Twenty years ago I disembarked from a British Airways DC10 and stepped into the international terminal at Chicago O’Hare with my wife and two small girls. Twenty-four hours of flying and layovers is typically enough to make anyone’s brain feel like jello and their thoughts foggy – but the compounding of events that led to this moment would forever change me. I was dazed, deadpan, and totally numb.
It was 20 years ago this month – September 1996. Traci, Leah (3), Lauren (1) and myself stepped off that plane to be greeted by my in-laws and great friends, Glen and Allison. The problem with this moment – it was not supposed to happen. We weren’t suppose to be in Chicago.
The moment we stepped onto that British Airways jet at Kenyatta International Airport (Nairobi, Kenya) 24 hours earlier, a 13-year old dream, the expectations of my family, and the trust and support of thousands, quickly and pre-maturely came to an end. It was 20 years ago this month, if it was yesterday.
The 13-Year Dream
In the summer of 1983, God began to direct me and fill my heart with compassion for East Africa. Over the next several years, God would place people in my life and narrow that direction. I knew God was leading me and calling me to Zaire, Africa (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
In 1988 I spent 3 months in Zaire with two other great guys, Curtis and Dan. The missionaries there gave us an incredible experience. I knew two things at the end of that summer:
- I wanted to go home and marry Traci.
- I wanted to get back to Zaire with Traci.
In 1991 Traci and I got to return to Zaire for another 3 month trip. It was a fantastic summer. We returned home to begin processing our experience. We knew God was leading us back, but we didn’t know how yet. Circumstances led us to work with Pioneer Bible Translators. We were going to be a part of a great team – the Hobbies, Harveys, Farmers, and others.
After training to work as a missionary literacy specialist, in April 1996, Traci, myself, and our two small girls boarded the jumbo jet, saying goodbye to our family and friends, and having been sent by thousands from local churches throughout the Midwest. We were flying to Kenya to learn Swahili and get culturally adapted to Africa. We would be joining our colleagues who would be arriving in Tanzania later that year.
We would never meet up with our colleagues.
Battered and defeated, I made the decision to leave the mission field after 6 months. I had stood at the edge of my dream, turned around, and went home.
Why? What Happened?
Make no mistake, I love Africa. “What happened” is a question not easily answered. While I was entering my dream, the fight, the torment, and the spiritual battle raged like nothing I had ever experienced to that point in my life. I loved my time in Kenya, absolutely loved it. We connected with Kenyans in our short time there unlike others who had been there for many years. We were speaking Swahili quite well. I could tell you story after story of all great moments we had in Kenya, with the Kenyans, with the other missionaries, and our African safari. But back at our cottage, night after night, the battle raged until I could take it no more. I stood in the archway between our kitchen and living room and said the words, “Traci, we’re going home.”
So, Rich, what happened? Why did it come to this?
Those are questions that I don’t know if I can answer, still to this day. Why did you leave Kenya? What happened to you guys that you came home early and abandoned your calling and dream?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
I would spend the next 7 years trying to answer those questions. To this day, I still cannot completely answer them. I can explain some of the raw emotions that ran rampant in my waking and sleeping hours. I can tell you about the spiritual battle that took place (although I didn’t recognize it then as a spiritual battle).
So no, I don’t have answers, and it’s a fool’s game to try and piece together the answers. To this day, I am still embarrassed, and I am still ashamed of my actions and decisions I made 20 years ago. Maybe one day I can sit down face-to-face with Jesus and he can bring clarity and understanding to a very foggy time in my life.
When I got back to the States, I wanted nothing to do with anyone. I had let down thousands of people. I was judged harshly, yet justly, by many. I was a disgrace. I didn’t want anything to do with God, and I certainly didn’t want anything to do with the churches I had been a part of.
Even though I thought I didn’t want anything to do with God, that wasn’t true. I wanted Him more than ever, and I knew He alone could rescue me from this situation, from my torment, and from myself.
About 6 months after returning home from Africa, after weeks and months of sobbing, anger, crying out, and confusion, God spoke very clearly to me — in His grace. He hadn’t turned His back on me. He revealed to me a bitterness that had taken root deeply in my life from prior years. That bitterness was destroying me… and it had played a part of the destruction of my dream, my purpose, and my calling.
God then led me back to the churches and individuals that had been so instrumental in sending us to Africa. I spent the next 3 months visiting and speaking to them, and asking for their forgiveness. I confessed my bitterness and that I was truly sorry for breaking their trust.
Texas – God’s Promised Land
One fateful decision in 1996 brought my family and I home from Africa. Many stalwart trees of trust had been cut down. Our family and a few close friends offered us support and love. In 1997 we moved to Texas to start a new life.
The next decade was a time for us to heal and recover. We had some deep, deep wounds, some self-inflicted, some from the enemy. I am deeply grateful for the 13 years we spent at Grace Community Church in Arlington, TX. Gary, Tim, Bernie, and Jerry were a huge part of not only the healing, but also the rebuilding.
Texas became our home. Our children have grown up here. In 2003, God led me into a new calling, a new purpose, and a new focus. Texas became our Promised Land — a land overflowing with God’s provision.
“Rich, do you ever regret leaving Africa and all that happened?”
Even though there is still some embarrassment and shame associated with that event, the answer is a very clear “No.” I have zero regrets.
I did for 7 or 8 years, but I have absolutely no regrets today. I love who our kids have become. I love our friends. I love our church. I love the work I have been able to do.
I know the enemy, the accuser, would love for me to look backwards and regret all that happened and live defeated. But, the life I have now is so incredible. God restored me, gave me a new purpose, and has blessed me. I love my life. I absolutely do!
Part of the question in asking if I have any regrets is asking if I could change things, would I? The only thing I would change is that it took me 7 or 8 years to figure this out. I believe God had my answer, but He was waiting for me to make the journey to the answer. I took the long way.
So 20 years ago I left for and returned from Africa. It was a rough journey at times, but if I have learned anything, it is that God is full of grace, full of mercy. His mercies are new every morning. Like Moses and Jonah who also ran, they found that God is rich in mercy and second chances. God’s call is irrevocable (Romans 11). My ministry may not be in Africa, but His call remains on my life and I am living the dream here in Texas with my family, my friends, and my church.
Let me wrap this up by saying this – what the enemy intended for harm, God has used it for good. We have come out better and stronger, and I believe (like it says in Job), my latter days will be better than my former days.