By Heidi Thulin, Photography by Joshua Thulin
On Field Media
The Woods moved to Kenya at the end of 2015, joining an outreach team of other missionaries living in the villages surrounding Kwale Town and working with the Digo unreached people group. The Digo are mainly an agricultural people who live along the bordering coastlines of Kenya and Tanzania and who have mixed Muslim worship into their ancestral beliefs. A tiny percentage of the Digo have found and dedicated their lives to Christ, but for the majority of the people, a darkness and a stubbornness lives in their hearts. Team leaders, Wayne and Joyce Raychard, who have worked with the Digo for twenty years, feel that doing ministry as a team, especially in difficult contexts like this one, is ideal. “Being part of a team is very valuable,” Wayne says. “It makes us aware of the connectedness of the church worldwide. It helps us be much more ‘other-focused,’ simply because we are so dependent on other people.”
Chris and Candy Wood wholeheartedly agree, because moving a family of eight across the globe and helping everyone adjust to their new village lifestyle is no small feat. Their biggest comfort was the Cheney family. Adam and Heather also did the “crazy” thing and came to the mission field with six children of their own, many of whom are age mates (and who became fast friends) with the Wood’s children.
“Being a mom is challenging no matter where you are,” Candy says, “but following God’s call is so important for your kids to see. Also, mamas are [especially] important [in Africa]. In fact, that’s where I’ve had a lot of my ins in the community. Being pregnant, and also having little Anna, has given me opportunities to enter relationships with other moms and women. There’s a natural connection, and you can instantly start a conversation when you’re pregnant or carrying a baby!”
“[My kids] are little missionaries themselves,” Candy continues. “Our househelper, Binti, has become part of the family, and during school, when my kids are supposed to find a friend to read the Bible to, Mya will go to Binti and read it with her. They don’t worry about what people will think of them. They are just kids. They’re being themselves, and they just love Jesus. It’s so neat to watch them have a ministry.”
Heather nods in agreement. Because of their family’s large size and wide range of ages, her front yard in the village of Tsimba is constantly filled with neighbor children and chatter. “Our kids are a very good witness to our neighbors,” Heather explains. “[Our daughter,] Geneva, has had friends [bully her], and the way that Geneva has loved them even though they are mean to her has been such a testimony to me on how to show the love of Jesus to others.”
In fact, it was their family’s large size that contributed to the creation of a brand new Digo church plant. “Squeezing eight people into a matatu (local taxi) on a Sunday morning is a difficult thing,” Adam says. “So we started a family church service in our backyard.” Within weeks, a few men from the community asked if they could join the worship, and the following week, they brought their friends along too. “We were so nervous,” Adam continues. “We didn’t know the language yet. We didn’t know the culture. But God revealed to us that He could use us despite those things.”
Almost one year after that first Sunday, I am sitting under the thatched canopy next to the mamas. Men sit in a semi-circle on benches across from us, and children sprawl on the grass mats on the dirt. Adam passes Bibles around the circle—some are in English, some in Swahili, some in the local Chidigo language—and once everyone has a book, an elder and long-time believer named Chitoto begins reading from Ephesians chapter five. He reads slowly and with purpose, and the Digo men around him furrow their brows and nod.
Afterwards, Adam also reads the passage in Chidigo. As he reads, the men, as one, mumble pronunciation corrections to him, and I can see Adam is trying hard to remember everything he’s being told. Not only is this a church service; it is also a language lesson.
Once the proper Scripture-reading protocol is complete, the passage is opened up for discussion. We are disciples of Jesus, the men concur. We should obey Jesus and follow how he taught us to live.
“What does the Bible say about man and wife?” Adam asks the group. Immediately, everyone, including the women, starts talking about this touchy topic. In Digo culture, a man is wealthy and has social prominence if he has multiple wives. This piece of culture is not always something a young Digo believer wants to forego. After many jokes are shouted back and forth, Adam quiets the group and ends the discussion by saying, “The way we are married, the way that we love our wife, is an example of Jesus’ love for the church.” The men again furrow their brows and nod.
People are watching how we live, they decide, so we must imitate Christ.
This “house church” model is what the team hopes to continue using, because it is a model that is familiar to the Digo. And perhaps that familiarity is what makes it successful. In a Muslim village like Tsimba, being a Christian is not the easiest way of life. A believer’s family may disown him, his friends may reject him, and to a people who so highly value community, this ostracism cuts to the heart.
Several months ago, the house church was working their way through the book of Acts, and members of the church asked if they could be baptized. One Sunday, after the rains had come and filled the riverbed, the whole church group walked down to the shoreline together. There, while everyone in the village watched, seven Digo, including Chitoto, whom Wayne had been discipling for years, took a public stand for Christ.
Meet Chitoto, a long-time Digo believer and the leader of the new church plant.
Another benefit to living directly in the center of the kaya is that ministry opportunities are right outside. One woman, Riziki, lives next door, and as a paraplegic, she is unable to travel far. Everyday, she sits in the shade of her home’s awning and watches the uniformed children walk to school, the men work in the maize field, and the piki (motorcycle) drivers buzz to and from town. “She has a lot of time to sit and think,” Sam, who calls herself the “hanger outer” of the team, says, “because she sees everything that’s going on around her. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be out there sitting with her, so she has a friend and someone to talk to. I’ve had a lot of conversations with her about the Bible and about Jesus and death and Islam. [And because we see her everyday,] she’s probably the one we’re closest with in this entire kaya. That’s been a special friendship.”
“It is really humbling,” Sam continues. “I will never know what it’s like to be a Digo, to be born a Muslim, to leave Islam, and still be in the village with your family that’s Muslim. The insecurity of that, I will never know. But these people do, and they’re following Jesus better here than I follow Jesus back in America.”
Discipling and mobilizing local believers is one of Africa Inland Mission’s passions, and this outreach team is thrilled to be a part of that work. “We really want to encourage the Kenyan believers here to reach out to their own people,” Candy explains. “We’re not going to be here forever, and we’re the outsiders.”
One such Kenyan, Pastor Richard Menza, who grew up in a Muslim family himself, is a part of this outreach team and has a strong calling to reach the Digo. “The Digo are my brothers and my sisters,” he says. “These people, I know them. They have a hard time accepting the gospel. I know when [God] says to go to all the nations, the Digo belong to the nations. I feel very much that to stay with the Digo, to preach to them, I can fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have a part to play so they can see the kingdom of the Lord.
“They are lost people in matters of faith,” Pastor Menza continues, “and we have an urgency to help them. If I can see them and view them that way, then it drives me to do something. I can help them. God is a God of miracles. And he hears our prayers. I believe that God can do a miracle to save his people.”
Every Wednesday, the team gathers together for a time of worship and fellowship, and that week in June, in true African style, they cooked special food in honor of my visit: bacon cheeseburgers. That day, we prayed and sang together, offered each other advice on how to reach our neighbors, and studied Scripture (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). “We are on the same team,” Sam, who was in charge of the lesson, says. “Let there be unity among His servants. Only God brings salvation, but He desires our obedience. This is an encouraging and humbling passage, because [the harvest] is not up to us.”
In general, the local Digo soil is rocky but right on the cusp of being ready to receive the gospel. The team here sees themselves and the few Digo believers they’ve partnered with as the fertilizer, but they are leaving to God the work of cultivating hearts. “What I believe in my heart,” Pastor Menza says, “even if we [reach only] one soul in this big area, that is very important before God. After years and years, you will see that the one soul will amount to many people.”
“It will be challenging,” Candy adds, “but it’s well worth it. Easy isn’t ever where we meet Christ.”