Chapter Onenotes from the front
Death hides in the tall grass of Southern Sudan. What looks like empty landscape can explode in a heartbeat with rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army shooting, slashing, and burning their way through an unsuspecting village. Government officials and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations, like CARE, the United Nations, and the Red Cross) give these renegade soldiers a wide berth; they usually know where the trouble areas are and steer clear of them. Local residents, left to make it on their own, are constantly on edge, always afraid. There are no peaceful nights in the bush. None, that is, except in one place—a forty-acre island of safety and calm in the middle of a hellish, endless civil war. The Shekinah Fellowship Children's Village.
The struggle to keep it secure never stops.
Gunfire crackles here and there outside the perimeter fence day and night. Whenever I travel in the area, I expect to get ambushed. I've had my windshield and my side window shot out. I've had vehicles, including a food truck loaded with groceries for the orphanage, blown up by RPGs. The LRA will shoot at anything, but they're not used to anybody shooting back. They don't expect to be up against a truckload of soldiers with plenty of guns and ammo, which is what they get when they tangle with us on the road.
When I first started driving around in Southern Sudan, my soldiers and I got ambushed all the time. To any normal person that would be a bad thing, but I thought it was great. I went around hoping the LRA would ambush us because every time they did, it gave me another chance to take one of them out—leaving one less LRA soldier to hurt somebody else. Governments can't run and hide forever, and one thing's for sure—negotiating is a waste of time. Who knows how many villagers have been killed while people sit around talking about what a big problem all this is. But when you go out and kill some of the enemy, you're making progress. You're speaking the LRA's language, and suddenly you've got their attention. Less talking and more shooting would bring this whole conflict to an end a lot sooner and save who knows how many lives.
I once got an e-mail from an Irishman who said that when he first started hearing stories about me years ago, he thought I was a myth. He thought some of these reports were pure fiction and that my work in Africa was all a tall tale. I absolutely agree with him; the stories are hard to believe. If you come into Sudan even today, you'll hear what people call myths about this crazy mzunga preacher (mzunga is the local African word for a white guy). As unbelievable as the myths sound, they're the absolute truth. The important thing to remember, though, is that it was never me doing all these incredible, even miraculous things. It was always God. His power is the driving force behind every victory, every success. He's always with us.
I say "us" because whenever I travel anywhere in Africa, I always have soldiers with me. They are not mercenaries, though the news media often call them that. Frankly I don't care what they call them. These brave members of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army have been trained, equipped, and put under my personal command by the Southern Sudanese government.
One day I was crossing the border from Sudan into Uganda with two trucks and four well-armed, well-trained troops. We stopped at the border checkpoint. There were a few Ugandan soldiers standing around a dusty little guard shack that needed a coat of paint. A couple of weather-beaten signs instructed drivers to halt at a zebra-striped board blocking the roadway. By this time all the border guards knew me and they didn't make me go through any of the usual paperwork or luggage inspection routine.
As I stopped beside one of the guards, he said, "Pastor, you can't go any further."
"The LRA is attacking a village just ahead. You must wait until there are enough soldiers to go with you."
"Come on, that's nonsense!" I said, pointing to my squad of uniformed men and at the AK-47 resting in my lap. "We're soldiers. We don't need to wait for anybody."
The guard looked at me with a serious expression. "Pastor, there's over two hundred LRA out there."
Five of us, including me, against two hundred. I liked those odds. I figured each of us was equal to forty of them, so it would work out just about right.
"I'm going," I said. The guard cracked a little smile, shook his head, and took a step back from the truck. He knew he wasn't going to change my mind. As I was about to pull out, I sensed God telling me to prepare for what was ahead. He wanted me to station a soldier named Peter on the roof of the truck with his .30 caliber machine gun. Peter Atem is a tall, regal-looking Dinka.
"Peter," I said, "grab your .30 cal and hop up on the roof." Without hesitation he got out, climbed up, and sat cross-legged, cradling the big .30 cal in his arms. Another soldier sat next to me in the front seat with his AK. I had my AK across my knees with the barrel pointed at the driver-side door; that way I could pick it up and shoot one-handed while driving. Fully automatic, three- and four-shot bursts. I've done it plenty of times.
I put another soldier on the roof of the second truck, then heard God tell me, You start driving. I eased off down the road with the other truck close behind. The road was rutted and dusty, so rough that you really couldn't go more than twenty-five or thirty miles per hour, especially if you had a soldier with a machine gun on your roof. Even at that speed sometimes you'd think it was going to shake your liver loose.
But plans for that particular day did not include keeping my liver happy. As we bounced and rattled along, God said, Drive faster.
Okay, God, if you say so. I picked up more speed and heard the truck following us rev its engine to keep up.
Faster, God said to me. Faster. Faster. And so I drove faster and faster until I thought I couldn't keep control of the wheel. My hefty Land Cruiser was screaming along across the dirt, pounding into ruts, flying over rocks, shaking in midair like a Chihuahua passing a peach pit.
When all four tires went airborne at once, Peter started hollering from up on top. "Pastor! Pastor! I can't hang on any more!" He had one hand gripping his .30 cal and the other through the window opening, braced against the ceiling inside, legs flailing like a bull rider.
Looking ahead I saw a tower of smoke a long way off, billowing up out of the dry brown grass. As we got closer, I could see LRA soldiers chasing villagers across a wavy, heat-distorted scene, flames and smoke roiling out from the burning tukuls, the villagers' round thatched huts with mud brick walls. There was chaos and commotion, screaming and moaning from one end of the village to the other.
God spoke to me again. Tell Peter to start shooting. Peter was a trained bodyguard and a dedicated soldier. He would do whatever I told him without question. I stuck my head out the window and hollered up at the top of the Land Cruiser, "Peter, start shooting!" Immediately his .30 cal started spitting fire. The bullets for a .30 caliber are on a big ammo belt that you feed in one side of the chamber. I could hear spent shells flying out of the magazine and hitting the roof of the truck like metal rain—tink! tink! tink! tink!
As Peter started shooting, I took a glance at my side mirror and saw what I thought must be some kind of optical illusion. Speeding along the road, our two trucks had kicked up a massive cloud of dust that swirled up behind us as high and far as the eye could see. I looked in front of me. When the enemy heard Peter's machine gun fire, they looked at the road and saw the huge dust cloud. They thought a whole army was marching down on them. They turned tail and started running away as fast as their cowardly little legs could take them. I never saw anything close to two hundred soldiers. There were maybe thirty of them, and all I saw were their backs as they ran. The element of surprise allowed us to stop the complete destruction of that village with four soldiers, a mzunga, and a cloud of dust.
God protects me in Africa in amazing ways. Sometimes he works long-distance. There are times when I'm in Nimule—the nearest town with such luxuries as electricity and paved roads—and my wife back home in Pennsylvania will wake up to pray for me. She gets out of bed, writes down the date and time, and starts praying. One night God woke her up and told her to go to church and pray. When she got to church, there was another member of our church already there who said God woke her up too and told her to come to the church and pray. The two of them prayed, "God, hide them from the enemy," not knowing where my soldiers and I were at that moment or what we were doing.
Looking at Lynn's prayer journal later, we realized she and her friend were praying exactly at the time my soldiers and I were in an area where the LRA had just staged an ambush. As we arrived, we saw to our amazement that the LRA was rooted in place alongside the road. They could have attacked us by surprise, but they didn't move. Some of them were actually face down in the dirt. You could see them shaking, hiding their faces. They were scared to death, and they wouldn't be that scared of us. I believe what happened that day was they were getting ready to ambush us (and would have killed us in a heartbeat), but God had a mighty army of giant angels traveling with us. I believe that these LRA soldiers saw those angels and trembled in fear of them as we drove by. Those cowards never lifted a finger. You can believe it or not, but that's exactly what happened.
That has actually happened more than once. Another time we were again driving in an area where the LRA was everywhere. A soldier named Thomas and two other soldiers were with me. We had three AKs inside of the vehicle and that was it; this time we were way outgunned. We were driving as fast as we could to get through this war zone. We came around the corner, and there they were—LRA soldiers walking the road single file. I said to myself instantly, "Oh God! Oh God!"
But all of a sudden it was as if we were driving by these guys in slow motion. We felt like we were on Matrix time. As we got closer, they didn't look up at the sound of our engines. Instead, their faces were down and they looked at the ground. They were on the road directly in front of us. It was impossible that they didn't see and hear us. Yet they never looked up except for some who looked in another direction away from us. I looked at Thomas in slow motion and said, "Thomas, these are LRA." He looked at me as scared as could be and said, "Yes, Pastor. Keep praying." We drove by these men, and they never looked up once. We should have been pinned down and had a nasty firefight on our hands. Instead, we drove by completely unnoticed.
I've been ambushed so many times that the stories run together, but I can tell them all day. In another instance, we came around a turn in the road and stopped. Probably a hundred yards or so away were LRA soldiers lying on the road with two .30 cals on tripods. As I got out of the car, the Holy Spirit instantly spoke to me. Grab your gun. I reached on the seat and grabbed my AK. I didn't have a shell in the chamber, so I slammed it back and loaded a round. As soon as that shell went into that chamber, all hell broke out.
Everything went into slow motion again. (Before I got used to being ambushed, I felt that sensation a lot.) I started running, heading for a little gully alongside the road and emptying my clip before I got there. I dove into the hole and pulled the empty clip out; I always tape two clips together end to end so I can change them faster. I was so nervous and shook up I couldn't get my full clip back in the gun. I looked up and saw my SPLA soldiers jumping off the vehicles, then walking down the center of the road toward the enemy, firing automatic bursts as they went. I was in my gully hole scared to death, trembling. I hollered at the guys and thought, Oh my God, my men are all gonna get killed, and the LRA soldiers are gonna capture me and torture me. A white guy would be a trophy catch, and they would make the most of the opportunity.
My squad kept walking down the center of the road firing their AKs, blanketing the roadway with lead. They'd empty a clip, pull it out, throw it over their shoulder, slam another clip in, and resume fire, walking the whole time, never slowing down. Finally the enemy broke and ran. None of our guys was hurt. Afterward I remember a crazy thought going through my head: We think Rambo was a fighting machine. These SPLA soldiers are the real Rambo.
So many times my experiences remind me of how one person can make a difference, and I find I need reminding from time to time. When you look at me and our tiny operation it's easy to think, That ragtag little outfit can't help anybody. Life proves otherwise. One time we came into a village on the Juba Road that had just been raided. Small fires were still burning here and there. The smoky air carried the sharp stench of burning flesh and the cries of the wounded calling out weakly for help. Some of the victims had collapsed along the road trying to escape and lay dying in pools of their own blood. Too far gone to talk, they spoke worlds with their vacant, hopeless eyes.
We heard a commotion and saw a cluster of LRA around a young woman not far off. I thought all the rebels had turned tail and run. This bunch had been too busy to notice we'd arrived, but as soon as they looked up and saw us, they ran too.
The woman was exhausted, hysterical, gasping for breath, and drenched in blood. The soldiers were cutting her breast off with a machete and had about halfway finished the job. She was badly butchered and had obviously lost a lot of blood. We covered her wounds as well as we could, carried her to our truck, and drove her to the hospital in Nimule. Once I knew they would take care of her, I left with the soldiers to continue our patrol.
Probably a year later I was preaching at a church in Maryland, talking about my African ministry. After the service someone in the congregation came up to me and said, "I want to ask you something. Do you really think you can make a difference?" His question stunned me into silence. "I want to know," he continued, "because I think it's stupid. It's crazy for you to be wasting your time over there in Africa. One person. How can you make a difference?" I couldn't think of what to say, so I didn't say anything.
But his question got me to thinking. After I got home I got into an argument with God. "You know what, God, this is stupid! Here I am working thousands of miles away from my family. My daughter's growing up without me. I have a beautiful wife I'm never with. My family doesn't get the attention and support they deserve and have a right to expect. This is stupid, Lord, because I'm not going to make a difference."
About two weeks after I straightened God out on that, I was back in Nimule. An attractive young lady—a complete stranger—came running up to me on the street, all happy and bubbly, and started hugging me. She was doing her best to communicate with me in her broken English.
"Pastor, do you remember who I am?"
She had me stumped. "No," I said, "I don't really remember you."
"I'm that lady that was in the village when the LRA raided it. They were cutting my breast off, and you and your men saved me." Instantly it was like God said to me, "One man can make a difference."
Since that day there is nothing anyone could ever say to convince me that one person cannot change a nation. One person can do unbelievable things. All it takes is that one person who's willing to risk everything to make it happen.
Most of the work my ministry and my soldiers do—and therefore most of the fighting we do—is in Southern and southwestern Sudan. But I've been to other parts of the country, including Boma in southeastern Sudan, a good three hundred miles from where I spend most of my time. It would be about an hour's drive from the Ethiopian border if there were a road to the Ethiopian border, which there doesn't seem to be. For centuries the area has been equally famous for its nomadic cattle herders and the notorious cattle thieves who prey on them. A man's wealth is measured in cattle, and the long-established tradition is to increase your herd any way you can, including stealing cattle and killing your rivals.