There really are no words to really accurately describe our arrival at the airport in Accra, Ghana’s capitol, on that hot and muggy night, April 14, 1984. It was a total assault on my person and every one of my senses stood at attention as I stepped off the plane. I was certain that every mosquito on the western coast of Africa was aiming for me and that every one of them was carrying malaria, ready to infect and kill me. As we approached the door of the airplane it became obvious this was a new world. No fancy Jetway to carry us to the airport. Steps down from the plane. The humidity was such that by the time we got to the door of the airport I imagined my clothes leaving a trail of sweat behind my already dragging feet. The cool air conditioning of the airplane was already forgotten. Smells were coming at me from every direction, not all of them necessarily pleasant. (Barbara Kingsolver, in her book The Poisonwood Bible, described America as “a country devoid of smells”. Our noses would never be the same!) It was literally almost more than I could dream of taking in at that moment in time. Anyone arriving in Ghana today would never recognize the descent into darkness we experienced walking into Kotoka International Airport that memorable night. There was something a little bit thrilling about it, but mostly it was horrifying and terrifying at the same time. We had arrived.
Our only option coming off the plane was to “follow the crowd” so that was what we did. Would someone be there to meet us? What would we do if news of our arrival had not reached here? Follow the crowd.
On entering the building, chaos is the only way I can describe the scene. First of all, we entered into a hallway devoid of windows with an old ceiling fan that had long since ceased to work, one blade tilted almost straight down. The only air coming in was from the door we’d just entered, so that, combined with all the bodies made it almost unbearable. There was one small table up ahead with a kid, must have been in his teens, taking immigration cards and stamping them. But it looked like 5 lines all trying to get to that same desk. My western idea of a queue flew out the window as it became obvious that you shove your way toward the front of the line where you stick your papers into the official’s face and wait until you’re lucky enough for him to pick you. This is a lesson we’ve had to learn over and over. If you’re timid you might as well just take a seat and wait until everyone is done. You’re last.
Once past immigration we continued to move with the crowd. In fact at one point I wondered if my feet are even touching the ground or if was just being moved along by the flow of bodies? Finally, standing in line we hear a familiar accent (well, German, but it was obviously different from the others we were hearing!) “Are you Tim and Beth Heiney?” I wondered immediately if he knew that from the lack of other white faces or from the sheer terror he saw registered in our eyes? “YES! Yes we are!” Fred Weihmann was the business manager at that time for the LCMS and he had come to shepherd us through the rest of this madness and take us to his home. Thank you, Jesus. We were never so relieved to see a stranger as that moment. He guided us through the next several stations and into the luggage area. More crowds, sweat and smells. Men everywhere, offering to “help.” And did I mention that soldiers armed with AK-47s walked all over the building? Once we had our luggage we thought we were finished, but no. Because we’d sent a shipment of goods to follow us, now we must fill out an “Unaccompanied Baggage” form. I felt like we were there for hours. By now I’m ready to melt into a puddle on the floor.
Papers presented and stamped, all forms filled and baggage loaded into the car, we piled into the vehicle headed for Tema, where Fred lived with his wife Monika and two sons, Byron and Donovan. We’d be staying with them while we worked to complete all the legalities necessary to live in the country. During the ride I mentioned all the soldiers we’d seen. It was then we heard the story of a missionary that was recently getting ready to leave the country and was accidentally shot and killed on his way to the airport. Suddenly this was all becoming frighteningly real.
I feel like we were somewhere along a very long cusp of the idea of missionaries going out to the field ready to die, and those with a question mark of whether or not they would return. We certainly realized there’s always danger when you travel, and we had no idea what we would be finding. We’d read plenty of missionary stories by then of people like Jim Elliot and Hudson Taylor, those who either gave their own lives or had to watch members of their family die. In fact when we left, Tim’s father said good bye as if we might never see each other again. We certainly had to ask ourselves if we believed in what we were doing enough to suffer, if not die for it. Sitting in that car that night, the reality of the gravity of what we were doing flashed before me in living color.
There are a few things the Lord has taught me over the years:
- God IS in control! He is in total control of what happens to me, when it happens, why it happens and if it happens. If you ever have doubt of that, just read through Job 38-41. God’s first words in chapter 38 should bring you to your knees: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” Was God there when that missionary was shot on the way to the airport? Of course He was. Just this last week there was another story of an entire family killed in a car accident on their way to missionary training. Was God around? Absolutely. And He is sovereign. There are things we will never understand until we stand before Him one day. But we can know without doubt that He is not caught off guard or asleep on the job.
- Safety is NOT your god! When we shy away from something because it may involve danger, or be uncomfortable for us in some way, we are putting our safety above God’s call to us. In America now this is rampant. And it is a First World luxury. From the book “The Hidden Price of Greatness” (Beeson and Hunsicker): “Martyrdom is a fact of life in at least 50 countries.” When we pull away from something to which God has called us, we deny God the privilege of glorifying Himself in what He can do through us, be it by our life or our death. I love telling stories of how God has saved us from so many things, and those are just the ones I know about! God brings glory to Himself through His servants.
- By denying our calling we often deny ourselves and opportunity to grow. It’s easy to live the status quo, day by day getting up, going to work, coming home, eating dinner and starting the same the next day. Church on Sunday if there is nothing else to do, kids’ sporting events, school, etc. But if God has called us to another life He has a reason and He wants to grow us into so much more! I have often told people that even having lived through all we have, I wouldn’t change it for anything. Through it I have grown closer to my Creator which is more important to me than anything else.
- Death is NOT the end. We as Christians know that of course, so why do we hold onto our lives at any expense, even if it means the salvation of others? Most of the world’s lost are found in places that are no fun to live, hot, and dangerous. What does that say about our priorities?
Because I’m a Lutheran I’m going to add some Gospel to all that Law! God can and wants to use you. You don’t have to decide how, when or where. God has done and will do it all! I challenge you to pray each night this month (but you have to mean it): “Father, I want to follow Your will. Lead me to what you want me to do for You, and I will follow.” Just as Jesus took 12 unqualified men from several walks of life and changed the entire world, He can use you if you just open yourself up to whatever He has created you for…since the foundation of the world!