Packing for Rwanda was not a big deal. I sort of felt like I was going home, though I had never been to Rwanda. As a Missionary Kid from Tanzania, the neighbor to Rwanda, I knew there were many similarities; and like when I was 15 years old and heading to Africa for the first time with my family, I welcomed the adventure and the new assignment from God without fear.
Our team of 26 women drove through the capital of Rwanda, Kigali to get to the 2-day women’s conference that we were hosting. The city was a surprise! Clean and manicured in every direction, “the Switzerland of Africa.” Six hundred women came from across the country, babies on their backs, with a hunger to worship and be equipped to go back and continue their ministry as pastors, pastors’ wives, and church leaders. Sharing dance moves, worshiping Jesus, learning each others’ welcome words, and holding babies, all created this beautiful bond that transcended language. All the miracles and moments when we saw God at work around us would take pages to write. And the miracles and moments that we don’t know and did not see will take eternity to tell because He does immeasurably more than we could think or imagine!
Sunday, the sixth and last full day in Rwanda, I did see God working a miracle-redemption. Redemption is when you get back something that was lost or stolen. It is the fact that Jesus paid so we could be saved from death. And Jesus is still saving us from the death that sin continues to bring us. Amen? Amen!
At the Saturday night team debrief, I ugly cried as I shared about a death of the soul. Being in Rwanda was triggering places that had been locked away in me for decades. As a teen missionary kid I wanted so much to be on the forefront with my parents in ministry and dreamed of preaching and teaching. I see now that it was naïve in many ways in such a male-dominated environment. Satan used that disappointment to plant a lie in me that there was no place in ministry for me and my gifts, especially as a woman, and especially in missions. But God knew me and he saw me! God spoke so tenderly to me and said, “I saw you as a 16-year-old girl who wanted to preach!” Insert lots of tears! My Father saw my heart way back then, he knows the pain that was so deep, and here I was, back in Africa . .
As I was struggling being a missionary kid in Africa, my fellow mission trip teammate Joanna was growing up in Minnesota with drugs on the coffee table and abuse beyond abuse. Her story could match any you might hear from a Teen Challenge testimony. She struggled even after getting saved with drugs, sex, alcohol, and a deep sense of worthlessness. It was a miracle in every way that Joanna was with me that Sunday morning, our last day in Rwanda.
Getting ready to go, I put on my favorite African dress that I had received as a 16-year-old girl. That dress was my stake-in-the-ground moment! I had been asked to preach in a local church that morning! The server for breakfast helped me tie the wrap skirt so it would not come off. I grabbed my sermon notes. I felt calm and free. I have preached before—this was not new. What was new was the freedom that comes from a healed heart. My Father knew there were parts of my soul that still stung from the effects of sin, and he was gently healing—bringing redemption. God was fulfilling my 16-year-old heart’s desire and whispering, “There is a place of ministry for you. Today is one of them.”
Joanna, one of the local missionaries and I got in the car of beautiful Alfronseen and her husband John Paul from the church where I would speak. I quickly wrote down their names so I wouldn’t forget. As we drove to church they told us of their Sunday night ministry for the past 2 years to unsaved women. They were wealthy and successful, she a dentist and he a businessman with children in college in Canada. All they could talk about were these women they are working with and their struggles of addiction, alcohol, sex. I said, “This is my friend Joanna and she became a Christian 4 years ago after addiction.” Joanna jumped in with a few testimony highlights and how she is now walking others through addiction. They immediately invited us to their Sunday night gathering. God had planned an unexpected surprise for us that day.
Church was everything that I remembered an African service to be, and it felt like home. We sat in the honored seats, we worshiped and danced with the children’s choir and then the young marrieds’ choir and then the offering choir. We walked to the front with everyone else to give our offering. “The band” consisted of one man on a super human synthesizer that kept the beat for each choir. He would take a second of fiddling to get it going and then they would start with one lead and the others following and always with motions that would crescendo with the music.
They called me up to preach, and I presented our gifts, honored the pastor (He was super great!), and taught on Colossians—encouraging them to live as people hungry for the Word of God which, as Paul taught, would help them to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. I showed them that Colossians teaches that in Jesus all things hold together; and since that is the truth—then as we all hear and maybe have fear over the Coronavirus—we can stand strong that all things WILL hold together. There were many murmurs of agreement on that point, as the Coronavirus crisis was just starting to ramp up.
Lunch at Pastor Anteri’s house was delightful as we met his wife, children, elderly grandmother, and his beloved cow who lived among 100 banana trees on his property. For dessert we drank a big mug filled with fresh milk. My lactose sensitive stomach never felt a thing. We prayed for the pastor and his wife and left with enough time to meet Alfronseen and her husband at the Assembly of God Bible College where they held their women’s group each week.
A Bluetooth speaker was playing worship music as we all milled around in a room with cement floors and windows with bars. Passing around our phones with photos of our families and sharing our gum with everyone broke the awkwardness. Taking a seat around four tables all pushed together, Joanna pulled up the notes on her phone and started from the beginning of her story. “My Dad verbally and physically abused us before He left, and I never saw Him again. My mom was unable to defend us. As a 5 year old, I thought my Dad was right, I was stupid.”
For over an hour you could have heard a pin drop. Layer by layer Joanna talked about rape, drugs, husbands, and the messages about her identity that she had internalized through each horrible part. When an overdose landed her in ICU and then rehab, a former addict, now a pastor, came to visit her with a new message.
You should have heard Joanna, a relatively baby Christian preach—not with eloquent stage presence and perfect illustrations, but with an anointing that comes when God wants to show the world that he and only he buys you back from the pit of hell and makes all things new! Only our God can replace the lies that the enemy wants us to believe about ourselves, making them into beautiful messages of adoption and belonging.
It was dark outside when Joanna ended her story with the most powerful ending of any sermon I had ever heard. She said, “I don’t see myself as worthless or stupid. I don’t see myself as unforgivable. I know that I am chosen. I know that I am loved. I know that I am forgiven and set free.” She said, “I am clean! I have never felt clean my entire life. Now, I am clean inside and out.”
We ducked out of the meeting before it finished, Alfronseen came out behind us. She was overcome. Hugging Joanna, she kept saying, “You said everything they needed to hear.” Joanna had touched every topic she knew the women struggled with and spoke to their true identity. We praised the Lord together and agreed, “Only God could have brought us together on this night.”
Redemption had come that day for me, for Joanna, and I believe for the women in that group. That Sunday was International Women’s Day, and God showed us what a tender, caring Father He is to us, His daughters – He saves us, heals us and uses us.
Stacy Bellward is a Bible Study teacher, an award-winning author, produces online courses, and is a wife and mom of two teen girls. You can connect with her at Stacy@bellward.com.
This is lovely and so tenderly encouraging to see how God has healed wounds inside you and Joanna, and these strong Rwandan women too, for his glory!
Rejoicing with you,
Thanks Jennifer! God does heal wounds – He is so good!
Stacy that was so powerful and anointed!! Thank you so much for sharing!❤️
Thank you Sue!
Stacy, what an Awesome job you did capturing all this from ‘our’ Rwanda trip; even great photos! Thank you for following God’s calling on your life!!
Such a beautiful, redemptive story. Thank you for sharing it with us. I love that God is using you in missions, and he continues to bring a deep seated dream to live. God is the one who does what seems impossible!
Isn’t God amazing? Nothing is wasted. You gave hope. Sweet sisters.
Thank you Sue!