I’ve had two experiences in my life where I feel as if I was living out stories of the Bible. The first happened during the first few weeks after I got married. My new husband and I were excitedly heading to our new home in Newfoundland where we were going to be brand spanking new primary school teachers. The trip to our new home was our makeshift honeymoon. However, unlike most folks it was highly unlikely we would ever be able to take a second honeymoon to the same spot.
Why you ask? Well, thanks to a Canadian National Railroad strike our second to the last leg of the honeymoon trip from Oshawa, Ontario—the overnight ferry boat ride from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland –was on hold. We arrived shortly after the strike began and like so many other folks waiting to make the voyage set up camp along the highway that led to the port where the massive ferries were empty waiting for the cars and passengers that would soon (hopefully) fill them up.
We were situated near the front of the line which pretty much ensured us a spot on one of the first ferries heading out across the straits unlike thousands of those unlucky folks behind us who were backed up for miles along the highway. For one thing, this meant we were near enough the docks we could use the public restrooms and haul water back to our campsite making life much easier. This offered a bit more comfortable situation for us unlike those unable to find lodgings in the overwhelmed hotels in the area. Expecting a prolonged delay we pitched our tent the first night despite our slim hope the strike would soon be settled. But one night dragged into two and two into three. Foolishly each day we gathered a bit more from our car and trailer and carried it up into the tent.
My husband and I tried to amuse ourselves and pleasantly spent our time we were held hostage while the union fought it out with the management of the railway system. We visited the sites of North Sydney, read in the tent, played cards or threw around a Frisbee in the empty area where cars would normally line up awaiting their turn to board the ferry.
Rumors abounded among the stranded passengers. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who had an inside track to the negotiations taking place behind closed doors. People huddled together sharing their tidbits about what was happening, when the strike would end and the ferries would again be shuttling people back and forth between the mainland and the big island. We listened to as many of them as we could—and then contemplated all that was said and eventually came to our own conclusions about the veracity of the various rumors.
Despite the whispers the end of the strike was near—on the evening of third day we headed to our tent—pitched on the side of the hill of the last cloverleaf on the TransCanada highway that routes cars on the last stretch of highway that leads to the Atlantic Ocean and Newfoundland beyond. We’d been hearing the same comments ever since we’d arrived and were quite convinced the end was not in sight. We heard on the radio they were at a stalemate and surely the radio would be more accurate than all these folks waiting in a non-line to board the ferries.
It’s hard to describe what a “knock”sounds like on a canvass tent. It’s more of a slight kind of quiet flopping or flapping noise. But despite how quiet it is that’s exactly what awakened us several hours later when a Canadian Mountie knocking on the side of our tent woke us from our sound sleep. We could hears cars whizzing by on the side of the highway and his words—“You need to move your car and trailer. It’s in the way. The strike has been settled for hours.”
We quickly gathered up what seemed to be mountains of junk that littered the tent, pulled the tent down, hauled our belongings down the hill and stuffed our belongings into the back of the car. We soberly watched the cars that had been backed up for miles behind us speed past us to secure their place in the lines that were quickly filling up.
Had we not been like the five foolish virgins in the Bible who failed to keep awake while waiting for the bridegroom to come we would surely have been on the first ferry to head to Newfoundland. But we weren’t. Nor did we make the second ferry. It was with a great deal of chagrin as we waited for our turn on the third ferry when on a walk down the empty highway that we discovered a few of our precious items precariously hanging on a sign on the side of the road where our makeshift campsite had been. The stuff had apparently fallen out from the tumbled mess in our arms as we hurriedly tossed our belongings into the car. As we gathered them up they were a somber reminder of our foolhardiness in hauling so many of our belongings into our temporary home on the side of the road.
What did we learn?
Lesson Number One: Don’t ignore all rumors; sometimes they might be true.
Lesson Number Two: When you’re in a makeshift campsite on the side of a major highway—stick to the essentials and don’t fill your tent up with anything but necessities.
Lesson Number Three: Always be prepared for the unexpected. You never know what may happen next. Don’t be caught off guard. For, if you are caught off guard—you might just miss your boat—and the next time it might be the ONLY boat that’s going where you need to go.
So, after that rather embarrassing experience I led a relatively circumspect life and didn’t need to be reminded by a Bible story on how to lead a well-meaning and judicious life. Well, not until God called me to remind me about a promise I made him many years before.
I was in college when I met Bob. Besides being one of the smartest people I know he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. And when we began spending more time together I increasingly realized he was the kind of person a girl would like to hitch her wagon to. But you know–you gotta be sure about these kinds of things and in a moment of contemplation I talked to God about him. In the course of our conversation I told Him that if it worked out that we (me and Bob)—well, I would make a commitment to God that I’d go anywhere He wanted me to go.
Now, when I made THAT promise I was really thinking of places like where I grew up. You know—places that had running water and electricity and grocery stores and hospitals. Nothing fancy–just the essentials—a typical run-of-the-mill kind of American town.
I meant my promise and in my view—my move to Newfoundland pretty much fulfilled that promise to God. Going there certainly had been a challenge for this middle class American girl. I had to cook on a wood stove and during the winter running water was definitely a hit and miss commodity. The outhouse that welcomed me upon our arrival was more than daunting as were the toilet plunger that held the window in place in the only bedroom in the house that was ours and the horses. More than once we asked ourselves why there was a lonely commode in corner of the bedroom. It wasn’t connected to any septic system that we could tell. And those were just a few of the oddities in the tiny little house that sat up on a hill overlooking the bay that we would be calling our new home.
The one and only grocery store in the nearest town 20 or so miles away carried most of what I wanted but their reconstituted milk took a good deal of getting used too, bananas were a new thing to that part of the island and were not always available and the nearby tiny clinic on the other side of the bay in Bloomfield seemed to be state-of the-art but ONLY if you didn’t have anything seriously wrong. Although I don’t recall the name of the doctor, I do remember he was young, short, dark and handsome and liked to play basketball with Bob and the other exercise-conscience young men in the area once a week in a nearby school gym. That commitment alone made him stand out from the typical Newfie. But the marauding horses—the BIG horses who openly grazed everywhere around the bay area where we lived were certainly enough to call into question more than just my Christian experience over the time we lived there.
So, notwithstanding my promise with GOD I’d go ANYWHERE—I figured I had more than met my commitment with the already exhibited sacrifice I’d made to move to the wiles of Newfoundland far from my family and the kind of life I was familiar with. God and I were even in my view.
But God saw it differently and I was soon to learn He had other plans for me.
Two and a half years after leaving Newfoundland things were really starting to come together. First, we had our beautiful baby girl, Heather, and 19 months later our bouncing energizer bunny Danny blessed our household too. About a year after Danny entered our lives we made the decision to take the REALLY big step and buy our first home. By this time we’d moved to Oshawa, Bob’s hometown, and we’d found the perfect place: an almost new duplex in a neighborhood with several family friends living down the street. As a 3-bedroom split level one of the extra special features of the home was a partial basement below the main living area. This area was a child-sized wonderland that offered more than enough storage space for their hoarder mom in addition to plenty of room for the kids to ride their tricycles during the cold winter months. It also had a little nook we turned into a child-sized reading corner and play house much to the delight of both Heather and Danny. Life became even better when we purchased a portable dishwasher for mom which we squeezed it into a space beside the refrigerator that definitely turned my tiny kitchen into my little side of heaven.
But, as I said, God had other plans. It was two months after we moved into our new home that Bob got a call from one of the Vice Presidents of the SDA church headquartered in, at that time, Takoma Park, Maryland. Almost a year earlier Bob had met with one of the church leaders visiting our home church. Bob eagerly expressed his earnest desire to go to Africa as a missionary. Fluent in French, and more to the point—a living, breathing being who WANTED to leave his hearth and home to head off to the unknowns on the other side of the world—this was just too much of a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”offer to the church brethren. They listened, they prayed and they decided. They were going to ask the Bob Prouty family to go to a medium-sized mission post in one of the more remote areas of North Kivu, Zaire, literally in the heart of Africa not much more than five miles from the equator.
Now Zaire at that time was still under the rule of Mobutu. More to the point it was a hotbed of instability then (tragically even more so now). Life was not easy: communications with the outside world were non-existent; living conditions were challenging for someone used to 20th century amenities and luxuries; and they spoke no English. So, when God in the form of that GC VP called—well, let’s just say it wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm on my part.
My initial refusal to go caused me great consternation. I knew I’d made a promise to God and despite my perspective I’d already met my commitment I felt just like I was saying no to God and more importantly—no to any kind of long term relationship with Him and the hereafter with my refusal to take this call. So, after a three-night struggle something like what I figure Jacob probably experienced when he wrestled with that angel I said a reluctant “yes” and begrudgingly began preparations for the next and one of the most significant journeys of my life.
A few short months later we sold our new home and headed off for our two-month training at Andrews University in Michigan. Bob was finishing up his MA at the same university which conveniently left me to attend the training on my own. You can imagine my delight upon discovering that the final decision about our employment and eventual deployment as missionaries would only come after intensive scrutiny of our (MY) performance during this training period. I’m sure you can appreciate how I saw it—if I said YES to God but they said NO to me…well, that wouldn’t be MY fault or doing. Right?
So, I began constructing the most delightful plan ever: How to totally-miserably-completely- yet masterfully fail their evaluation of my suitability for mission service. After all, since Mr. Bob who wanted to go and would naturally just be a hit with EVERYONE WAS NOT THERE —well, it left me up to my own devices which was just TOO MUCH to resist. So, I began my masterful plan.
Culturally sensitive? NOPE. Check.
Willing to sacrifice and be a risk taker? NOPE. Check.
Ready to minister to the less fortunate? NOPE. Check.
Upbeat? Caring? Optimistic? Trusting? Nope. Nope. Nope. And NOPE. Check, check, check and check.
Well, you can imagine MY surprise when two months later OUR name was NOT on the list for those who were NOT going to their mission post. Indeed, it was with a sinking heart that I noted next to the Prouty family name it said: Lukanga, Zaire.
WHAT? After putting up with the pity if not disgust of all the other well-intended, wonderful, generous caring folks who sincerely wanted to do this who were TOTALLY put off by this obnoxious and completely unlikable person I WANTED AN EXPLANATION why we were still on the list to go to Lukanga as missionaries. Certainly there had to be a mistake.
So, it was with some confusion and consternation that Bob accompanied me to the meeting I’d arranged with the organizers and evaluators of the training program. You can imagine MY dismay when confronted on “WHY ARE WE BEING SENT OUT? AREN”T I COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE FOR THIS KIND OF SITUATION? WASN’T I OBNOXIOUS, RUDE, INSENSITIVE, COMPLETELY UNLIKABLE? “and I was told in reply, “Well, we have to admit that when we got to your name we REALLY deliberated. But, after careful consideration and reflection of all you said and did we realized your opinion about what it would be like was SO NEGATIVE that in comparison you would find it JUST WONDERFUL. So we decided you’ll do a great job!”
OH NO!!! GOD YOU CHEATED. YOU FOILED ME IN MY MASTERFUL PLAN.
So, like a reluctant Jonah I headed off to Zaire. Little did I know that God had some other lessons for me to learn before this would all be over.
Shortly before our arrival our fellow missionaries had managed to find a half bag of sugar, a full bag of flour, some salt, some oil, some powdered milk and a bit of oatmeal for the new missionary family. Those purchases represented about a 6 month’s portion of Bob’s salary. More importantly, it represented the staples for a missionary family living like we were out in the bush. Those were the core ingredients of all your bread and many other basic meals we had day after day. In my view—they were MY lifeline.
So, when four months after arriving at Lukanga my supplies were almost gone, it was with quite some panic I said to the other women that I needed to get more. They understood my need; they too needed the same supplies. But the problem was Idi Amin was still on the rampage in Uganda and all supplies coming from Kenya through Uganda were cut off. And the other main supply route-by boat from Kinshasa to Gisangani and then overland to Butembo–wasn’t working either. Bad rains the year before had all but washed out the only road between the two towns and the hundreds of miles to travel between them took months to navigate. In fact, at the moment when my bag of flour went completely empty the road was officially closed. Trucks were cut off and not coming through.
I was dismayed and beside myself worrying about what I’d do if I couldn’t get my sugar and flour. And short of begging God to work a miracle I contemplated how I’d managed if I couldn’t get what I wanted; what I needed. Hoping for the best Gerard, the business manager for our tiny compound, headed off to Butembo on his next trip to town with a lengthy list of goods to buy. Not only did he have numerous supplies to get for the school but he also needed to buy items for the wives including 4 bags of sugar and 7 bags of flour.
Shopping in Butembo was an exciting experience. It wasn’t exciting because of all the wonderful things there you could buy. Nope. What made it exciting was the possibility you MIGHT be able to get something you need that MAYBE there would be something available as you wandered from one tiny shop to the next. Indeed the NUMBER of stores was something Butembo had no shortage of. And there was LOTS of stuff to buy actually but they all seemed to sell the same sad assortment of items ranging from bottles of glycerin to nuts and bolts to engine oil and truck and car tires. It was just the STUFF you needed that just wasn’t there. There really wasn’t much beyond those few items. And there certainly was no sugar or flour.
In store after store, Gerard asked the same question: Any sugar or flour? And heard the same reply: Nope. None. Everyone wants sugar and flour. Haven’t had any for months. So, done with all his business and with only three things left on his list to purchase—sugar, flour and glass for the new church windows–Gerard began the long trip back to the compound.
Just before you leave Butemo tucked off on the left hand side of the road is amazingly a two-item store that only carried window glass and tires. True to his word that he’d do his best to get us our sugar and flour yet knowing the store would NOT have anything but glass and tires Gerard still asked the owner if he, by chance, had some. Gerard was prepared when he heard the same old reply that there hadn’t been sugar or flour for sale in town for months.
Gerard began negotiating his purchase of the glass and the owner set about getting it cut and wrapping it for the bumpy journey over the horrible roads back to Lukanga. About half way through the transaction the proprietor was called away to take care of some urgent business. A bit baffled he returned a few minutes later. “Just how many bags of sugar and flour were you looking to buy Monsieur? he queried of Gerard.
“Four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour. Why?” Gerard responded.
Shaking his head in disbelief the store owner incredulously blurted out ”Amazing. A truck just rolled in from Gisangani—it’s been on the road for four months. He has exactly four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour on his truck. You can have it if you want it. I can’t believe you were here just when he arrived.”
Four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour. The driver later told Gerard the day he left Gisangani. Will wonders never cease—it was on the same day we arrived in Zaire. That might not seem like such a big deal to you but to me it was a definite, loud, overpowering message from GOD to Diane—“I am watching out for you. This is no coincidence. This was in my master plan all along. Trust in me; count on me; no matter what happens you’ll be okay. I AM here.”
I’m not going to say that my faith like a little mustard seed blossomed and I never doubted or questioned or felt moments of despair ever again. No. It didn’t. But…always, in the back recesses of my memory is the crystal clear recollection of the day Gerard came home with four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour and the joy comes back.