Tanzania Summary

The Mission

It is a truly blessed thing when God gives us unmistakably clear direction in our lives. Sometimes He speaks to us through our circumstances. At others it is through those around us and sometimes it is through the prompting of His Spirit to us in prayer or thought. Frequently as we are listening we wonder if we are hearing Him clearly or are grasping what He is saying to us…..Then there are the times when God gets out his bat and “prompts” us repeatedly over the head in all these areas. This trip was one of those.

It started when I learned that there was a trip going to Tanzania and as I have shared with you my heart is really with the people of Africa. Then I learned that it was going to be led by two of my great friends Jamie and Erin Adams. Next I discovered that during the first part of the trip we would be working at a Christian school with kids which I love to do. For good measure this was going to be a first of its kind trip, combining serving in the communities through GI with doing a fundraising mountain climb for The Last Well, my favorite ministry, and that the mountain would be Kilimanjaro. Now this was getting spooky. At the end of my mission trip to Zambia I had picked up an Africa Geographic magazine and had read a 10 page article on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and was utterly fascinated. It seemed like such an adventure. When I returned home I blew up a big picture of the mountain and pasted it over my desk at the office looking at it every day and dreaming. At this point I cried “Enough God. I’ll apply for the trip” but He kept pouring it on. On some trips you don’t know anyone at all in advance of the team formation but more and more of my closest friends were signing up for the trip, further cementing my decision. However, there was one big problem.

I was in no condition to climb a long flight of stairs let alone a 19,340 foot mountain. I was in prayer about this and He made it clear to me that He had things planned for me to do in service but that He could not use me in the condition I was in so it was time for a transformation. I had less than 6 months to make some serious changes so that I could be an asset to my team rather than a liability. So I just got started. I sought out wise counsel, got lots of encouragement from my friends and leaders, and of course He was walking with me as I could not have done it in my own strength, else I would have done so previously. The bottom line is that I stepped on the plane 85 lbs. lighter and ready to properly serve my teammates and the people of Africa.

A few more words about my teammates. We had 23 people total that we had split into 2 teams for the purpose of preparation. It was a huge and diverse group and included some of my very best friends. One special part of the team was the fact that Todd Phillips our senior pastor and his 9 year old son Parker were on the trip. To tell you a little more about Parker I asked him before the trip “When we get within sight of the summit of Kilimanjaro and we are racing to get to the top who will get there first, you or your father”? His answer (right in front of Todd): “Oh I will”.

So it was off to Africa where we actually had a cool experience en route. It turned out that we had an 8 hour layover in Heathrow and rather than just lounge in the airport we were blessed to go and serve at a church in a suburb of London that one of our long term missionaries Marcus Gadsen works at. We got on a double decker bus (I think it’s the law there) and headed to the church where we got on our painting cloths and went to work with a bunch of the members and painted their entire rec center. It was a great way to pass the time, bond a bit more, serve some of our brethren in the field and kind of get warmed up. 23 missionaries plus their folks can paint a lot in 4 hours! Then it was on to Tanzania.

One of the dangers of a trip like this one that has an adventure component to it is that it can be a distraction from our focus in serving but I must tell you that when we arrived in Arusha and stepped out of our cars into the midst of all those children any thoughts of the mountain and its challenges were banished from our hearts and minds. The Bible Baptist Academy is a Christian school and church that was started by our two host missionaries Vernon and Mary Smith. They set up shop about 15 years ago by just putting up a volley ball net and inviting in the community for fellowship. Now they have a thriving church and a fully filled 6 grade school and they are adding grades each year as the original class moves up. Vernon and Mary are the most energetic, committed people I have ever had the chance to witness. I now have a real world picture of what a fully engaged missionary looks like and can accomplish when they are operating in God’s will. It is truly astounding. We also met Sandy and his wife Karen who work for Manna Worldwide. Sandy is a tireless worker and a former pastor who has dedicated his life to full time ministry all over the world. We will be working with him and Manna on future Last Well ministry trips in Liberia.

The first day we just hung out with everyone, playing games, meeting the adults and teachers, asking questions, talking and just getting to know one another. It was so much fun. Most of the people in the Arusha area speak Swahili but anyone who has any education has been taught English as it is the language of commerce in most of sub Saharan Africa and it is what the children are taught in at the school. Parker in particular dove right in with the kids his age and pretty soon was running around with his own little posse.

The next day was fortunately Sunday so we got there early and got the chance to participate in a rousing service Tanzania style. Let me tell you when they are moved by The Spirit Africans can bring it in praise and worship, especially the kids! You have to check out the video. They went first and then we tried our best to follow them but fell woefully short in the effort. Our upbeat stuff sounds like a ballad compared to theirs! Then I had the chance to deliver a short devotional I had prepared out of 1 Peter. I wanted them to know that despite the differences in the way we looked and the thousands of miles that separated us that we were all family in our savior Jesus Christ and that because of that we could share in their struggles and joys and they in ours (such as our struggles are in comparison). I also had a chance to draw all our attentions to the fact that this is not our home, that we are only here for a short time as guests, and that very soon all of us would be worshiping again together, just this time in heaven. Getting the rhythm going with Vernon who was translating took a few minutes but we got it down. Then Todd our senior pastor gave a sermon message and was given the Tanzanian equivalent of an honorary doctorate complete with a sash and club! Nevertheless I refused to call him doctor.

As I may have mentioned Sundays in Tanzania are not about 1 hour at church and then on about the day. Everyone was all dressed up nicely and then we all went outside where there was a huge tent set up, a sound system and about half a dozen cooks whipping up a storm of food. There was a young man in an all white suit who was like Don Rickels, cracking jokes, telling stories and MC’ing the entire affair. There was even a guy dressed up in traditional Masai garb who did one of their dances. Some of our teammates gave their testimonies, then the kids did a bunch of skits, and here’s a shocker we did some more singing followed by some serious dancing! There were hundreds of folks and without any real instruction or guidance it all went off smoothly. When it was time to dance everyone danced. When it was time to clean up everyone stopped and helped. We would have had to form a committee to form a committee to pull it off. This went on for the better part of the afternoon and we got a little bit more of a chance to build some individual friendships especially amongst the young adults.

In Arusha there were not a lot of public places to eat where the food was safe so we actually had to go to a couple of places that were nicer than what you typically experience on a mission trip. That evening we went to a place where they had a performance by a bunch of acrobats and fire eaters which was really cool and they got some of the team members to participate in a limbo under a flaming bar. Then Zach got up and did a tumbling run and overshot the landing ending up in a flower pot and almost cutting off one of his toes! This laid the foundation for the funniest line of the trip (later).

The next day we headed out on a journey to a nearby Masai village. The Masai are an indigenous people who are primarily cattle and goat herders and who wear traditional garb and practice many old customs. They have their own language which is totally different from the Swahili that is spoken all around them and their own culture. They live on large expanses of land in one story mud and brick buildings and have no electricity. On the way there we saw trains of elephants and other wildlife.

This was a singularly unique day in all of my mission experiences. When we arrived we were greeted by song as it seems we always are in Africa and they were all dressed in their native garb. Some of the women’s outfits were particularly ornate. There was no way to communicate with them verbally except through the people who came with us from the school who spoke all three languages but there were only a handful of those so we got on as best we could. We had this nice organized plan of about 6 different activity stations but after about 10 minutes we threw up our hands and everyone just did their assigned craft and played and interacted with people as the crowd dictated. At one point I had some bracelets that told the gospel message and was besieged by scores upon scores of children. When someone as big as me can be overwhelmed that is something! I just couldn’t bring myself to be frustrated but just laughed and laughed and rolled with it. We did face painting on everyone including all the adults, had a huge round sheet that all the kids could draw on, lots of paper and crayons for them to color with, and an enormous beach ball that was a big hit. It is likely most of them had never seen any of this stuff. Of course there were the obligatory soccer games. Everyone in Africa can play soccer, usually quite well.

After a couple of hours the adults gathered and we were treated to some ceremonial dances. The men would dance to show off to the women primarily by jumping up in the air as high as they could. Some of the men on our team joined in with mixed results. I don’t think they impressed too many of the Masai women. Then the women showed the gals how to do their dance to attract the men where they would dance around in front of the men. Several of the ladies from our team participated with much better competence then our guys showed but we think that several of them accidentally ended up betrothed to some of the Masai men.

Then came the most special time of our visit. As the sun went down we brought out a generator and a big projection screen and proceeded to show the Jesus film which depicts the life, death and resurrection of Christ and it was in their native Masai!!! There were hundreds of people watching and more showed up all the time. In the beginning while the film was showing we retreated to nearby hut and were treated to a freshly killed cow they had prepared for us with some decidedly non standard cuts. It was pretty dark and Big Phil ended up chewing on an ear. After dinner we went out to the crowd where the movie was coming to the part where Christ dies on the cross and rises from the dead. We all held hands and prayed that the people would understand and accept that Christ gave His life for them. Picture this. We were standing in the middle of the African plane with elephants walking around within hundreds of yards. There was utter darkness save from the light of the movie giving way to a canopy of stars that that took our breath away as the story of our Lords sacrifice unfolded. After the end of the film one of the pastors from a nearby church got up and preached about what they had just seen and offered the crowd the chance to turn to Jesus as their savior and we were moved like rarely before to see dozens of people raise their hands, to pray and to stand there breathing eternally for the first time! What a special honor it was.

On both the ride out and on the ride back I had the pleasure of engaging in a lot of discussion with a young man named Abraham as well as most of the other young men in leadership at the church and school. Most of these men are in their late teens or early twenties and the depth of spiritual maturity they displayed was quite impressive. They did not use their young ages as an excuse to shirk their responsibilities or to keep them from stepping forward in leadership. Quite a model for us back here in the states.

Later in the week we got a chance to go to a remote village to work at a church where we stained benches, painted the church and the more artistically gifted members of our team painted a beautiful full wall mural of Jesus visiting with children behind the pulpit (check out the pictures) and one of the couples on our trip Chris and Stephanie Stout got a rare blessing. Chris and Steph sponsor a child in a village about 4 hours away from where we were and plans were made for that family to come and meet us, so Chris and Steph got to spend face to face time with their child and her family and to exchange gifts and stories. How cool was that?

Then one evening our hosts decided to engage us in a mini adventure that I am sure was designed to teach us all some lessons, though the lessons I learned were probably not the ones they intended. They took us to this huge marketplace in the town full of hundreds and hundreds of shops, vendors, food stands, etc. They broke us into teams of three, gave us a fixed amount of money and a list of about 15 items written in Swahili that we were to locate and purchase in the market and return with in a short amount of time. Whoever did the best won and got a prize. Remembering that we were in Africa I decided to apply local customs to our means of winning the contest. I went into a shop and found a young guy that spoke English who did not look too busy. I told him we had a certain amount of money to buy everything on the list and that if he would help us buy them and get good deals he could have whatever money was left over so he would be motivated to get us good prices. This arrangement worked well and then to top it off I slipped Vernon who was the judge some money and told him to look favorably on our cache and that we should get points for adopting Tanzanian practices. We still didn’t win but I was nevertheless proud of myself.

For the rest of the week were did another festival at the school and visited another Masai village and then it was time to test our strength against the mountain. The day that we left I learned two of the most profound lessons of the entire trip.

The first was when we finished playing with the kids in the morning followed by a church service and it was time for them to head to school. The headmaster of the school is a former sergeant in the army and when he said “jump” they said “how high”. After they had all lined up in rows for their respective classes he shouted out “Are you in the army?” and they shouted “yes!” and I thought “what’s this?” and then he followed up with “Who’s army” and they shouted at the top of their lungs “The Lord’s army!”. Then while marching into their classes they sang This is the Day that the Lord has Made with great gusto. Well I was standing there singing myself and marching in place thinking “I want to be in the Lord’s army too!!!” It was so wonderful to see when kids are being taught the Truth by Godly men and women how they turn out. I really don’t remember seeing one disobedient or upset child the entire time I was there.

The second was when we pulled up that morning. This one I will remember till the day the Lord calls me home. I have written about the ministry of presence in my musings about my earlier mission trips but one small child taught me more about what that truly means in a couple of hours than I had learned in a lifetime prior to that. As about 30 of us piled out of our vehicles when we arrived we were swarmed by the scores of children and one little guy sort of wove his way through the throng, walking right up to me and grabbing my hand. Well that started my heart to melting so we walked around a bit with his little hand in mind and I started asking him questions like how old he was and if he liked school. You know the sorts of things you talk about with kids when you want to build a friendship. Well he wasn’t talking. Not a word. He just wanted to hang onto my hand. We ended up next to the sports court where all the kids were playing soccer and I finally figured hey, he just wants to hang out so that’s what we did. We just stood there hanging on to each others hands watching them play for over half an hour. Then it was time to go to church so we walked in and I finally got one of the adults to ask him his name and he quietly said “Cabalas” and that was the only thing he said the rest of the day. He sat on my lap during the service, stood on the bench next to me still clutching a hold of me when I stood and we just hung out the whole morning just the two of us until it was time for him to go to school. He didn’t need conversation or games he just needed my presence and it turns out all I needed was his.

The Climb

Now it was time to shift into The Last Well ministry and test our mettle against Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and thus one of the Seven Summits. As discussed in other parts of this site climbing mountains is our version of a walk, race or telethon. Its sole purpose is to draw focus and act as a fundraiser for bringing both physical water and spiritual water to the people of Liberia. It carries the further benefits of challenging us both mentally and physically, putting us out amongst God’s creation and giving us an opportunity to rely on Him for our success and boy did some of us need His help on this one.

Uhuru Peak stands as the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro (Kili) at a height of 19,340 feet and nearly 50 miles round trip from the entrance of the park so while not one of the ridiculous mountains in the world it is a challenge especially because of the altitude. Only about 50% of the people who attempt Kili actually summit. Kili is a singularly unique mountaineering experience due to the fact that you actually go through 4 different climate zones. You start out in a rainforest filled with monkeys sweating your tail off and proceed to a region of moors complete with blanketing fog and strange plants. Next you enter the saddle, an arid desert like region with no foliage and stinging winds as you approach the base of the main mass of the mountain at about 16,000 ft. From there up it can get quite cold as you encounter the glacier capped summit.

However before we started our ascent we spent a night in a very nice facility called Springlands where we got to spend the evening looking at the mountain which pretty much took up most of the horizon. It looked daunting indeed. This was our first view of Kili from the ground but not our first look at it. When we were flying in to Tanzania originally the pilot got on the intercom and told us to look out the window and we could see Mt Kilimanjaro the roof of Africa in all its splendor. I don’t know about you but when I’m flying and someone points out a landmark I look down. Well guess what. That did no good since we were not flying over the mountain. We were flying around it!

It wasn’t just 23 of us hitting the mountain either. Due to the fact that the trip takes 6 days and thus requires a lot of food, cooking gear and different layers of clothing folks usually hire porters, cooks and guides so by the time we all set out from the base we were over 60 strong. Now the porters do this all year long and proceed at a surprisingly fast pace at the lower levels of the mountain carrying significant loads. They are wiry but strong. We set out and after many stops to take pictures of the monkeys reached our first camp. I found the trip to be a little frustrating and I think some of the others did as well due to the fact that our guides instituted a “pole pole” pace which loosely translated from Swahili means “go slowly you fools this is the easy part and you will need all your strength for later”.

The second day we ascended to the next camp at about 12,500 ft and there were no longer animals of any kind save for these large black ravens which would sit perched upon the A frame structures that served as our bunks. I could not get Edgar Allen Poe out of my head and spent the entire evening wandering about camp declaring “quoth the raven nevermore”. That evening we gathered together in one of the larger huts, broke out the guitar and did a little praise and worship session. It turns out our head guide named Godde was a Christian as well so it was really cool to have him join us. It was nice to just chill out and focus on Him.

One really funny exchange occurred on the hike up with Godde and a bunch of us. During the 10 days before Todd had told us to load up on the food and not to worry about packing on the pounds as we would need it for the climb. All I can say is that with the Mary’s assistance as a team we followed his advice with gusto. Then while we were hiking I was talking to Godde about this fact and he said “Well the guys will lose about 10 to 15 pounds but the women only a couple.” Now the gals on the trip were real troopers but this revelation put many of them into quite a state. I couldn’t help myself and chuckled for quite a while.

The next morning I arose early and walked down to the edge of the camp and stood looking over the cliff edge to a sea of clouds so full and billowy that when looking down on them they looked like snow stretching to the horizon. I watched as the sun rose appearing through clouds on its way to its apex. I just stood there by myself very quietly thinking “Thanks God for bringing out your paintbrush this morning and revealing yourself to the world once more.” Jamie joined me soon after and I remember thinking how sad it was that some people in this world think that things like that just happen and that there is no one behind it.

At this point some people were hurting from the altitude so it was a good thing we had an acclimatization day built in here. In the evening we climbed up about 1,500 ft and then came back down and slept in camp for the night. The next day is when things started to get interesting to my mind. We left the moors and proceeded to the saddle where we finished about an 8 hour hike at an elevation of about 16,000 ft for our high camp. Now we had some people really feeling the altitude. Lots of folks were nauseous or kind of loopy and one of my friends Rebecca was having muscle aches so bad that when I gently touched her on the shoulder to see how she was she recoiled. We had about 6 hours to whip ourselves into shape, grab a meal, and catch some shut eye then we were up and climbing at about 2 AM. I went outside and stretched for about half an hour before trying to sleep and I was thinking and praying for the team and myself that we would be able to summit tomorrow. I remember thinking that not many people would bet on a number of us being able to make it given the shape some of us were in.

I went inside to try to get some sleep if I could in the remaining 3 hours I had and I pulled out an encouragement letter from my buddy Brian Fabio. Now I had gotten a number of these which I had read over the course of the trip from other friends but for some reason I had not looked at this one earlier and for some reason I felt it was important for me to look at then rather than go to sleep. I was reading it and Brian told me when he was writing the letter he had this visual from the movie “The Princess Bride” where Andre the Giant was carrying 3 people up a mountain strapped to his back and that he said that was going to be me and to be on the look-out for teammates that would need help. I sat there thinking “Clearly a couple of weeks ago God put it on Brian’s heart to write this note for me with this specific message content, and He clearly had me read this note tonight at the only time the message would make it’s full impact so I can rest assured of it’s message”. This totally refocused me outwards for the summit attempt the next day and it occurred to me that if I was going to be helping people up the mountain that must mean that I would of necessity have to make it myself so a laid down and fell into a peaceful restful sleep immediately.

The downside to 3 hours of deep sleep is that you are just getting started and by the time I woke up most of the guys were packed up and ready to start! After gathering for prayer we headed out into the night for what would be an 8 hour journey to the summit. Most of the way up you are faced with 30 degree plus slopes on gravel scree which is most frustrating to climb in as you kind of take 2 steps forward and slide back one. After we got going our guides started singing in Swahili which set up the most surreal atmosphere. We were at 16,000 feet, going up and as I looked up ahead the only light on the mountain came from the 30 or so headlamps winding their way up the mountain seemingly bobbing along rhythmically to the sound of our guides singing. When we looked up we were enveloped by a cloudless sky with so many stars that it looked like someone had taken a can of white spray paint and painted a swath across the heavens. Despite the exertion I found myself grinning widely.

We would stop every hour or so but only for about 2 minutes just to take some food and make adjustments. Longer stops allowed our body temperatures to drop too much and chills to set in. When you start getting above 17,000 feet or so you have no appetite whatsoever and even a snickers bar doesn’t look good but you have to try to choke something down because your heart rate is going at a furious pace because of the altitude and exertion. I came down from the mountain about 15 lbs lighter than I started as did most of the guys. These stops had the downside of giving one a chance to focus on how poorly one felt and to allow ourselves to come up with some creative justifications for why we should turn around. I felt strong the whole climb except for the last 1,000 feet or so when I became quite fatigued but interestingly enough due to Brian’s letter and the outward focus it engendered I never had that internal debate with myself about making it.

My friend Joe was not having a good day so I hung right behind him during the climb, pushing him along and when it was time to end our breaks and begin again. I didn’t bother pumping him up I just grabbed him and said “time to start again Joe” and off we would go. I was really proud of him because he was clearly hurting badly. I was a little crestfallen when I heard behind me part of the way up Stephanie say to her husband Chris “I’m done. I want to turn around”. Steph was suffering greatly from a lot of stuff and while I was sad for her I understood. When we got to Gilmans Point which is the top of the mountain but not the highest point we took a good break to gather our energies. We still had another 2 hours of climbing and rock scrambling along the crater rim to reach Uhuru peak which is the highest point on Kili and the true summit. We were all so proud of Parker who had made it to Gilmans and was probably one of the 5 youngest to ever do so! I learned later that he had wanted to turn around but dad let him know that if he made it to Gilmans there was a Play Station waiting for him whereupon Parker said “I might be able to go a little further”. Observing the interplay of father and son between Todd and Parker on the trip was one of it’s unique blessings.

The last two hours we got spread out quite a bit as people traveled at different paces so I lost track of most of the group and had assumed a number of them had turned back but I had my charge and he and I were getting up there darn it! Towards the summit the glaciers came into view and the majesty of them kind of inspired us to crank it up. Finally we reached the summit and began celebrating with our teammates! Jamie and Joe and I got in a good man hug and I sat there doing a count, soon realizing that everyone was there, including Rebecca, except for Chris and Steph. I was talking to Erin and she said “Poppa, look who’s here!” I turned around and there trudging up the final steps were Chris and Steph!!!! We were all ecstatic and I was so proud of her. All 23 of us had made it to the top and 21 of us to the highest point! Only through the intervening hand of God could some of us had made it so really 24 of us summited.

After more than a few photo ops we began our descent and a number of folks really needed to. Everyone was displaying a lot of guts and toughness but altitude sickness is no respecter of intestinal fortitude. A couple of folks were swaying about as though intoxicated and I had to hold onto some arms to keep them from stepping off the crater. At one point I adopted my friend Kari (who I affectionately call Kewpie Doll) as my special charge. We had a great time on the descent (me more so than her) because she was a bit loopy. For some inexplicable reason I felt amazingly good and very strong even way up there. Perhaps I was reveling in the entire team summiting or just what an amazing trip God had made out of this but I found myself singing “Glory in the Highest” at the top of my lungs in praise and joy utilizing a voice only God could love.

We got back down to Kibo hut at our high camp and after about an hour set out back down the saddle to our base camp at 12,000 ft. The next day as we hiked down to the park entrance we had a little fun with our porters. We stopped to rest and had a communal feast of all the left over climbing goodies we had brought including every variety of M & M’s. I went over to the porters and offered them some beef jerky which they accepted gratefully and a bag of Twizzlers which is pretty much the perfect mission trip food. We all laughed loudly when they each took one and held it wiggling in their fingers, not knowing what to do with it. I told them they were good to eat but after they each took a bite and crinkled their noses it was clear they did not agree with my assessment.

We got down to Springlands and were packing up to leave when I found Zach hobbling around on his previously injured toe looking for Rebecca (who was our team doctor) to help clean and bandage his injury. Several of the gals commented that it was awfully rude of him to ask Rebecca to clean up the nasty wound on his smelly feet to which Zach replied “I’ll buy her something nice”.

After that is was back to the good old US of A where we arrived on the 4th of July just in time for me to go downtown to see the fireworks! Africa is an amazing place but there is still no place like America. Nevertheless with the opportunities God will provide and through the support of people like you I see many for trips to Africa in the future.