Chance meeting shows significance of African ministry


For most of the past 20 years, my trips back and forth to the continent of Africa representing African Scholarship Exchange have been with my friend Peggy McKey. This year, when her mother was diagnosed with a serious illness, we both knew that probably our team would be broken up, at least for this year. And it was.

But I wasn’t left without a teammate. This year, fellow board member for three years, Molly Diffee, a very young and good interior designer with an architecture firm in Fondren went with me to Kenya and Zambia. While at Mississippi State, she spent five weeks in South Africa, opening her heart to the continent. But as she told many, only after this trip to Kenya and Zambia was she credited with “having really been to Africa.” In all seriousness though, having been to South Africa too, the needs there are great also.

I have heard comments like Molly did by many who question why I go to Africa when there are so many needs here. My reply falls along the line of pondering with the questioner whether Jesus meant we can’t go to “the utmost ends of the earth” until all our problems at home are under control.

This trip to Africa was surprisingly the biggest “wow” of all the trips over the past 20 years. I’ve traveled to Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. I love every place I’ve visited or lived in. All my trips have been rewarding, fun and relationship building. So why was I surprised by this one?

As Molly and I entered the missionary guesthouse to check in, I passed a tall, striking young man who looked “familiar.” He smiled at me but how many of us see people who remind us of someone else? I smiled weakly and walked on to the front desk.

But before I continue with what happened next, a bit of African Scholarship Exchange history might clarify what happened. In the earlier years, we seldom had ever met candidates for scholarships in person. We saw their pictures; we learned about them through a lengthy application process.

Recommendations were important. So after 20 years and about 1,000 people who have successfully made it through such a process, how come I today know the name David Gargule?  That could only happen if David kept his name before ASE regularly while a student and since then. I do remember that name because I remember David emailing me after finishing his master’s degree in Nairobi, Kenya, and going back to his home in North Kenya. He sent a picture of him baptizing someone in a cattle trough. So he made an impression; he communicated enough for me to be impressed, but can’t we say “life goes on?”

But when I looked up from the clerk at the guesthouse to see that same young man standing beside me, I took notice.  “Val,” he said “I’m David Gargule.” My response was to hug him. How does one hug a total stranger? Or was he really a stranger? I beg to say I believe I was hugging a friend, and throughout the day I believe my impression was born out. David and I spoke briefly, only long enough to set up a time to meet after dinner that evening. In the printed agenda for the day, no one had planned a meeting with David Gargule, and yet as it turns out, he became one of the bookends of our trip.

Molly and I learned as we talked with David that he’d never been out of Northern Kenya when he got the ASE scholarship and came to Nairobi to study for his masters degree many years ago. He studied hard, he received many rewards and was given multiple opportunities to stay in the big city to minister after he graduated. As I said earlier, many will tell you, “Aren’t there needs here too?” And we know the answer to that, of course there are, but his heart had never left his people. Even when offered an opportunity to pastor in the U.S. he turned it down to keep working in his spot in the world. So what did he want to talk with us about? He has identified about five young men who need training to carry on the work he is involved in, not only the elementary school but he is now beginning a high school there too. He fears though that the “pull” to move to better pastures is so great that he wants his young men trained in his area so they will stay.

So there it is; the past, providing a scholarship to David and developing a relationship with him met with the present, meeting him in person with the plans for the future.  How can ASE tell this story so that people here are moved to help David train men and women to keep developing what he has been working on?

African Scholarship Exchange is nothing without church partnership. Working with Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia, has not been without hiccups but thankfully the church leaders have taken the lead to work out the problems and to continue to send us quality candidates. Conrad preached that evening on the passage, “Owe no man anything but the debt of love.” He went on to explain that the 10 Commandments were summed up by defining what love is. The message was meaningful to me, and yet it only led to that event that was the other bookend of the trip.

After singing and praying more when the sermon was finished, the pastor asked to speak one more time. This time he told the congregation about the ASE team who had been visiting. “They are not sitting on a pot of gold, waiting to go home and decide who gets their share.” No, this organization is the embodiment of what I have been preaching about. This is love in action.”

Student, alumni, church partners all came together by demonstrating from their perspective that ASE has made a difference in lives on their continent. From beginning to end of this trip I was awed by examples of lives changed in these past 20 years, and yet I think these two stories sum up those other stories. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but for now, I’ll cherish these memories, hoping that they communicate how we can make a difference not only in America but to the uttermost ends of the earth.

Val Vickery and her husband Barry are Northsiders. They founded the African Scholarship Exchange in 1997. As a result, hundreds of Africans have received education to become ministers.

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