled me through my divorce. but a close second is too too who was with me about eight years.

Or, perhaps, it was your first child (and second and third). This time (for real), I distinctly remember my son being born as well as my daughter. I was in the delivery room for both births and they still count as some of my most special memories of them. I thought I would burst with pride and instant love.

What does this have to do with my trip to Bongolo Hospital? Simply, this is a love story for me. Perhaps, it is one of the great ones. It's a story of opposites attract: city guy meets remote jungle hospital; of great drama; and of God making His will clear to me, sometimes in big, sweeping vistas of a call, to very minor-seeming details. One example happened just today. I was asked to spend an unexpected day in Libreville that God used to begin to get to know two potential team members, as well as to begin to put some flesh on a crazy idea for how to learn French while still feeling productive.

So, get ready! This whirlwind romance continues tomorrow and enters an exciting new phase. My new friends, Arjo and Adrie, and I leave for Bongolo Hospital with the dawn.