[Return To Home Page]
Frontline Newsletter: What Can Go Wrong on a Mission?
Recent mission trips to Sudan have included torrential rain, flooded rivers, a key bridge washed away, medical emergencies, vehicle breakdowns, lots of walking – including at night in an operational area - thefts, attacks and the abduction of one of our team by renegade soldiers. And much more.
"Expect to be Bombed"
It was just before departing on a recent mission trip that I was shown a ludicrous article entitled "Why Churches in Sudan are not Bombed!" I had to laugh reading this pathetic piece of propaganda. It had not even been a year since I had been buried under the debris thrown up by one of the 8 bombs, which all landed within 100 metres of a church we were ministering at on a Sunday morning. There had been few days since then that I had not had cause to remember the high pitched screaming of the bombs hurtling down upon us and the earsplitting noise of bombs crashing through the trees, exploding in pillars of fire and the bone jarring shock waves. Being pummelled by the debris propelled by the blast. Then the debris raining down on top of us.
In the months that followed I could hardly forget that close call as my health hadn’t been the same since. I had suffered several months of flu, pneumonia and bronchitis which, because of the damage to my left lung, caused in turn by my cracked ribs, stubbornly refused to heal.
The latest Jeremiah Films release, "Terrorism and Persecution" documents the shocking systematic bombing of churches, hospitals and schools by the Sudan Air Force. It seemed incredible that anyone could deny the reality of the deliberate targeting of Christian churches and schools by the National Islamic Front government of Sudan.
"Expect to be Shot"
However, although ridiculous, the article also included a specific threat to myself, by name: "Peter Hammond should expect to be bombed when he comes to Sudan … he should expect to be shot on sight!"
What was particularly noteworthy about this article and its threat was that it was on the official Government of Sudan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, website! The article even gave a reason why I should expect to be bombed and / or shot "because his writings make him an enemy of the government of Sudan". So there you have it: the Muslim military dictatorship in Khartoum would never bomb churches – but they might consider bombing (or shooting) missionaries who write about it!
Barely 36 hours before I was due to depart on this mission trip to Sudan, a message came through from our team there. Cancel your trip, the message read. Torrential rains have made ministry in Sudan "impossible" at this time. The river is flooded and the bridge has been washed away. The river is "uncrossable" and no meetings can be organised.
I immediately sent a reply back stating that if we let assessments like this affect our determination to fulfil our mission then not much would have been accomplished in the last 20 years. I don’t believe in aborting anything, least of all my mission.
"The River is Uncrossable"
Upon arriving in a neighbouring country, our charter pilot gave a similar warning that he had heard that the bridge was down and the river was "uncrossable." I told him "I was crossing the Yei River before there was a bridge."
He also doubted whether it would be safe or even possible to land at the designated bush airstrip. They had not been able to raise our mission base on the radio and therefore had no up to date information on the rainfall, the security situation or condition of the airfield. Their operating procedures prevented them from landing without direct radio contact with a receiving team at the destination. I did persuade him to fly us in, but he warned me that if he did not make radio contact before reaching our airfield, or if there was no one on the ground to secure the airstrip, then we would have to return without landing – at our own expense. It was a risk, but confident that God was leading us to trust Him, I knew that we had to take those risks. Where God guides, He provides.
"No Fly Zone"
We flew through a lot of clouds. On one occasion the pilot indicated in the distance a government of Sudan airbase. He also told me of a co-pilot who had recently been shot dead by groundfire while in flight over Sudan. It was a clearly marked Red Cross aircraft – but that had not stopped Sudanese soldiers from firing on the aircraft. The co-pilot’s head exploded all over the pilot and cockpit. Incredibly the pilot still managed to land the aircraft at Lokichoggio in neighbouring Kenya.
"No Radio Contact"
As we neared our destination, the tension mounted and so too did the prayers. There was absolutely no radio response from our base. What could have happened? There was a break in the clouds. We could see the swollen river pouring over where the bridge had been. At parts the Yei River had swollen seven times it’s normal width. Everything was very green and very wet. There were pools of water all over, even on parts of the airstrip. The pilot informed us that as there was no one at the airstrip and as they could not raise anyone at our mission base on the radio, we would have to abort and return to the neighbouring country.
I looked over the interior of the aircraft packed full of Bibles, books and bicycles. These were all desperately needed down below. I had commitments to keep. How could we get so close and give up? Some serious negotiations followed.
By God’s grace, our pilot finally agreed to land despite the failure of our ground team to secure the airstrip or respond to radio communications. The aircraft banked steeply and headed for the damp airstrip.
As we hit the runway, water splashed up higher than the aircraft as we ploughed through the puddles. We had barely reached the end of the airstrip when a whole herd of cattle came out of the bush and covered much of the middle of the runway! It was just such dangers that required a ground team to secure these bush landing strips before a landing should be attempted. If that herd had broken through the tree line onto the airstrip just one minute before - there could have been a very fatal accident.
We quickly off-loaded the one tonne of Bibles, books and bicycles. It’s always somewhat unnerving to watch your air transport take off when you’re left behind in a war zone. Especially when you have no ground transport and a tonne of cargo to deliver. Well we were not actually transportless – we did have 12 bicycles!
Bibles On Bicycles
With the help of some local Christians who started to arrive at the airstrip, we succeeded in ferrying the Scriptures and educational materials to the river. It had been some time since I had last ridden a bicycle but after 6 trips between the airfield and the river I felt I was becoming quite adept at balancing heavy loads across very uneven tracks.
At the riverbank we looked with amazement. In seven years of ministering in Moruland, I had never before seen the river so high, so full, so wide and flowing so fast.
The original bridge, built by the British, had been blown up by the Muslim government forces as they retreated from the area in 1991. Until missionaries built a footbridge over the shattered pillars of the old bridge in 1998, river crossings were done mostly by boat. Now the floodwaters had ripped apart most of the footbridge. Most of the footbridge was under water and the pillars were being moved by the tremendous force of the floodwaters.
We had carried so many tonnes of Bibles over this footbridge – including the very first complete Bible in the Moru language. Now we would have to use boats again. But the torrent of water was far too turbulent to risk a boat crossing at this time. Nor was any boat available.
The local people who had helped us ferry our supplies
to the riverbank pointed out that several people had drowned
attempting to cross the river. "It’s impossible to cross the
river now!" they told us.
"Rangers Show the Way"
"Well" said John, "Let the Rangers show the way." And with that he reached out and took hold of the cable and started climbing hand over hand, ankle over ankle, across the roaring waters. In the army we did this sort of thing with ropes – but on a frayed one inch steel cable, without gloves, John’s legs and hands began to be badly rubbed raw and cut up. Pieces of John’s flesh were left on some rough parts of the cable. Incredibly he kept going, but the cable was sagging and just 10 feet from the other bank, his arms and legs badly cut up, John fell in to the water and disappeared from view.
There was so much debris – including whole trees – being washed down that I was worried that he would get snagged under water by the mangeled iron remains of the blown up bridge or ensnared in the broken remnants of the footbridge or knocked unconscious by the flowing logs and branches.
After an agonising, heart stopping time of suspense John resurfaced about a hundred metres downstream! He had been swimming underwater towards the shore and surfaced close to a thorn tree which he quickly grasped – causing more damage to his injured hands. In a few minutes John was walking to our mission base to fetch the equipment which would enable us to ferry our literature and supplies across the raging river.
At the base John learned that our ground team had packed up and driven out – back to South Africa – just a few hours before. The filthy, disorganised and chaotic state of our stores and all the broken equipment told a story. The Sudanese staff members explained how the team’s relationships with the local Church had deteriorated in the same way as the mission station had. "When they heard your plane flying overhead – they fled!" explained one. They had also cancelled my planned seminars and dismissed all the students of the school a few days before.
Over the years I’ve seen many people crack up, or give up, under the severe stresses of the field. Extreme heat, clouds of insects, tropical diseases and prolonged dangers along with all the cross cultural complications, linguistic difficulties and logistical frustrations can combine together to drive even normally strong people to bitterness or irrational despair.
Soon after this, however, our overland team, Tim and Hansie, arrived after an epic 7200 km (4500 miles) drive. In 18 days they had crossed 7 international borders and gone through over 30 roadblocks. They had had to stop to make vehicle repairs over 10 times and got stuck in mud 6 times. Because of the exceptionally long and intense rainy season, the last stretch of dirt roads were mud pools.
John and I certainly appreciated their help with carrying our equipment, books and supplies across the rising river. Some bags were still being brought across the river by pulley and harness attachment in the dark.
The next morning, while I tried to sort things out and get the mission base and school operational again, Tim worked at bringing the remainder of our cargo across the Yei River. The water had risen even higher since the previous night and the pillars of the broken bridge looked even more unstable. There was every indication that two of the central pillars were about to give way before the torrent of water. Yet Tim brought the 6 boxes of Bibles and school textbooks safely across. Each time he pulled himself and another box across, the water was even higher until his back was soaked from the river. The pillars were visibly moving. The cable was making noises under the strain. Within a short time after Tim completed his balancing acts and cable crossings, one of the pillars was washed away by the raging river. We rejoiced in God’s perfect timing and protection!
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you…" Isaiah 43:2
When we tried to anticipate all that could go wrong on our mission trip, we could not have foreseen that all the seminars I had personally organised on my previous trip would have been cancelled by the outgoing team. Transport and communications are perennial problems in Sudan, so I set to work to re-organise everything. Messengers were sent out by bicycle, where possible radio messages were dispatched and for other arrangements I went personally.
The local church leaders instituted a Board of Inquiry into the strange activities of the previous team which had dismissed the school and deserted the base before being relieved. At the Sunday services I apologised to the community for the disrespectful and destructive activities of our previous team. The Bishop admonished us to be more careful in our selection and training of field workers. "You must thoroughly test their character" before sending them to Sudan, he urged. Then Bishop Bullen added: "Even Jesus had a Judas amongst His 12 disciples." Another pastor explained: "These youngsters don’t think we have anything to say. We don’t have fancy trucks to drive like they do. Our huts are empty, but our hearts are full."
The rest of our team headed out while Tim remained behind to run the mission station and the Christian Liberty High School. At the time he was the only teacher and despite the washed away bridge many students were streaming back, walking great distances or even coming by dugout canoes. Every day Tim conducted children’s Bible studies before the school chapel and lectures. Then lots of physical work to repair, sort out and organise the chaotic stores.
Despite the short notice, broken bridge and muddy roads, pastors, teachers and civil leaders walked from far and wide to attend our Reformation Conference. With everyone using Frontline’s new, well illustrated Reformation Manual, I presented the distinctive doctrines of the Reformation and inspiring stories of the courageous Reformers who changed history by applying the Lordship of Christ to all areas of life. There was much excitement and enthusiasm from all the conference participants and many were awarded Reformed books to use in their teaching and preaching. The discussions on how these Biblical truths impact our situations and society were lively and refreshing.
Destruction vs. Construction
In discussions, many brought up the attacks by Muslim terrorists on America. They were clearly distressed and grieved over the tremendous loss of life and destruction of property in New York and Washington DC. I pointed out that it took 7 years to build the World Trade Centre, but barely more than an hour to destroy it. It took 42 days to build the bridge across the Yei river – yet it was blown up in a few minutes. It is always easier to destroy than to build.
As Jesus said: "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly." John 10:10
As Christians we need to build up – not break down. We need to plant – not uproot. We need to construct – not destruct. The bridge across the Yei river had united the Moru people who had been divided by the river. The bridge made possible mobility, commerce, relationships and ministry that would otherwise not have been possible. How many thousands of sick people had been carried across that bridge to receive medical attention at the hospital? How many hundreds of lives had been saved because of those who had built the bridge? And how many lives would be lost because of those who had blown up the bridge?
Jesus vs. Muhammad
We also noticed that while Jesus healed the sick, Muhammad could not. Jesus could make a crippled man walk – Muhammad could only make a walking man crippled. Jesus could make a blind man see – Muhammad could make a seeing man blind. Jesus could make a dead man alive - Muhammad could make live men dead. Jesus could multiply a few loaves and fishes to feed thousands - Muhammad could divide the loot after raiding a caravan. Jesus could walk on the water - Muhammad could ride a camel. Jesus set the captives free - Muhammad made free people captives. Jesus taught us to love our enemies - Muhammad taught his followers to kill, amputate or enslave his enemies. Today you can visit the grave of Muhammad in Medina – but in Jerusalem there is an empty tomb.
"For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, Who gave Himself a ransom for all…" 1 Timothy 2:5-6
Gunfight in the Street
We had a most blessed time of fellowship and worship at the church. This was the same church that had previously been destroyed by two helicopter gun ships of the Sudan Air Force. It was rebuilt on the very site of the previous building.
At this town, John, Hansie and I then got caught up in a gun fight in the main street on Saturday afternoon. We had just finished our seminar lectures and were on our way to the market when soldiers from different tribes began exchanging gunfire. Bullets whistled overhead and everyone scattered. Hansie and I dropped to the ground and crawled behind a large tree as we heard rounds smacking into trees around us. John ran forward and captured some of the action on video camera! Later he was able to replay the event to an officer who could plainly identify who was involved and who was responsible.
Through the Mud
Then, as our next commitments were on the other side of the river, we began what would be an over 500 km journey by vehicle to cross the river by the only remaining bridge nearly 300 km upstream and then to double back to a location not too far from where we were now. With the river as it was now, and with the load of Bibles, film evangelism equipment and medical supplies needed for our training seminars on the other side of the river - there was little option.
Hansie, John and I were joined by two Sudanese chaplains - Charles and Francis. With a heavily laden truck we headed out to slip and slide across the muddy obstacle courses that passed for roads. Sometimes one of us had to get out and wade ahead to discern the least worst way to drive through the mud or bush. As we progressed the roads got drastically worse. (It took us 18 hours hard driving to cover 300 km.)
Some of the pot holes were 6 feet deep and mostly full of water. At one point I smelt petrol and before I could work out where the fumes were coming from I got soaked as petrol poured over me through the open window! One of our spare jerricans of fuel (for our film evangelism generator) on the roof had ruptured and as we braked for a pot hole litres of petrol just happened to land on me.
As night fell and our lights grew dimmer we realised that our alternator was not charging the batteries and the engine was losing power. Constant mud and water had probably clogged the connections on the generator. At this point we also noticed that we had lost our spare tyre and that the bracket holding it had broken completely off.
We improvised and used the jumper cables to connect our auxillary battery to the main battery. This provided a temporary solution. Shortly after this a massive mud pool so covered our headlights that we thought our fuses had blown. In fact the lights were fine. The mud was so thick that it had obliterated all the lights! Some serious cleaning between mud pools and a searchlight held by hand out of the window enabled us to push several miles further.
Sick and Stuck
Close to midnight our fuel was very low and the lights were growing dim. Then we got so stuck - up to our axels in thick deep mud - that no amount of digging could get us out. (The winch motor had burned out some time earlier after recovering other vehicles stuck in the mud.) Now we were stuck. Hansie was getting feverish (he was actually suffering from Tetanus), so leaving Hansie and the chaplains with the vehicle, John and I began to walk to the nearest town.
A Walk in the Dark
It was close to midnight and very dark. As it was the operational area and an after dark curfew was in place, we were quite concerned that some soldiers on patrol or at a checkpoint would shoot first and ask questions afterwards. I was also praying that any soldiers we met would understand English - because I didn’t know enough Arabic to talk my way out of this kind of trouble.
It was three hours and many mud pools, puddles and streams later that we reached our destination. At one point a military patrol came straight towards us. I saw one soldier, fully kitted out, with rifle at the ready, emerge from the dark - then another to his left, a third to his right, a fourth to the left ... a platoon properly staggered for operational night patrol was heading for us.
Through the Lines
"Good evening." I greeted politely. Their eyes grew wide, hands tensed on their AK 47 assault rifles. "Good evening." I continued to greet each one as they marched past us to our left and right ... then they disappeared into the dark! We had just walked straight through the middle of a military patrol, after midnight, in an operational area - without even being challenged!
Some time after that we smelt smoke - both tobacco and the smoke of a fire. Then we saw the chalk line across the road. This had to be the military checkpont for the town. We walked forward very carefully. This was a dangerous situation as a nervous guard might shoot without any warning. We expected to be challenged at any moment. Then I saw the metal barrier and soldiers sleeping - on both sides of the road. We kept walking. Nobody challenged us. Everyone was asleep! We walked into the town without any hindrance. Now we had to find the church compound.
Organising a Rescue
By God’s grace, we finally found the compound and we were warmly welcomed despite being in the early hours. Suddenly, being amongst clean people, we realised how thoroughly filthy and mud splattered we were. However, I determined not to clean up until we’d extricated our vehicle from the mud and rescued our team still stuck out on "the road".
Finding a vehicle was a challenge. It was dawn before I was able to borrow a motorbike from a nearby compound and head out to help our team. In the full light of day I could see what obstacles I’d tripped over in the dark, and what mud puddles we’d wadded into, the night before. After the night hike, it was a luxurious feeling to cover so much distance so quickly and effortlessly.
A truck pulled our vehicle out of the mud and soon we were all at the compound drinking tea. Hansie, however, was suffering an acute fever. We rushed him to the local clinic where he was diagnosed as having tetanus infection.
Creative Problem Solving
As I washed off the layers of mud I reflected on our dilema. The roads ahead were reportedly even worse than the ones we had just come through. Our vehicle was in need of serious repairs, but our mechanic, Hansie, was even more seriously sick. We had lost our spare wheel, the alternator was not working and the winch motor was burned out. As things stood we were going to be late for our chaplains training seminar.
As I was praying for wisdom and guidance, some teacher trainers requested me to help them. They desperately needed Bibles and other literature in Arabic, Bari, Moru and English for their teachers and students. Now, by God’s grace, I had pre-positioned tonnes of Bibles and books in just those languages in two neighbouring countries.
To the Front
The teachers were delighted as we off-loaded the Bibles and books for them, then we loaded on our cargo and we were racing down the runway and airborne. There were still some logistical problems and delays at the other side - but within 24 hours we had ferried all our people, equipment and supplies to the Chaplains Training Centre near the front.
After all the complications, it was a great joy to finally be there. We received a wonderful warm welcome from the soldiers, commanders and chaplains. After an enthusiastic worship service, training began. This included practicals, physical training, and lectures. I was encouraged by how well some answered tests to evaluate how well they remembered previous lessons. We also went over the Evangelism Explosion materials again. There were some great testimonies of units impacted with the Gospel, of many lives transformed and many soldiers discipled.
Each night we showed different Biblical or Historical films. One night our film evangelism was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of an Antanov bomber flying directly overhead. Everyone scattered as I ran to the generator and killed the lights. We crouched down behind cover and strained our ears to discern any metalic sound of bomb bay doors opening or the sound of falling bombs. However, we were all relieved as the sound of the Antanov’s engine receeded. No bombs were dropped and the cleared streets filled up with soldiers again We continued the film - in this case on the life of Joseph.
My hut seemed infested with rats. Once I came in to see a rat run over my sleeping bag and pillow! On other occasions rats dropped from the thatch roof onto my mosquito net, then scurried off. On numerous occasions I was kept awake at night by the activities of rats all around me. As my hut was also the storeroom I had to chase them away. Later my host told me that after I left he had his neighbours surround his compound and they systematically killed 160 rats where I’d been staying! They’ve pleaded with me to bring in some cats to deal with the plague of rats. (We’d earlier brought in some cats for a medical mission. Their exploits in eradicating the rat problem are now legendary.)
Persevering Under Trails
The church was badly damaged from aerial bombardments but the worship service was carried out amidst the ruins - a clear testimony that Jesus Christ is building His Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. In the evenings we showed Christian films to thousands of people who packed out the ruined church building. Despite the relentless persecution by the National Islamic Front government, the Christians in Southern Sudan are standing firm, filling the churches and bringing up their children to love, honour and worship our Lord Jesus Christ.
As the pastor showed me the mud pits and brick works where their members are painstakingly making tens of thousands of bricks to rebuild their bombed church, I could see that these resilient Christians will never give up. They would rather die for Christ than denounce Him. The Islamisation and Arabisation policies of the Sudanese government havn’t got a chance. They are thoroughly discredited and rejected by the courageous Christian Black people of Southern Sudan.
How, then, can we Christians who have the privilege of religious freedom allow anything to make us give up? Seldom have I undertaken a mission trip where so many things went wrong - and yet seldom have I had the privilege of experiencing a mission trip more blessed with true spiritual success. God can turn our obstacles into opportunities. He can make our stumbling blocks into stepping stones. The will of God will never lead you where the Grace of God cannot keep you.
(In the next Frontline Fellowship News the story continues with attacks and abduction by renegade soldiers, thefts, diseases and a cobra.)