Rendezvous With God
By Gideon and Pam Petersen
That’s the stuff of “real mission stories.” For us, “real mission stories” spoke of daring and transformed lives. We grew up in South Africa, and hearing mission stories ignited a desire to embrace missions as our life calling. This is the story of our journey into missions.
Our first cross-cultural mission experience was with a group of college friends in the mountains of Lesotho. We gave a mission school a facelift, painting and fixing the buildings. We also conducted a church service. Our first mission lesson: “Adapt to the situation!” Only much later did we fully comprehend the importance of that lesson.
Later we went to serve as student missionaries in Lesotho. Pam taught for two years at a village mission school. Gideon assisted with Bible outreach and community development, installing wells and doing construction work. It was while working in the Tsoinyane Valley that we decided to unite our lives for the service of others.
In Cape Town, while finishing our university studies, we had a few short-term experiences that kept the mission flame burning. These allowed us to be open when God called us to a cross-cultural church plant among an unreached people group, the Himba, in northwest Namibia. It was a dream come true: We would serve as frontline missionaries.
Learning And Unlearning
In 1995 we loaded our pickup and traveled with our two cats 2,500 kilometers (1,560 miles) north to Opuwo, Namibia. A seasoned missionary had given us valuable counsel: “Take time to be with the people.” With this and other counsel we ventured into a new life, one that would last for 17 years.
We arrived in Namibia knowing that we faced an enormous task. Like other missionaries before us, we were convinced that the Himba ways were wrong and that we had to correct them. This assumption, we later learned, was detrimental to our interaction with the people. It implied that we approached the people with answers before taking the time to listen to their questions.
In addition, our interactions with the people were based on our worldview. They focused on the fundamental beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists in a Western context, not about issues that would matter to someone who was a Himba. We had no idea what it meant to be a Himba, yet we dared to correct their behavior.
We did not really understand the counsel we had received: “Take time to be with the people,” suggesting we approach the people as learners, not teachers. As missionaries, we assumed our role was to teach; in reality, it was to be taught. We encountered people with totally different ways of doing things. The Himba are cattle farmers. Being nomadic, they are always in search of grazing and water for their animals. (Gideon was raised in a city, and Pam comes from a rural community.)
Ellen White says Jesus took time to be with people for the purpose of understanding them.1 Taking time to learn and understand people is an essential principle. This can be done through books, but not exclusively. Learning is best done in community. Tom and Betty Brewster call this community the classroom.2
We assumed that because the Himba could not read and write they needed an education. This is just one of the challenges we addressed without understanding. Learning about the people we serve is an essential mission principle. In fact, it’s a basic public speaking principle: know the audience. We learned only later how to apply it in our ministry.
The second assumption we made was that once they knew about God, their ways would change. After one year of preaching to 10 families with no resulting baptisms, we realized something was amiss. Either our persuasive skills were lacking or the people were not interested.
A missionary friend enquired about our experience. After listening to our frustrations, he asked: “Do you love the people?”
That question forever changed our ministry. Our focus had been on disseminating information (“sharing the truth”). But God wanted us to have a relationship with the people. For the first time, we understood why God’s greatest desire is to dwell among His people. We finally understood the implication of the question: “Do you love the people?” We were representing a God who desired to be with His people and have a relationship with them. This is the Advent message: God coming to humanity through willing instruments.
We spent our first vacation in the library, where we studied as much as we could about the Himba. We returned determined to change the way we did ministry. By taking time to be with the people, loving them became natural. We understood them as they shared with us about themselves and guided us in our understanding of their culture.
New Communication Skills
In 1997, while teaching a literacy class, an older woman said: “Help me write my name.” She wanted to see her name by reading it. She struggled for almost five minutes.
This experience forced us to ask ourselves: “Do we really expect these people to read the Bible from cover to cover if they can’t write their own names?”
The response was direct and quick. “No!” We were challenged to learn more about their oral culture. This took our journey in a new direction. In the book Christ’s Object Lessons Ellen White wrote about how Jesus used things with which people were familiar to lead people to understand spiritual things.3 When communicating the gospel, we discovered, it’s important to use genre, language, and images familiar to the audience.
We determined to understand Himba communication. We packed away our felts and other visual aids, because they were foreign, unfamiliar to our Himba audience. We wanted to use Himba communication styles to share the gospel.
To affirm the value of what we were learning, God guided us to a Web site that promoted an orality conference. In 2003 we attended our first International Orality Network (ION) conference. Here we saw how other missionaries were using oral communication methods. We identified with Elijah when he learned that 7,000 others had not bowed to Baal. God was using other missionaries in a similar way. We returned refreshed and excited about what God was going to do for the Himba.
For the next five years we developed oral evangelistic material. Oral evangelism is based on stories. Yet it’s not merely telling the Bible story. It’s placing the Bible story within the worldview of the Himba and challenging that worldview.
Oral evangelism isn’t just talking; it’s using genres familiar to the audience. In the case of the Himba it meant using praise songs (ombimbi, omuhiva), poetry (omiimbo), proverbs (omiano), and drama. With Himbas our Western hymns and gospel songs had little relevance. We had to use familiar genres to guide people to understand eternal lessons.
It took a long time to develop these lessons. God’s timing, however, is always best. We were challenged to share the oral evangelistic material with the people.
With the coming of technology (and after attending another ION conference) we learned about the “Godpod,” a solar-powered MP3 player. Unfortunately, these were expensive. God, however, had the answer long before we asked. We were invited to participate in the Thirteenth Sabbath Offering. Thanks to that offering, the world church assisted us in purchasing and distributing Godpods, into which we loaded our oral evangelistic presentations. (Thank you for your mission offerings of August 2012!)
Although we are no longer in the area, God has provided workers to continue the work. We established a church in the area, with a trained minister who worked with us and understands the value of using oral methods.
God’s Heart for Missionaries
These experiences transformed our understanding of mission. For us, mission was about going; it was about giving. Our journey from Cape Town, South Africa, to Opuwo, Namibia, was transformational.
We realized that our understanding of God was too small. We learned that God is bigger than the little box with which we defined Him. We had to expand our concept of God. This is where we understood the name God used to identify Himself to Moses, I AM. He truly is I AM. He is God to the Himba, as well as God to city dwellers. We stand in awe of such an amazing God.
We believed ourselves to be agents of change, but God wanted to change us. His purpose was for us to be instruments of His peace, and for us to learn how to experience His peace and love. We learned that mission is indeed a “two-way street,”4 where missionaries enter the presence of the Almighty so He can send them into the world.
The most transformational lesson we learned was about ourselves. As missionaries we were called to serve the Himba. We were asked to introduce the Himba to Jesus. The more we engaged the people, the stronger the bond became. And the more we fell in love with the people, the more God transformed us as His children.
Mission is transformational when we surrender to the One who sends us daily into the world. Mission begins in worship, and it ends in inviting others to join us in worship. We thank God for the experience of being part of His mission. It was truly our rendezvous with God.
1 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,1905), p. 143.
2 Tom and Betty Brewster, Community Is My Language Classroom (Pasadena, Calif.: Lingua House Ministries, 1986).
3 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 17.
4 Jon Dybdahl, Missions: A Two-way Street (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1986).
Gideon and Pam Petersen spent 18 years doing church planting in Namibia, and served as training consultants for Adventist Frontier Missions. They now serve at Zurcher Adventist University in Madagascar.