Category Archives: missionary

When the voodoo lords tried to kill him, Nestor Kouassi had to pray and stand up to them

nestor kouassi christianity vs voodooNestor Kouassi had seen the voodoo priests and witches do unutterable things: make statues move, bury people alive who later come out of the jungle, send bird spirits to kill enemies.

So when he accepted Jesus in 1997 and started what became a high-stakes spiritual battle with them in his town of Houndjohoundji, Benin, it was a fearful thing.

“A lot of people didn’t like it that we were calling with fire and praying all night,” Nestor says. “They threatened us they would kill us. They make false accusations. Anything to get us in trouble.”

Nestor got introduced to the gospel even when there wasn’t a single Christian church in his village of 1,400 people. His nation, Benin, is renowned for being the worldwide birthplace of voodoo. Even the name of his village was a satanic incantation.

voodoo ritualPeople feared the voodoo lords. Christianity couldn’t crack the town.

But then one Christian, a certain Mr. Lawson, when he came to visit his mom in town from time to time, would preach and share the gospel with anyone who wished to listen.

“We would mock him,” Nestor remembers. “People would insult him.”

Then his best friend, Cyrille, accepted Jesus to get cured of a nasty, prolonged stomach pain. Cyrille was a “rough man” who would steal and fight for nothing, so when Nestor saw an authentic change in him after two weeks, he became convinced.

“He completely changed,” he says. “I said, ‘If this guy can change, there must be a God. I want to get to know that God.’”

HoundjohoundjiBut Cyrille didn’t remember the “sinner’s prayer.” So they just read the Bible together 4-5 hours a day. After one week, Nestor was born again.

“Something happened in my life, and I knew that I knew that I knew that I had met the man Jesus,” Nestor recalls. “It felt like a liquid fire going through my soul, and all of my fears of witchcraft and voodoo disappeared and the river flowed from the inside.”

The nearest church was seven miles away. When they couldn’t attend service there, they devoured the Bible together. After two weeks, they were inspired to share their faith.

“We could not hide it anymore. We took to the streets and wanted to share with people our new discovery: Jesus of Nazareth, woo!” he recounts, relishing the memory.

The power of Jesus began to be proclaimed and demonstrated with healing miracles in town, and the town chief and ruling class — all priests and witches of satanic magic — didn’t like the competition.

“Our preaching was met with hostility like you’ve never seen before,” Nestor says. “What made them furious is that we would pray for people and they would get healed. People would say, ‘If you’re sick, go to the Jesus guys.’”

V4Another friend, Valentin, converted and the three friends read the word and ministered in the streets together. But nobody else dared cross the powers of the town and join their group, even though they viewed them favorably.

The prayers of Nestor and his friends began to disrupt the voodoo power, he says. So the witches attacked them.

“They didn’t want real Christianity. It disturbed them,” Nestor says. “They wouldn’t be able to operate anymore. If we’re calling upon Jesus, there is a power struggle. The witches cannot operate when we are calling upon Jesus.”

The witches had a technique they called a “spiritual gun,” and the victim target of their incantations would writhe in pain from what felt like shards of glass cutting his insides. But the gun didn’t work on Nestor and his buddies, he says.

The priests had a special “founder drum” that when they beat it and pronounced their incantations, lightning would strike the targeted victim even when there was no thunderstorm. Again, it didn’t work.

For six or seven years, the arm-wrestling match continued. Nestor was going to high school in the biggest town in the area nearby, Grand-popo. He would face off with the voodoo priests on weekends and vacations.

The voodoo festivals began to misfire. Things didn’t work. The supernatural tricks fizzled. The town was abuzz with the goings-on.

“People began to question the witches’ power,” he says. “They said, ‘These Jesus guys must have something.’ They were scared. They listened to us, they admired us, but joining us was a real problem.”

Tensions were rising and the threats were increasing. When the chief witch threatened Nestor’s mother with her son’s death, Nestor went to confront him. He found all the witches together in their afternoon gathering in the public place.

“They told us they would reduce us to nothing. I told them nothing would happen,” Nestor remembers.

“In this battle, you will definitely see Jesus,” he responded to their threats. Find out what happened in this power struggle between this new Christian and voodoo witches and priests in Benin.

Barely — miraculously — escaped from rebels in Sierra Leone

pa gbino

Pa Gbani

When the Sierra Leonean rebels swept through Kabala torching houses and government buildings, Pa Gbani decided not to run. In his room, he read his Bible, prayed and waited for the inevitable.

As a detective at the police barracks, Pa was among the targets as 30 rebels trained by Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadaffi doused buildings with gas and fired rocket-propelled grenades during the 1994 attack.

church kabala sierra leone

Pastor Ralph’s church Kabala, Sierra Leone, circa 1994

Miraculously, the fire died down before reaching his room. In fact, the same thing happened for everybody in his church.

“Nobody was killed or injured or had property loss that was in our church,” says Pastor Ralph Bowen, a missionary from Santa Monica at the time in Sierra Leone. “God just protected them. It was a day of miracles.”

It was Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all over again.

One church member hid in a banana tree. Two guys lay quietly on top of a thick wall hidden in the dusk. Pastor Ralph had the good fortune to have a vehicle, in which he fled with his wife and a few disciples.

ralph bowen missionary africa

Pastor Ralph and Brenda Bowen

At one point on the road out of town, a total stranger came out to him and warned him to head down an alternative route. The rebels were ahead, he warned. Ralph found out later it was true.

There were an estimated 50 deaths in the rebel attack on Kabala.

The deliverance of the American missionary’s church members was extraordinary because they weren’t known for caution. The fact of the matter is that Ralph and his street-preaching disciples courted danger as a result of their boldness. Read the rest of the dramatic details of American missionary under attack by Sierra Leonean rebels in 1994.

A skateboard missionary?

shaun hover skate pro.pngShaun Hover is a skateboarder missionary.

The Michigan native never thought he would amount to much. He did not have any career ambitions, and he never even thought he would be successful, because as he says on a “This is Me” video on YouTube, “I didn’t have anything to give.”

He hung out with fellow skaters, smoked weed and took six months to learn how to do an ollie, one of the easiest tricks. He loved being on a board and loved to go out and film with his friends, but did not think he would ever be a pro skateboarder.

Yeah, it’d be great to become a pro skater, but that’s not possible, he remembers thinking. Looking back, he says, “That was a bunch of insecurity. And lies. And I believed them.”

shawn hover barcelonaNevertheless, by his late teens, he found himself sponsored. He was a professional. Skateboarding was more than a hobby or even a job. “It was my identity,” he says.

When he turned 19, he found his other identity. He decided to read the Bible his brother gave him two years earlier.

“At the time time, I thought it was the worst birthday gift ever,” Hover says. “But now, I’m pulling this Bible off of the shelf and I’m like, ‘ God, I don’t if you’re real. I don’t know if I believe. I don’t know if I’m talking to anyone right now. But I’ve heard this is your Word. I’ve heard that You are faithful to deliver on your promises. If this is You, will You speak to me?”

Growing up, he had parents who believed in God and went to church, but he says, “I just didn’t grab ahold of it.”

But his brother’s gift opened his eyes to the Gospel of Jesus. The Word and the Spirit moved powerfully on his heart and he told God he wanted to turn his life over to Him, and wanted to trust Him with everything.

shaun hover skater missionaryHover was born again and received a new identity in Christ!

“As soon as I started reading the Bible, He gave me this hunger for his Word that has not left. I couldn’t put it down,” he recalls.

Shortly after that a friend called him on the phone. “Hey you wanna hang out, skate and smoke weed like we do everyday?’

“I’m reading the Bible right now,” Hover replied.

He knew that God might not call him to skateboard anymore, but he turned that part of his life over to Him anyway, saying, “It was like, I’m giving You my identity. If You want me to skate, if You don’t want me to skate, whatever.”

Clearly, he perceived that God wanted him to skate and he started skating more. He won contests, got a sponsorship with DC Shoes, and moved to Los Angeles.

He loved Jesus and skating! What more could he do with his life but marry the two in ministry? He started connecting to Youth With a Mission.

At first, he didn’t have a vision of how he could use his skating for Jesus. “People would say to me, ‘You need to start a skateboarding discipleship training class.’ And I would say, ‘That sounds so lame.’”

shaun hover familyIt was unusual to think about a skateboarder school that doubled as a discipleship class.

“I was going to our local skate park every Friday. We’d have barbecues. We’d have a skate contest. We’d hang with the skaters,” he says. “Skateboarding to me was just like a side ministry. But the more I spent time at this local skate park, the more the Lord was growing my heart for skaters.”

Then God spoke “in a gnarly crazy way.”

Don’t you see that I’ve been preparing you for this? God impressed on his heart. Don’t you see that skateboarding is a people, it’s a culture? It’s a community that I want to reach.

God told him to multiply the skate barbecues for “the entire planet,” he says. Read the rest of skateboard missionary

Pastor prayed and fasted for neighborhood, one ‘hooligan’ responded

Nigeria missionariesBy Lortoume Hang’andu —

Bitwell grew up in Lusaka, the red-soiled capital of Zambia. Along with his friends, the fatherless teenager assaulted people to fund his drinking habit. They also engaged in hooliganism at the local soccer stadium and fought rival fans.

His mother, a Christian, tried in vain to control her son.

Then a pastor moved in across the street and fasted for seven days for the neighborhood. The Spirit moved on Bitwell’s heart. At 24, he was tired of endless crime and alcohol, so he began attending church.

“I wasn’t really converted,” he says. “I just went to church.”

Then Bitwell got struck with Cupid’s arrows. He saw Mary walking to the store and struck up a conversation with her. Mary was a more serious Christian and refused his advances. He persisted, and Mary laid down an ultimatum: Either he go to church seriously or give up hopes for her.

Bitwell still drank, but he worked hard to hide it from Mary. The first time he went to Mary’s church, he was hung-over. Three years later, they were married.

Back to AfricaSeeking a better life, Bitwell and his wife applied for and were granted a tourist visa to visit a friend in Chandler, Arizona. Bitwell flew to the U.S. three months before his wife.

He was on a layover in New York on 9/11 when the Twin Tower terrorists struck and he was grounded at the airport. Eventually, Bitwell took a Greyhound bus to Chandler to join his friend, a zealous believer at the Door Church.

Bitwell accepted an invitation to attend church. He never heard preaching like that before. After hearing moving sermon after fiery sermon, he decided he needed to get serious about God. With his wife at his side, he gave his life to God and was born again.

Pastor Joe Campbell became a father figure to Bitwell and Mary. He gave them a car and was constantly checking up on them. They matured in the Lord and participated in ministry for four years.

One day, Pastor Campbell called them into his office. Would they go back to Africa to pioneer a church? They belonged to a group of churches that focuses on church planting.

It was no light matter. They had overstayed their visa and were “illegal.” If they left the country, under current rules they would not be granted a visa to America for at least 12 years.

“God called me to go,” Bitwell says. “When I was in America, God provided for me. So I thought that if I went to Africa, God would still provide for me.”

Jesus says to count the cost. For every Bitwell, there are hundreds of illegal immigrants who get saved, called, and decide not to return to their home countries. The American Dream often holds greater sway than the dream of ministry. Don’t miss the surprise ending of pastor returns to Africa.

Tammy (Lortoumi) is Pastor Mike Ashcraft’s student at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Los Angeles.

I’m in Guatemala again

Mission to Guatemala ChurchIT’s been nine months since I visited my old church in Guatemala City. This time I was able to bring five people from my new church in Van Nuys AND my pastor from Santa Monica, Rob Scribner of the Lighthouse Church. It’s exciting to see how God is rescuing people.

Send a missionary to Sierra Leone during its Civil War? It made no sense. But it created a wave of church planting.

Sierra Leone ChristianityTo many observers, it appeared foolhardy to send such a fruitful worker to such a hopeless nation. A lot of church planters in the Christian Fellowship Ministries, following prevailing wisdom, looked to plant churches in resource-rich England and South Africa.

But Pastor Harold Warner didn’t flinch when he launched firebrand preacher Alvin Smith into Sierra Leone in 1989. He had heard from God. And nearly three decades later, the results are dumbfounding.

The original church in Freetown has exploded to 80 churches. The nation that once was classified as the second poorest in the world now has planted churches in Liberia, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Congo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

African missionaries in Europe

Pastor Desmond Bell, from Sierra Leone, in Marseille France.

They have even sent three missionaries to Europe.

“To take people, to take young men and women from one of the poorest countries in the world and (for God to) say, ‘I’m going to shape and I’m going to fashion them because they are going to accomplish my purpose not only in their own nation but also beyond the boundaries,’ is one of the greatest privileges of life,” says Warner in a 2018 conference video. “I just sit back and chuckle because this has to be God.”

Not even the African pastors could believe how God would use them when, as young men, they converted to Christ in a ramshackle school building with no lights where they listened intently to Pastor Smith preach his heart.

pastor harold warner tucson door church

Pastor Harold Warner from the Door Church in Tucson

“Pastor Smith was instilling into our spirit that we were going to all the world to preach the gospel. In the minds of many of us, we were like, ‘This is an impossible dream,’” says Edward Saffa, who took over the headquarter church in Freetown. “All of us were from nothing — nothing.”

Sierra Leone was a diamond rich nation racked by government corruption and successive civil wars. The average life expectancy was into the 30s, and people ate only one meal a day. The worst kind of malaria wreaked havoc on the population, and the guerrillas chopped off limbs of civilians to sow terror.

That’s the milieu into which Alvin Smith, a retired US Air Force helicopter pilot, injected himself with his wife Renee.

“We owe something to Pastor Smith who left America. He came in the time during the war. That was a lot of sacrifice,” says Aruna Bangura, now pastoring in Marseille, France. “When people are too educated, they become logical when it comes to serving God. But for us, we were just explosive. We want to go to church everyday. Whenever it is time to go to church, we were running to go to church. We were coming from distance.

“I can still remember that old rugged, dirty building. All the windows were battered. We were using candles. But there was a life coming out of that building. That’s how God works. God likes to do things the way man cannot do it.”

The young men who attended Smith’s sermons often lacked adequate clothes, but they didn’t lack zeal. Or maybe it was the absence of material distractions that helped them to center all their attention on God.

They had nothing, so they had nothing to lose when they put their faith in God. Pastor Smith challenged the youth to get married, regardless of their financial situation. Some of the leaders today set up cardboard partitions in their parents’ living rooms to consummate their wedding. Read the rest of the story of improbable revival from Sierra Leone.

This changes everything in missionology

reaching parachute students for ChristWhen Howon Chun showed up at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica, he was a confirmed atheist.

“I thought religion is for those who are weak psychologically,” said the Korean foreign exchange student. “Christianity was just one of many religions, and I was not really interested at all. I thought Christians were unstable and just wasting their time going to church. I thought the church was corrupt and only wanted to get their money.”

His perspective changed after a year of hearing Bible class and then voluntarily attending a Bible conference in Tucson with his host dad (who happened to also be his principal and teacher).

evangelizing parachute studentsHe was surprised by the thousands of people whose joy was evident. He decided he should at least re-evaluate his atheism.

If this many people believe they are saved by Jesus, how can I ignore what they believe? he thought.

“I liked their energy. I wanted to have a purpose in life like them. I learned that Christians weren’t weird. They have a loving community. They weren’t corrupt.”

Howon wound up hanging around for three more years at Lighthouse. He just graduated, acing the SAT math with a perfect score, and enrolled in Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to study business. Part of his college choice based on accompanying his host dad, who is planting a church nearby Pismo Beach.

Howon’s story upends the traditional missionary model of sending workers into the foreign field. Here’s a vein of gold. The Christian Examiner reported that 300,000 Chinese students alone enrolled in American schools in 2016, and they prefer Christian schools, regardless of their government’s atheistic values.

There’s much discussion about how the surge in foreign students, who pay higher tuition than natives, has been a blessing to struggling private schools (public schools have strict limits on the amount of foreign students they can receive).

But there is precious little discussion about making a concerted effort to evangelize them. Read the rest about evangelizing parachute students.

Blessed to visit Guatemala again

img_2494

This is how we did Photoshop before there was Photoshop.

Supposedly we were going to visit this waterfall on the way to Coban to do a medical clinic with our church, but it was too far and we didn’t have enough time. Maybe a fake photo will suffice?

img_2669It had been 18 years since I visited the lush rainforest city of Coban. I was a relatively new missionary at the time with a 2-year-old. I was watching Rebekah assiduously while she played in the park. But after following her bent over for some time, I straightened up to give my back a rest. It was at that moment she bolted in front of the trajectory of a metal swing with a kid on it. The iron swing smacked her forehead. Rebekah is still marked today by that hit, but thank God nothing worse happened.

img_2571We attended 2,100 people in four and a half days. I translated and helped logistics. Since I had been in Coban so many years aga, our church-planting mission, the Christian Fellowship Ministry, had started a church there, so we are praying that souls will be added to Pastor Jorge Cucul’s church. The Nazarene Bible Institute opened its doors to us to stage the clinic.

img_2751For the first time, I got to see a coffee plantation. Since I’m a fanatic, this was very interesting. They had a discussion about what varieties taste the best but are vulnerable to plagues. And I did zip line there.

img_2423I finished off preaching today in the City of Guatemala, in the church I started so many years ago. As always, I will miss you, Guatemala.

Who is Scrooge?

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Ralph Bowen with his wife, Brenda, when they were missionaries in Africa.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unscrooge-like Scrooge.

Ralph Bowen was a missionary in Africa for 20 years of poverty, self sacrifice and uncommon generosity.

The script “The Re-Turn of the Scrooge” – being produced at the Pierson Playhouse Sunday through Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. – calls for something like Donald Trump in the central role. Even if he conjures every drop of acting juice, he is wrangling against every antithetical, altruistic cell in his body.

Even his response to a reporter’s question shows self-effacing unmiserliness.

“I’ve been a Scrooge person all my life. Just ask my wife and kids,” Bowen said. “We’ve all had some greedy moments.”

His actions contradict his account. Starting in 1992, Bowen was a missionary in Sierra Leone when it was rated the second poorest nation in the world by the U.N. He also pastored in The Gambia (1996-2002) and Senegal (until 2012). He and his wife, Brenda, adopted three African orphans.

Since his stint facing down malaria and rebel forces, Bowen has returned to the States, where he confronts the lesser adventures of trying to make a living as a handyman, a popular preacher at the Lighthouse Church and as a gifted actor. This article originally was published on the Santa Monica Patch here.

Really? Marijuana?

Christian Fellowship Ministries

This is obviously not Tom. Dozens of youth are challenged yearly to go the way of God, not the way of perdition, each year.

At the time, I had no idea that Tom* smoked pot. He just seemed like the sweetest kid. He fervently loved God. He even sponsored a friend to go to camp. At Q300, such “fruit” showed genuineness.

I had no idea of the tempest swirling in his background. The only sign of trouble was that quickly a room-renter in his house complained of being robbed. The amount? Q300.

Liceo Bilingue La Puerta

El Liceo Bilingue La Puerta teaches youth to avoid alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, crime and other ways people look for happiness. We’re not official a reform school, but we have a decent reforming record.

It seemed clear to me who stole it because the amounts were precise. What was weird was that the money was not used for self.

Not long after, I fled organized criminals in Guatemala after almost 16 years of missionary work. I tried to eke out a life in the States and find meaningful ministry. After being away for four years, I visited the church and school we had pioneered with my wife.

Tom tracked me down to thank me. He gave me his testimony. He had been smoking weed when he came to our school, and God had challenged him to come out of a lot of confusion. I didn’t ask about the Q300 though. I forgot.

He had heard I was back in Guatemala, and he personally came to thank me. Praise God for what preaching the gospel can do. Next time you sponsor someone to camp, Tom, it has be your own money.

* Name changed.

Partnerships

Saved gang member

Mario and Alex at the Liceo Bilingue La Puerta today.

When it was his turn to kill in a dark alley, Mario demurred and concocted some excuse. Still, he was a hardcore gang leader.

Meanwhile, Alex got his kicks throwing curve balls that baffled batters in the big leagues of Guatemala. With his young Nicaraguan partner, together they were forming a life with not much direction.

On separate days, both got radically saved by Jesus Christ. They processed through discipleship and became leaders of the Iglesia Cristiana La Puerta. They worked tirelessly, giving their all, everyday. Mario still teaches art in our school. Alex still is assistant pastor and coordinator for the school.

Missionary school Guatemala

With the big smile, teacher Banner with 5th and 6th graders. His life too was touched by God. He too has become a key partner in the ministry.

If you want to achieve great things, you’ll need to partner up with other, similarly-minded human beings. Partnership, in the world, maybe conjures the ideas of corporation profits. On the team, it speaks to supporters who help the stars win.

But in the kingdom it means much more: exponential impact and sweet friendship.

Now that I was forced to abandon Guatemala, they carry on the work. I left, Jesus did not.

Liceo Bilingue La Puerta

The lighting was bad, the smile good. My joy is to see kids in a safe harbor school growing up free from pressures to “grow up” too quickly. There is an innocence on these kids.

Partnership in the gospel is one of the greatest blessings in life. Don’t believe the myth of Rambo, one man single-handedly decimating entire armies. With God, it doesn’t work that way. God describes the church as the symbiosis of differently-gifted individuals who benefit each other and achieve vastly more together than any would alone.

I left my heart in Guatemala

Guatemala church

Irene, born at the same time as my son Hosea, got baptized.

Can a missionary ever return? Can he integrate into professional life after he has tasted the glories of God’s kingdom in the foreign field? Nothing is as wonderful in life as living the adventure.

I rejoice at having handed off the baton to a zealous young pastor, Steven Fernandez. I poured out almost 16 years of my life into Guatemala. Now it’s Pastor Steven’s turn to be a hero and do heroics. He is injecting the spirit of fun in the church, and it is growing again! It is becoming a dominion-establishing church.

guatemala missionIt is my joy to support him with prayer and with finances and with everything I can. He is on the front lines. I wish I could be on the frontlines, but for now, God has me here on the supply line, praying, teaching, learning new things, supporting the work.

If you have even the faintest notion that you should go, GO! If you are called to be a support for those who have gone, then PRAY and DON’T HOLD BACK ANY SUPPORT you can give.