Look what God is doing!
by Dick Eastman
Edited from Chapter 3:
People of the Trees
100% of the 6,000 in a Pygmy tribe close to the area where the Ebola virus began now follow Christ 5 years after the young chief’s conversion.
Dick Eastman, International President of Every Home for Christ (EHC) – formerly Christian Literature Crusade – describes his visit to this area even though he was warned not to go. Catholic nuns and nurses who cared for the first known Ebola victims there also died from the highly contagious virus. The EHC team had round-the-clock prayer warriors praying for them the whole trip. They arrived 3 years after the pioneering Bantu Africans began sharing good news there and 4,000 had become Christians. Two years later all 6,000 of that tribe professed Christ.
This edited excerpt is from Chapter 3: People of the Trees (pages 37-51).
It would take eleven days travelling by canoe up the mighty Zaire River (also known as the Congo) before the two Every Home for Christ pioneer missionaries (Bantu Africans) from Kinshasa (Zaire) would reach their destination deep in the equatorial rainforest. From the Zaire River they would travel several days more against the strong current up the smaller Momboyo River. From the Momboyo they would journey still deeper into the forest on small tributaries, until they reached the heart of the rainforest rarely seen by outsiders. It was a dangerous journey few ever made.
The Power of a Prayer Shield
Despite what I knew was the harassment of the enemy, my colleague and I soon found ourselves in Kinshasa, Zaire, loading our small tents and other supplies – including 100 pounds of salt for the Pygmies – into a small Mission Aviation Fellowship plane.
Thankfully we had found a courageous MAF pilot willing to take us to a rugged landing strip an an encampment called Boteka, located along the Momboyo River. It would serve as the launching pad for our trip still deeper into the forest … to our final destination, the village of Bosuka, where hundreds of Pygmies were turning to Jesus.
The MAF flight took us only three hours. As if to heighten my concern, we were flying straight into huge, billowing clouds with raindrops ripping against the windshield and lightning dancing just beyond our wingtips. Yet the plane flew steady as an arrow. I was amazed how the Lord guided our MAF pilot straight through the weather with hardly a bump. Not a moment of our entire journey, day or night, lacked at least a few people praying as part of our special prayer shield.
The Last Tree on Earth
The plane landed safely on a patch of grass in Boteka, which I soon learned had been a Belgian Catholic mission since the early 1950s. (Zaire was known then as the Belgian Congo.) I also discovered that the Every Home Crusade ministry had already seen significant results in the region around Boteka. In fact, many of the Pygmies and Bantu people (taller Africans) who stood cheering along the small grass landing strip when we arrived were converts of EHC’s systematic every home evangelism ministry in the Boteka area.
At daybreak the next day, just before 6 a.m., we climbed into our borrowed 40-foot canoe to begin what would be a 14-hour journey against the strong current of the snake-like Momboyo River. We would not arrive at our destination, an encampment called Imbonga, until eight o’clock that night. We faced an additional 32-kilometer (20 mile) trek even deeper into the rainforest the following day.
The Momboyo was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of rivers that flow throughout the several rainforests of central Africa. As I looked at a map, I noticed, not too far north, the name of another river I recognized – the Ebola. Being reminded of that name made me a little uneasy.
The Catholics of Imbonga had the only vehicle within hundreds of kilometers – an old, beat-up Land Rover. Then we learned that the narrow road – not much more than a twelve-foot-wide jungle clearing – included 222 separate log bridges. Each bridge consisted of little more than 10 or 20 thick logs.
Along the 32-kilometer journey from Imbonga to the Pygmy settlement of Bosuka, we saw numerous Bantu villages – not uncommon in the area. Pygmy villages, on the other hand, were highly unusual, since Pygmies tend to be nomadic, seldom settling down to live in conventional huts or dwellings.
None of the initial progress reports from our workers had indicated how many homes were being reached even though this statistic appears on every report coming to our central office from the field. But our area director had been reporting only the numbers of conversions (and subsequent baptisms) among the Pygmies. So we asked him for updated reports that included the number of actual homes being reached.
He wrote again suggesting we still did not understand. The Pygmies do not live in homes, houses or even huts in the trees. They just live and sleep in the trees, sometimes on the thick leaves, sometimes under them and sometimes in temporary thatched shelters assembled hastily when a tribe moves to a new area for hunting. Occasionally they even tie themselves into a tree, he wrote, so they will not fall asleep (quite literally) from a high tree and injure themselves.
This report from our director ended with the usual African humour: “Brother Dick, we have now launched EHC’s very first Every Tree Crusade.” Then he modified our long-standing goal, which speaks of reaching “the last home on earth with the Gospel,” by printing in large letters on his report: “WE WILL NOT STOP UNTIL WE REACH THE LAST TREE ON EARTH WITH THE GOSPEL!”
The settlement called Bosuka meant “the end of the world” in their Pygmy dialect, for not much lies beyond Bosuka but dense forest. Indeed, the very village of Bosuka did not even exist until relatively recently. But here I was, standing among these usually nomadic “people of the trees” and seeing with my own eyes that they had formed a village with a church at its centre. It was a Christian phenomenon, I was told, and had resulted in thousands of Pygmies in the area giving their lives to Christ.
Half an Arm’s Length
The work had gone slowly at first. The two EHC workers, who had come to this part of the forest 14 months earlier – not for a visit but to live – were a married couple, both Bantu.
But as far back as anyone can remember, the smaller Pygmies have feared the larger Bantu. They learned to trade with them for precious commodities not available in the deep forest, commodities like salt and metal (the latter to make tools and weapons), but for generations the Bantu had slaughtered the Pygmies and driven them deeper into the forest.
Pygmies are the world’s shortest people. Because they are unable to process the hormones needed for normal growth, adults reach an average height of only four feet six inches. Pygmies feel they are second-class human beings – like monkeys, perhaps, or a category of human just above the animals. Their very name derives from the Greek word pygme, which means “half an arm’s length.”
The Pygmy sense of inferiority made it difficult at first for the Bantu workers to make even an initial presentation of the Gospel. So they had to be unusually creative. They would go to a clearning, for example, where they knew Pygmies could see them, and leave a quantity of salt on an old stump or mound in the clearing. Then they would retreat into the shadows of the forest but stand near the edge so the Pygmies could see they were still there. Soon the Pygmies would come, ever so slowly because they wanted the salt so desperately. Then they would snatch up the precious substance, leave monkey meat or fish in its place and rush off into the forest.
The Christians would come a third day, but this time they would wait only a few paces from the salt. Now it would take even more time for the Pygmies to cultivate the courage to come. But because salt is priceless to a Pygmy, a brave adult (usually a young warrior) would soon step into the clearing and move toward the salt. As he did, the Bantu Christians would walk very slowly toward the salt, trying to send a signal that they meant no harm.
Eventually at least one of the Pygmies, sometimes more, would muster enough courage to approach the believers waiting nearby with the salt. In this moment – through interpreters, if necessary – the Christian workers would begin to tell them they had come in a spirit of love with Good News for their people. The Pygmy listeners almost never looked into the eyes of the speaker, reflecting their conviction that they were less than human.
These first close encounters usually lasted only a few minutes, but they were crucial for building trust that might later lead to longer meetings. Still, in these first moments of contact, the Christians sought to share the gospel message as quickly as possible. They never knew if they would get another opportunity.
Sometimes it took two or three encounters before there was an indication the message was being understood. When it was, it was clear something was happening in the heart of the recipient. The pattern was almost always the same. The Pygmy would agree to say the sinner’s prayer, still not looking into the eyes of the believer. Then he or she would begin to weep, sometimes uncontrollably. Then, just as suddenly, as one worker described the process to me, “The Pygmy will lift his head boldly, look you straight in the eye and laugh with joy. We know then that something has really happened. The Pygmy has just met Jesus.”
A Cornelius Conversion
When our team had finally arrived at Bosuka, we discovered that a groundswell of conversions had taken place over an amazingly short time. Our last report some six months earlier had indicated that as many as 1,200 Pygmies in the Bosuka area had received Christ. But because of a lack of radio transmitters in this village, or any other communications from this deep in the forest, we did not know this number had grown significantly. There were now 4,000 converts from a tribe of little more than 6,000. Two thirds of the tribe had come to Jesus! (Two years later a report would indicate all 6,000 had now professed Christ!)
One of the special converts – and one of the very first ones – was Lendongo Botshemba, the 30-year-old chief of the tribe, who greeted us graciously on our arrival. His conversion, our director of the region told me, had been like that of Cornelius in Acts 10.
The young chief had grown up worshipping the snakes and trees of the dense rainforest along the Momboyo River, just as his parents Bokimba and Bolanza had before him.
But the miracle of the Gospel was now transforming those parts of the rainforest. Lendongo’s entire family had been converted affecting some 40 persons in all. And churches were being planted to help nurture and sustain these new believers. Lendongo was responsible for the formation of at least 18 additional Christian villages in the region, each one established around a church.
In a neighbouring part of the equatorial rainforest, where we had heard that 32 churches had been planted by EHC workers 36 months earlier, we now learned that an astounding 300 additional fellowships of new believers had been born. In still another rainforest area (in Cameroon, West Africa) 5,000 more Pygmies were converted and baptized. Several hundred additional churches were formed as a result.
The “Every Tree Crusade” launched in the rainforest had been responsible for more than 15,000 Pygmy conversions – in just 36 months! And as our journey to the people of the trees ended, and our large canoe headed back down the Momboyo River, I could not get a verse from Isaiah out of my mind: “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9)
Look what God is doing – and rejoice!
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See also: God’s Visitation, by Dick Eastman