by Kenny Bendiksen
Glenn and Sandy Wilton first came to Adi in 1976 to live among the Kakwa tribe of northeastern Congo. They did not arrive on a two or four-year assignment. They came, like missionaries of a different era, “for the duration.” But some twenty years after beginning their ministry, they were forced to leave in the face of violence and unrest due to civil war. At that time countless people, both Congolese and foreign missionaries, were forced to say goodbye to their homes and possessions. Many saw everything they had struggled to build and grow destroyed, burnt up by the fires of revolution and human vice.
When the Wiltons were able to return in 1999, they came back determined to build on whatever remained. Physically, they didn’t find much. Their house had been been stripped by looters; one lone doorframe was left, the windows were gone, and everything of earthly value was taken. But spiritually, Adi was very much alive. There were some who had carried off the Wiltons’ possessions saying, “No, bwana Wilton is never coming back, this is mine now.” But there were others who remained faithful to the ministry and the missionaries they loved. Glenn remembered how one old man came back with a mixing bowl and proudly told him he had saved it for Mrs. Wilton, that he knew they would return. One pastor was in the middle of a sermon when Glenn, who had just returned, walked into the church unannounced. The pastor fell silent, then said, “They say it is death to come to Congo. But nevertheless, here is Mr. Wilton, come back to live with us!” Today, Glenn and Sandy are still living with the Kakwa. Their ministry is thriving as they continue to meet a wide range of spiritual and physical needs.
From the first morning I spent in Adi, I was impressed by how much can be done with so little. When Glenn returned after the war, he found the ancient rusting hulk of the tractor he first brought from Canada completely vandalized. With very little mechanical knowledge, he managed to rebuild the tractor and today it provides an invaluable service: road repair.
Roads in Congo are built flat, and after a few rains the water cuts twisty paths along their length that make them impassable. So Glenn spends some of his days riding back and forth under the beating sun to raise the center and create channels along the sides; the result is roads that will last. People understand and appreciate this, stopping to wave or give a thumbs-up as Glenn passes. The tractor also aids in Glenn’s ongoing effort to restore the old AIM airstrip a stone’s throw from their house. Glenn and his work crew had recently broken through the dense underbrush to complete a road going around the airstrip with hopes of discouraging people from walking on the airstrip itself. The hired workers had cause for celebration that day: The men were tired but happy, and someone suggested we go kill a goat to celebrate. But much work still remains. Glenn hopes that some day Adi will serve as a regional hub for air operations, bringing planes that could serve the local hospital and reach neighboring communities like Bunia and Aba.
Glenn is also a brick-maker and a builder. To date he has built homes for seventeen Bible institute students and three teachers’ families, not to mention shoring up the foundation of the local church, a building dating – like the Wilton’s house – from the 1940s and still impressively sound.
With an eye on the spiritual foundations of the Church, the Wiltons have been working for years to complete a Bible concordance and full-fledged hymnbook in Bangala, a language spoken by over a million Africans in DRCongo, Central Africa Republic, and Sudan. Over the past ten years the Wiltons have been addressing this broad need, one that that goes beyond Adi to the surrounding regions: the development of Christian literature in the mother tongue of the people.
The problem, Glenn explains, is that “these are a people just barely coming out of an oral language tradition.” They are not yet able to benefit from Christian resources printed in English. So the Wiltons have been devoting much of their time to provide resources that fill the gap. Along with the help of a local literature-writing committee and several Kakwa men whom they are training, the Wiltons write, print, collate, wrap, and distribute Bangala Bible school books and Christian education materials for local churches. They offer resources for young couples and even publish a “youth Bible reading card” along with thought-provoking questions on the daily readings.
The publishing process is quite labor-intensive; there are no professional printer services or copier technicians here. The Wiltons rely on much older technology: Gestetner machines and mechanically-created stencil copies, which are easier to maintain and more cost-effective than buying hundreds of toner cartridges. This is a labor of love, a labor that requires patience and daily devotion. I watched in the evenings as Glenn was sitting at his dimly-lit dining room table stapling pages together and then painstakingly tapping the staples flat with a hammer, hundreds of them, so that the little books wouldn’t become unbound over time.
Such devotion – in the building of a road or in the binding of a book – is hard to find. Devotion to the spiritual growth of a people at a remote outpost in the Congo is even more rare. As the Wiltons prepare for retirement next September, I am left wondering, what’s next now that they’ve come full circle and reached the end of the road? The answer is clear: Like Glenn’s workers on the airstrip, you can’t just celebrate what’s done; you go around again.
As the church in Congo matures, it still needs spiritual partners to come alongside it and bless it. Glenn and Sandy could not have rebuilt their ministry upon returning after the war but for the neighbors and friends who came to their door to help them. “We cannot walk away deaf from what’s been built,” Glenn declares. We cannot abandon the church during its growing process after a tumultuous period because we were asked to make painful sacrifices for their sake. Taking Christ’s example, we need to be willing to persevere with those whom we love, letting faith in God’s omnipotence and not the seemingly insurmountable challenges of our circumstances determine our hope in the future.
After thirty years of ministry at Adi, Glenn Wilton has a good idea of what’s required – and what’s not – to serve God in such a place. What kind of person is God looking for? “Before they were like Abraham,” Glenn whispers and shakes his head in amazement and respect for the missionaries who came long ago. Even looking one generation back, Glenn is amazed at what unskilled missionaries could accomplish. “I look at this church,” he says pointing to the local building, “it still stands straight today. I ask myself, how did they do that six decades ago? The things they did…the things they dared to do!”
God is not looking for giants among men. Those who came yesterday were made of the same stuff as you and I, and God is still in the business of doing miracles. He is looking merely for Abrahams. People willing to make a leap of faith, believing that God will provide and equip you as we trust in Him. “It’s about where God calls you,” Glenn says, “to the exclusion of all else.” Chuckling, he gestures at the rebuilt tractor, the cabinets he fashioned, the doors he welded, and the bricks he has made. “I’m a high school chemistry teacher!” Almost no one who comes here full time, Glenn maintains, ends up doing only what they came expecting to do. But this does not mean that every missionary must be a jack-of-all-trades. In fact, Glenn insists there are only three characteristics required for a missionary to the Congo: Spiritual maturity. The ability to be flexible – to meet needs and do what needs doing, and not necessarily what you expect would need doing. And the ability to cope with frustration. The rest, Glenn promises, God will provide.
During my final day I couldn’t help but reflect on how even my own short time in Adi demonstrated what Glenn had said. I came as a photographer and writer, but I spent most of every day fixing computers for Glenn, the Bible institute, and the local hospital. The head surgeon even seated me in front of an ultrasound machine, handed me a manual, and asked, “How does this work?” And after much fumbling I gave a seminar in French to the hospital staff on how to use their new machine. As I was packing my bag, I still felt like I had not accomplished very much in my time there. But we do not always see the ways in which God uses us, nor do we always understand how much something seemingly small to us means to the person we do it for. The head pastor in the region came and shook my hand when he learned of the ways I had helped. Glenn later told me he came to greet him and express how happy he was because of “the youth that came.”
Adi, like so many other places in central Africa, is waiting, not for experts or bilingual Ph.D. holders, but for encouragers, for partners, for prayer warriors, and for Abrahams willing to follow God wherever he calls them; from today until the end of their road.