First Twenty Years

If you are looking for a book about someone’s personal struggles, weaknesses, and failings, you probably won’t find too many in these pages. Not because we don’t have many. Like every person, we have plenty. But this story is about God’s kindness, mercy, and grace despite our selves. He knows we have faults before he saves, but he is always committed to stay with us and bring us through. So our struggles are just like those that any person reading this book would face. We are just like you. It’s a story about people who have nothing in themselves that gives any advantage, except the gifts that God gives variously to us all, and his commitment to get us through our struggles. And all the people we work with over the years are also normal people. No one special, no one great. Most of us are “grassroots.”

Publishers may tell us to start telling a story at some exciting event, and then go back to some earlier days to fill in the details. For us, all the events are as exciting as each other. Just the other day I was thinking back to the “beginning,” the days when we were young. I wasn’t earnest about many things, except sport, and I mean at a social level with friends. It was probably because of my awareness of my many struggles that I became earnest in prayer and searching for faith in many different places in my late teens. I was drawn most to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the life of Jesus. It rang true to me. I had a dream about Jesus in my earlier years, and as he spoke his words struck me as full of truth. These were pure words, with no compromise, no lie, no self-serving, no self-glorying. But at the same time, these words did not condemn me. They lifted me. There was an enlivening power in them. I had never heard truth before that didn’t condemn me. I wanted truth and I wanted forgiveness and life. I woke up having heard words for the first time “full of grace and truth,” even though at the time I didn’t know this was how John had described Jesus. In my later teens I looked for these words.

Ruth grew up in the church in her rural town in Australia. Like many of us, she didn’t feel strong in her faith until her late school years. She then had a profound experience with God’s Spirit and began to grow in fellowship. In her earlier years Ruth read a book about a missionary and then knew that this is what she wanted to be. We met in Sydney (after Ruth had completed university) at a church that was very supportive as a faith community, and also quite marginalised from higher society. In those days Pentecostalism was on the outer, very raw, but we wanted to hear scripture without someone telling us that it wasn’t relevant anymore. The bible was mostly written to castaways after all, despite all our mess and misinterpretations of it. We both had very clear assurance that we were to marry and began to make plans: after a nervous interview with Ruth’s father!

The beginning I was thinking about just the other day, was the beginning of the journey together with Ruth. It was two people starting out in covenant with each other, and covenant between us and Jesus. Ruth’s wedding ring holds three small diamonds, which symbolises this covenant. All through the years Jesus has been utterly faithful to our early expression of faith as we walked together with him. Jesus has been a real person to us, right from the start and through every step we have taken. And he has been with us and totally faithful to all he put in our hearts in those first years. The most wonderful thing about a walk is that it is personal. It is with a person who is true, and this builds comfort, security, hope and love, and a gratitude that we really do live in a good world, once we learn of the truth of its redemption. It takes away all cynicism.

We started out in our first year of marriage with Ruth working on research as a microbiologist at Westmead Hospital in Sydney. In January 1984, one month after marriage, we decided to enrol in a bible college in the Sydney beach suburbs and found a little “granny flat” to rent. After moving in and buying our bed we had $200 left to begin the year. It’s great looking back because we selectively remember the good times and not so much all the challenges we pass through. A highlight of the year was an assignment we had to do, selecting one church anywhere in the world as a study. Ruth and I selected the book Fire in His Bones, by Ruthanne Garlock, a book about Benson Idahosa, in Nigeria. We could sense the genuine Spirit of God in his life. We prayed, “Lord, if we could just be part of what you are doing in his bible college in Nigeria, we would be so grateful.”

We finished bible college in one year and moved into a larger house to share with friends and other people who needed support. I got part time jobs, either in accounts, or working as a caterer in a hospice. Ruth and I also ran children’s outreaches, in our local church and in schools in our area. And we were pregnant with our first child. Towards the end of that year we grew unsettled and began to discuss Nigeria again and pray. One night, Ruth said, “If God has called us to Nigeria, why don’t we go.” That shocked me. I thought we were supposed to struggle and prepare for many years first. So we made a commitment to go in April 1986. We wrote to Reinhard Bonnke and told him and to Benson Idahosa. Bonnke responded that he didn’t need us. We didn’t hear from Idahosa. So we gave notice at our church and jobs we worked at, sold our car and booked our flights for April. Our daughter was born in January and we were ready to go.

It’s a conflicting time taking a step like that. The counsel you receive isn’t all that encouraging. Taking a young baby into the unknown! And, how will you be supported? Two people stood by us in encouragement. These were Ruth’s parents, Jim and Gwen Todd, and a minister in Australia called Harry Westcott. Ruth’s father worked for the Water Resources Commission as an engineer on irrigation schemes. When he was younger, he wanted to be a missionary, but God spoke to him audibly and told him not to. This wasn’t usual for Ruth’s father. He wasn’t at all given to a “Pentecostal expression” of faith, though he was filled with the Spirit and his faith was strong. So too was the faith of Ruth’s mother. They had just retried and were thankful that Ruth was embarking on this mission. They stood by us for the next thirty years of their lives, always our major support. When we were ready to leave for Nigeria, we received a letter from Benson Idahosa telling us to come.

Things didn’t go as planned on our journey to Nigeria and we arrived one evening in April at the hot and steamy Lagos airport with $4 and no promised support from any people or churches behind us at that time. We happened to land with an American missionary also working with Archbishop Benson Idahosa. Then, there was a law we didn’t know about that required us to change $100 each upon entry at the airport. The missionary was furious with us (understandably) and loaned us the $200. We went through many experiences like this. Ruth was never discouraged. She always says, “We know we have to be humble, but we don’t like humiliation.”

We arrived in Benin City at 4:00 AM the next morning, driving into a kind of slum environment and were given a room in the American’s flat. For a few weeks we didn’t have much to do. On one hand we were devastated by the harsh conditions, but on the other we felt so incredibly honoured to be part of the move of God that was all around us. The transition that was happening in Nigeria then was totally amazing. Benin City was moving from a culture steeped in strong and murderous witchcraft into Christ’s faith through the bold and risk-taking faith of the Archbishop. The liberation was so powerfully evident everywhere, every day. Open challenges with extremely high stakes were frequent. The movement of people to Christ was phenomenal. Millions upon millions of people in cities and villages all over southern Nigeria every year were turning to Christ.

Archbishop was advised to send this young family back to Australia, but he decided not to. He said the Lord told him we had given our lives and he should accept us as his children, which he did. He put us on a monthly retainer, and we worked in his office helping with secretarial duties, mainly answering his international mail. Other missionaries working there also helped us. This gave us lots of exposure, especially to the global Pentecostal church. Archbishop was well known internationally. We had frequent communication and relations with ministries and leaders all over the world. We also worked in his bible college, helping to teach young student pastors, and helping with administration in the office. Before we knew it both Ruth and I were flat out working every day and loving the total involvement.

Each day Archbishop was in town, his foyer was filled with visitors. These would be a whole range of people, from important government people, army officials, press, clergy from all denominations, educationalists, businesspeople, young people like ourselves, and villagers. They came for a whole variety of reasons and we were in his office as he dealt with them one by one. Some matters came from the nation’s presidency. Some were widows, whose farms had been stolen and they needed someone to intervene on their behalf. Idahosa treated each one of these people as important as the other, giving his time and energy in prayer, calling in favours from other friends to help those who needed it, or assisting from his own financial resources. Each case mattered to him. He loved the whole nation and the whole body of Christ. Any person who claimed to have a vision from God to build the nations, Idahosa supported as best he could. He himself literally began from the rubbish heap, and he never lost focus on where he had come from and how the Lord had honoured his faith in his life.

He always said things like, “When you climb the ladder, don’t pull it up after you, but leave it there for others to climb.” “Prosperous’ is spelt ‘prosper-us,’ not ‘prosper me.” “I live for posterity, not for prosperity.” He was simple, kind, sharing and accessible to all, but also bold and direct and he expected faith. Ruth and I and our children were in his house regularly and he always honoured and respected us all. One day I ate breakfast and lunch alone with Idahosa and a former military head of Nigeria, who was calling in for counsel over the weekend, before embarking on another eight years of presidency. Other times he took me to indoor and outdoor events in different parts of the nation to share the pulpit with him.

However, our main love in Benin City was Idahosa’s bible college. This is the one Ruth and I prayed about back in Australia, asking earnestly if we could be there just for five minutes. Ruth and I began teaching and our responsibilities started growing. After some years we had the responsibility of leading the college and also raising support from friends in Australia. Our supporters sponsored the majority of our students and built extra capacity for the college as it swelled. The college grew to become 1,600 students at its height, who came from all over Africa for two to four years’ study and preparation for gospel ministry. During the twenty years we served in that college we helped train 8,000 pastors, who started somewhere between ten and twenty thousand churches, in many nations all over the globe. These churches started other churches and other bible colleges. The growth was phenomenal.

We grew up with many of the students. In 1986 we prayed with a student from Ghana. He brought the gospel to much of his country, and founded a church of 8,000 people in Accra, and hundreds of branch churches around the nation. About 1,000 students from Ghana went through Idahosa’s bible college and went on to have a great impact on the nation. Earlier, as Ghana’s days under communism ended, Idahosa said God then told him to go to Ghana to preach. He arrived at the airport and told a taxi driver to take him to any pastor. He explained to the pastor why he had come, and the pastor was perplexed, not knowing Idahosa or if his claim to be sent by God was true. As they drove together to meet another pastor, they saw a man painting a tall building fall to his death. As crowds gathered around, Idahosa says God spoke to him and told him to raise the man from the dead. In obedience he prayed. The man stood up and fully recovered and that afternoon Idahosa found himself in the office of Ghana’s president. The president gave him the national stadium for meetings and advertised it on television. Great crowds came and there were many wonderful miracles. This changed Ghana.

In the bible college we mixed every day with people from very humble backgrounds whose faith was growing strongly. This was a great privilege for us. These were people who adopted Idahosa’s maxim, “If your faith says yes, God will not say no.” These were people who knew first-hand the faithfulness of God in their lives and they would not take “no” in life’s circumstances or challenges as an answer. Nothing could stop them in spreading the gospel. We followed them down rivers on canoes, into jungles on motor bikes and on foot, and everywhere they went God moved. We saw miracles of healing and people come to life changing faith. We travelled throughout most of Nigeria in those days, involved in thousands of churches being birthed. One day driving home, about an eight-hour drive, the car suddenly stopped in a deserted rural area. We opened the hood and the radiator cap was missing. We had burnt a head gasket. Right then, a man appeared from between the tall, dense corn storks beside the road. He looked under the hood and said he will return, disappearing again into the corn storks. Not long after he came back with tools and a new head gasket. He fixed the car and we set off, reaching home on time that evening. This is how life worked every day. What a privilege to be a part. There was always a “man there,” without fail.