Horace sat impatiently in the departure lounge and tried not to think about the future. His African brethren had insisted on carrying his bags to the check-in desk followed by a tearful farewell at the security gate. Not that he had that much to carry – two small chests would follow by sea, the rest of his belongings had either been sold or given away. Was this really all he had to show for a life on the mission field? A suitcase of personal mementos and a one-bedroom retirement flat: didn’t seem right, somehow.
Had it been up to him Horace would have chosen to live out his days in Africa. But things had changed in his mission agency. Gone were the visionaries and strategists of yesteryear, replaced it seemed by managers and bean-counters. We need to move forward, they declared; Africa is developing, they said – as if he hadn’t spent most of his adult life on the ‘dark continent’. Of course, evangelism was still important, but could he turn his hand to implementing micro-finance schemes? Training church leaders was a bit paternalistic: could he run an antiretroviral programme?
What they didn’t say to his face was that they thought him a fossil. Even the term missionary was something of an embarrassment. It conjured up images of pith helmets, preaching under trees, or slashing a path through thick undergrowth. After all there were plenty of African pastors running churches in Europe and the US these days. Surely the day of the Western missionary was drawing to a close.
In the end his agency pulled the plug. There would be no more funding available, so come home or go hungry. No, he couldn’t visit any home churches – his type of ministry didn’t convey the impression that the agency wished to communicate these days. Besides, he didn’t know how to use PowerPoint and no one really wanted to listen to an old man prattling on about the past.
What made things worse was that a number of younger African pastors seemed to share these sentiments. They had been conspicuous by their absence at his farewell celebration. Were they really glad to see him go? Perhaps that was what was being taught in Bible College these days - that he was a fossil, a dinosaur, a relic from the past.
Horace seated himself in the airplane and watched his fellow passengers. Africa certainly was changing. There were so many young men and women finding professional employment. Sadly, many of the government officials following independence had proved to be skilled only at bankrupting the economy while at same time lining their own pockets. Hopefully this new elite would lead their nations more successfully into the future.
A black mood settled over the veteran missionary. He didn’t even see the well-dressed man sit down beside him. Any moment now, thought Horace, he’ll introduce himself and ask what I do. Then he’ll be embarrassed and I’ll feel stupid and we won’t speak to one another for the rest of the flight...
Instead the man said, “Pastor Coleman, is that you?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, but I don’t …”
“Samuel Makalula, from Nyateta. You planted a church in our village twelve years ago. Then you came back three summers in a row and ran a vacation Bible school.”
“Yes, I remember. That was such a successful church plant, so much so that the pastors helping me really caught the vision for discipleship. Several of them went on to run vacation Bible schools in their districts. Ah, Samuel, you bring back very pleasant memories. What about you? You are looking very prosperous.”
“God has been good to me. Your mission found someone to sponsor me through my secondary education and then I obtained a scholarship to medical school. So here I am, a newly qualified surgeon, thanks be to God. And yourself, Pastor? I heard that you were returning to your home country. I suppose that you will have a large church to look after.”
“Not exactly, Samuel. But I’m a little tired just now and would like to rest. We’ll talk later, I promise.”
Horace sat back and closed his eyes. A smile tugged at the side of his mouth. Indeed, God is good. It doesn’t really matter what others think. I have had a good life. I don’t know what surprises lie ahead but my Saviour will never leave me nor forsake me. And with these comforting thoughts Pastor H Coleman (retired) fell contentedly asleep.
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