Our Saturday morning field service group had swelled to about 30, just beyond what Augustín could comfortably manage. Being the former air traffic controller for Bangui meant he was no stranger to organization or directing a group. To simplify matters, he sent those with studies on their way so the rest of us could be paired to preach in the business territory in town.
“Who has arrangements to work with who?” Augustin asked.
“Frère Joel and I have arrangements” came from the bench next to me. In the shuffle of the dismissal, Cheik had risen from his seat and come to sit next to me. I was completely surprised but not at all unhappy. Cheik is a tall, lanky, mild mannered brother with a quiet, smiley disposition who passed 50 a few years ago. He speaks softly, but preaches fiercely when the occasion calls for it. We had preached together before on numerous occasions, and I always felt like we were a team when went into the territory. Since he was moving to Cameroon the following week, I was glad to have this opportunity to spend some time with him. I thanked him for the “invitation” and he said “I couldn’t leave my brother without preaching together one last time.”
Cheik has a fascinating story. He is from Niger, the son of a Senegalese father and Djerma mother. He speaks Wolof, Hausa, and Djerma and was raised as a Muslim. At about the age of thirty (he’s not sure when) a missionary in Niger first shared the good news with him and he knew it was the truth. His family pressured him to leave it, but they did not take his new-found interest seriously until he told them he wanted to get baptized. He dearly loved his mother and feared displeasing her, but in the end reasoned with her, “you gave me life, for which I will always be grateful, but only Jehovah can give me eternal life. I must make my choice.” After his father’s death, he was denied his portion of the inheritance and effectively cut off from the family. Pressure boiled over into persecution and he began to fear for his life. So in 2001 he fled to Bangui, where he was granted religious asylum. The same year he was baptized. During the coup in 2004, he fled again, this time to Cameroon, where he stayed for a year. He returned to Bangui where he was able to regular pioneer for three years. All along, he said the words of Mark 10:29,30 proved true to the word. Jehovah never failed him and he was never alone.
I enjoyed his informal autobiography as we made our way from one business to another. The end of the rainy season is a very pleasant time in the city. Shopkeepers repaint the façades of their stores and the city had hired extra men to trim the vegetation along the road.
We passed a group of men were busy cleaning out a drainage canal that had filled with soil, ten feet deep, full of roots and vegetation. All of it had accumulated in the last six months. Passing a photo lab, we caught sight of a young woman perched on a stool awash in the morning sun. Two men walked around her – one stopped in front and pulled a camera out of one pocket and two batteries out of the other. The other stopped behind her and unfolded a piece of fabric which he held up as a background. The first inserted the batteries, the young lady flashed a smile, and he took the shot even as the low battery indicator flashed red. The fabric came down and the batteries came out, to be preserved for one more shot. Five minutes later she had a photo in her hand, probably for a student identity card. African economy and efficiency at its best.
Cheik and I finished our section of the block and the sun was starting to intensify. He invited me to go with him on a bible study. It was about two miles away. With a few long strides we left the noisy city center behind.
The road was long and dusty but breezy and cool, probably around 85 degrees, cool for the equator. We arrived at the house about 30 minutes later. We were met by De Rossi, a university student with a broad smile. He was friendly and eager to start his study. He brought three chairs and a table outside, then ran back in to get his books. Cheik turned to me and asked in his calm, sonorous voice, “would you mind continuing the study after I leave? Maybe you could conduct today to see how he does.” I accepted and De Rossi returned. The study started well, but abruptly halted after the first paragraph. All I had done was ask Cheik to continue reading paragraph two and they both looked at me with a serious stare. De Rossi broke the silence with his big smile and said “please, I believe this is the truth and want to learn it well. May I please read all of the paragraphs?” Not a problem. This was only his third study, but seeing that his Catholic bible had deleted God’s name, he asked if we could bring him a New World Translation. It would be a pleasure.
On the road home, I asked Cheik why he was leaving Bangui this time. He said he hadn’t been paid in four months. If he waits for his boss to pay him, he will only continue to eat away at the little money he has left, effectively going into debt to wait for a check that might never arrive. He had a point. “And there’s another reason too,” he continued. “Back in Cameroon, I’ve asked a sister to marry me. It hurts me to be away from her. The sooner I get back, the sooner I can start saving for the dowry.” How happy he must have been to have not given up. When he made the choice that severed the ties with his fleshly family, he must have weighed the decision carefully, painfully. And now, almost a decade after standing up for his faith, he would have a family of his own.