After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Sammy began preaching in stadiums throughout Eastern Europe. People around the world heard about the great things God was doing. Christian leaders asked him to come to their countries and preach the gospel, especially those who lived in dangerous and difficult places. The following article is taken from chapter thirty-one of God’s Secret Agent and describes Sammy going into a war zone in Burundi to bring the message of peace with God and our fellow man. It’s a harrowing story of faith, courage, and victory in one of the most difficult places on the earth.
I had always told Tex our lives would never be boring, and following Christ has been a great quest for us. When we planned a return to Rwanda, I knew God had surprises in store. He has taken us to some of the most difficult places in the world, and we’ve seen Him meet every financial need.
It’s hard going to the countries we travel to because the people there have so few, if any, resources. Our ministry pretty much pays for everything, and the budget grew from sixty thousand dollars in 1986, the year we left the church at Bothell, to more than one million dollars in 2000. But God continues to be faithful, and His provision is always there.
The most rewarding work we’ve seen God do took place in the lives of our own children. We believed that God promised us that both of our children would live for Christ and be faithful to Him. He’s kept that promise. Both Dave and Renee graduated from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Dave married his high school sweetheart, Kelly Hotchkiss, and God called them into a faith ministry working with young people in discipleship/ missions internships. Renee has spent a couple of years working with them in that ministry. It’s been an unfathomable joy to see them serving the Lord.
Dave and Kelly preceded us to Rwanda to make preparations for our return trip and meetings. I worried for their safety, but I knew God would take care of them as He did us. Dave preached at some youth rallies and assisted Norman and Joseph in the preparation meetings.
When Tex and I arrived in Kigali, we found the country had progressed greatly since our last visit, but the drums of war beat loudly. Soldiers prepared for action in the stadium each day before our evangelistic meetings. We were allowed into the stadium only at the last minute. Fighting in neighboring Burundi had left its mark on the faces of the leaders in Rwanda. War was heavy on everyone’s mind.
We were fortunate to have connections within the country. The vice mayor of Kigali, who had become a Christian at our meetings two years before, helped Dave through much of the red tape that would have otherwise been impenetrable. Mass meetings are discouraged and usually unfeasible in countries on the brink of war. But because of our history there, we were allowed to do things normally not permitted.
Thousands came to Christ, and the Bible says that when just one person comes to Him, there’s rejoicing in heaven. But that second visit was also special because Joseph Karasanyi told me, ‘The pastors in Burundi have asked if you will share the message of Christ with their people. They heard you were not afraid to travel here during tumultuous times. Will you go?”
Of course I would. Joseph went ahead to meet with Burundi leaders about the possibilities of a large-scale evangelistic meeting. God began to knit my heart and Tex’s with those of Joseph and his wife, Rose. I cannot begin to tell the impact these two have had on our lives. They are truly servants of Christ, willing to delve headfirst into His plans, even in dangerous places.
Upon his return, Joseph briefed us. “Sammy,” he said, “the situation is precarious but not impossible. The greatest problem is that to get to the capital city of Bujumbura you have to drive through the area where they’re fighting. And there are no flights into the country.”
“Then how did you get in?”
He smiled. “I have a driver able to maneuver through the war zone. But there’s a charter company in Rwanda that might be willing to fly you in.” I took a deep breath and gave him the go-ahead to arrange it. This was going to be a tough one, but God has always provided just the right person at the exact time. God led Mike Scalf, our Sunday school teacher, to come and work with us. Mike was a Christian businessman with a real knack for team building. We decided he would go ahead of me into Burundi, just as Dave had done in Rwanda the year before.
Joseph found us a flight into the country but at a price of six thousand dollars. We have always been as frugal as possible. Many people support our ministry when it is financially difficult for them. I’ve always wanted to make sure we never violated their trust. But people were dying in the country. If we didn’t go in, thousands might die without the knowledge of the Savior. I felt compelled by the love of God to go.
We didn’t have the money for this trip, but God provided as He always does. The missions committee at Wayside Chapel, a fantastic Evangelical Free church in San Antonio, asked if we had any special needs. I told them about the trip, and they said they would like to help.
Mike would meet Joseph in Rwanda a week later, and the two of them would fly into Burundi. Meanwhile, I was scheduled to preach in Scotland, then fly into London and meet another team member, who would film the meetings. Martin Ntende grew up in Uganda but was living in Nappanee, Indiana, where he’s a member of Nappanee Missionary Church. Dave Engbrecht, senior pastor there, is also a member of our board.
Tex and I arrived in London a day before Martin was to meet us. We were awakened that night by a phone call from Mike Scalf’s wife, Norma. I sensed immediately that something was terribly wrong.
“Sammy,” she said, voice quivering, “I just talked to Mike in Burundi. He’s extremely ill. He’s running a fever and is having hallucinations, and I’m scared to death for him. Please pray for him!”
God, help him, I prayed. It had been almost impossible to get into the country, which meant it would be just as difficult to get him out.
Norma continued, “That’s not the end of it. His mother has been taken to the hospital, and they don’t think that she’s going to live more than a couple of days.”
By now Tex was sitting on the edge of the bed, getting the drift of what was going on. Norma added, “Mike said something about threats against Joseph. Someone threatened him, saying he wanted thousands of dollars from you.”
“Norma,” I said, “it’s urgent that I contact Mike right away. If he’s that sick, we need to get him out of the country immediately. I don’t want to scare you, but he may have malaria or another foreign disease.” She gave me his number.
I looked at Tex in disbelief. We pleaded with God to guide us. I called Mike, and he sounded awful. I said, “We need to get you out of there.”
“Sammy,” he said, “there’s no way out of here. This place is about to explode. When we arrived, the charter plane dropped us off at the end of the tarmac and immediately left. The airport was desolate. The terminal building was full of bullet holes. There wasn’t a single person around. No planes either. The glass was shot out of the doors. There are hardly any cars on the streets, very little food in the hotel, and the hotel is almost empty. I’m the only one on this floor. It’s strange here.”
I asked him about the threat to Joseph. He said, “When we returned from our meetings the first night, three men stepped out of the dark outside his hotel. They told him they knew he was working with an American and that you must have a lot of money. They wanted three thousand dollars right there. Joseph told them that he didn’t have any money, that he had prepaid all the expenses. They told him they would return when you arrived. They want three thousand dollars, or the life of everyone who attends the crusade will be in danger.”
“Mike, get Joseph in the same hotel where you’re staying. Stay together. Then we need to decide how to get you out of there. Do you think it’s safe for Tex and me to come in?”
“Sammy,” he said, “that’s your call. I honestly don’t know.”
I didn’t sleep that night. After Tex and I talked, I told her I needed to go out to walk and pray. My heart was heavy. I felt guilty, then stupid. How could I have put everyone’s life in such danger? It was one thing for me, but why did I send my friend and colleague into such a situation?
As I prayed, God gave me peace. He had it all under control. The same God who had delivered me when I was arrested for preaching the gospel would be with our team. The God who protected us at the Romanian border could protect us in the war zone of Burundi.
I went back to the room with the assurance that God would be with me, but I also knew I had to be up front with everyone. I told Tex, ‘‘Sweetheart, I love you and don’t want anything to happen to you. You’re the most precious person in the world to me. I couldn’t stand it if we went into Burundi and something happened to you.”
She stopped me. “Sammy,” she said, her eyes filling, “you’re not the only one who has been praying. I’m with you all the way. I believe God wants me to go with you.” We held each other and wept.
“You’ve been through so much with me,” I told her. “I can trust God with my life, but it’s so much harder to trust Him with yours.”
She turned my face toward hers. “Remember what the people cried out in the Romanian Revolution.”
How could I forget? When their lives were on the line, they began to cry, “Dumnezeu este cu noi!” which means, “God is with us!” God was with us then, and He would be with us now.
“You’re right,” I said, “but I think we need to contact Dave Engbrecht before Martin catches his flight. Martin needs to know what he’s getting into before he comes.”
After talking to Dave, I checked in with Norma one more time before calling Mike again. His mother was still in critical condition.
Mike was no better either, so I did what I could to get him out of there and to a doctor. I spent the next couple of hours trying by e-mail to mobilize friends of the ministry who were intercessory prayer warriors. Not only did they pray, but they also forwarded the message around the world.
Norma was with Mike’s mother when Mike called her for the very last time. She held the phone up to his mother’s ear while he spoke to her. She died twenty-four hours before Mike arrived back in the United States. Our pastor, David Walker, met Mike at the airport in Houston and broke the news to him and prayed with him.
Tex and I met Martin Ntende in London, flew together to Kigali, and then took the charter to Bujumbura. As the plane descended, no other airplanes were around. Only a few cars sat in the parking lot. But when the plane touched down, Joseph and a few others emerged from the terminal to greet us with flowers and a welcome speech. We were brought to a VIP lounge while our visas were being processed. And once we emerged from the lounge, we saw that over one hundred Christians were lined up to greet us. When we all left the airport, there wasn’t another soul in sight.
Joseph briefed us. “You can’t leave the hotel except for the meetings. Rose and I are on the same floor as you, Tex, and Martin, so I think we will be safe. The stadium is across the street, and over two hundred armed soldiers will be there. But you must not walk. Well have a car and security guards to pick you up.”
I felt as if we were under house arrest, but I trusted Joseph. He knew how to walk wisely. Most of all, I trusted God. Thousands around the world were praying for us.
We rested that night and prepared for the evangelistic meetings in the stadium the next day. There was a sense of excitement. This was one of those situations in which I knew God was saying, “It’s time to go. Thousands of people are waiting to hear from you.”
In the lobby six bodyguards each had a hand-held radio to communicate with each other as they escorted us to a car. There was one car in front of us and another behind. Tex and I looked at each other, wondering why we had to take a car to cross a street the size of a driveway.
The stadium was filled. The bodyguards escorted us through the throngs. People cheered and applauded. We weren’t used to being treated like royalty. We felt more at home when people persecuted us. Tex said, “I don’t like this.”
“I don’t either, sweetheart, but let’s enjoy it for the moment. They’re trying to express their appreciation. Let’s just do what they want us to do.”
When I stood to preach, the atmosphere was supercharged. The people had been waiting for a message of hope. I began, “I’ve come to Burundi with good news! God loves you! God loves your family!” I could tell that people’s hearts were about to burst. They had felt God-forsaken for so long. The excitement continued to build. “God loves Bujumbura! God loves Burundi!”
The people broke into roars and applause. This was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I preached the gospel of God’s love, of our need for repentance from sin and faith in Christ. I could tell that God was deeply at work in the hearts of the people.
“If you want to have a personal relationship with Christ,” I called out, “then I want to pray with you. I’m going to ask you to join me at the front of the platform.” Normally people come and stand at the front, as you would see in a Billy Graham Crusade. But when these people came (close to two thousand each day), they fell to the ground with their faces buried in the dirt and wept openly. I had never before seen such brokenness and repentance.
The top story on the evening news that night was the evangelistic meetings. It showed the stadium filled with Hutus and Tutsis worshiping together. That shocked the nation, because six miles down the road, Hutus and Tutsis were killing each other. Following the news Joseph received a phone call at the hotel. It was the presidential cabinet minister in charge of the peace negotiations. He wanted to meet with me. We went to his home on the following Saturday morning.
When we arrived, members of South Africa’s Parliament were leaving. One reached out to me and said, “Thank you for what you’re doing for this country. Your presence is accomplishing more than you’ll ever know.”
My heart rejoiced. My ministry on that great continent had started in South Africa, and now one of its leaders had affirmed us. I just hoped that Mike and the staff back in San Antonio understood that this was their victory as well as mine.
The minister of peace and reconciliation, Mr. Ambrose Niyonsaba, welcomed me with open arms. We sat down, and he told me why he had asked me to come. “I’ve been out of the country trying to negotiate peace with the leaders of the two factions. It’s too dangerous to attempt to negotiate peace here in the country. So we were meeting in Tanzania. When I returned to Burundi, I wanted to see what the news media had to say about the negotiations. But the main report wasn’t about what we were doing in Tanzania. It was about what you’re doing in the stadium. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Thousands of Hutus and Tutsis were meeting together peacefully and worshiping God. What we’ve tried to do for months and years, you’ve accomplished in one week. It’s absolutely incredible. I kept waiting for the news to say that there was a bomb or riots or something. But all I saw was people prostrate on the ground and praying with each other and for one another.
‘‘I implore you to bring this message of peace with God to every person in Burundi. This is our only hope.”
I left that meeting awe-stricken. God had again accomplished far more than I could have imagined. By the time the meetings concluded, more than eight thousand people had prayed to receive Christ into their lives. People found peace with God and peace with one another. Before we left Bujumbura, a delegation of pastors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to me. The Congo had just undergone a military coup, and the nation was in turmoil. “Our city, Bukavu, desperately needs your message and ministry,” they said, “Would you come?”
I assured them we would pray about it, and if God gave us peace, we would certainly go to the Congo.
In the summer of 2000 we planned to go to the Congo, where Mai Mai rebels had threatened people in underground radio broadcasts, saying they would stone and beat anyone going to our meetings. They threatened to bomb the stadium. Everyone took them seriously. They had slaughtered people in a nearby village a few months earlier.
We contacted the charter air service in Rwanda, and they brought Tex and me and a colleague, Bob Arndt, into the Congo. We found conditions even worse there than those in Burundi. The Mai Mai threats affected attendance at our meetings. But when there was no bomb the first day, the crowds began to build, and an average of thirteen thousand came daily. About thirty-five hundred people responded to the message of repentance and placed their faith in Christ.
After the first two meetings the governor’s wife invited us to the governor’s mansion for lunch. The governor was out of the area, but the vice governor told me, “I was in Rwanda when you preached. I’m praying God will use you to bring the same hope to the people of our region.
The governor phoned and told me, “Thanks for bringing this message of peace to our country. Many are afraid to come to our city and region. Thank you for not being afraid.
I silently thanked God for all that He’d done in my life. But of course, even more from His hand was just around the corner.