With this contribution by our esteemed brother, Mr. Robert Neill, we commence a series of articles showing the manner in which God uses believers to touch the lives of others.
For over 50 years now it has been my great privilege to be engaged in the work of the Lord, both in Central and South Africa, having spent some 30 years in Zambia and past 20 years here in Port Elizabeth in the EasternCape. I have been asked by the editors of T&T magazine to mention briefly some details of missionaries, or others, who have had an impacton my life for God.
As a child I received a Sunday school prize entitled “The life story of Robert Moffat” (who labored for the Lord in Africa in the early 19th century). Shortly after my conversion I started to read this book, and became interested in the Lord’s work in Africa. Although still young at the time, I felt the Lord was speaking to me and bringing before me the great need of the African people, who had never heard the gospel. It was my sincere desire that one day I would be able to go out to that country, to spend my life in preaching the gospel. I was privileged to grow up in a time of great missionary interest amongst the assemblies in N. Ireland, when we were frequently reminded in the meetings and conferences of our responsibilities towards the millions of souls in heathen lands who had never heard the gospel. Many young men were called of God at that time to leave the homeland and go forth to foreign countries with the gospel to those who were in spiritual darkness. Leaving the comfort of home and trying to adjust to a new way of life, surrounded by people of a different culture and language, was not going to be easy. Before them would be the difficult task of learning a foreign language. There would be times of home sickness and loneliness with no other believers nearby to cheer or encourage.
Most of the early missionaries to Africa lived in very isolated parts in hot and humid conditions, infested with malaria carrying mosquitoes. Disease was widespread. Some were only privileged to live in Angola for a short time before they succumbed to the dreaded diseases of malaria and black water fever. Many little graves of faithful pioneers are to be found at Cavungu (Angola) and in other parts of Africa. They followed the example of the beloved apostle Paul who said, “Neither count I my life dear unto myself to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts.20:24). It would not be possible in this article to mention all the older missionaries, or others, who had an influence on my life in early years, but their records are on high and we thank God for their memory.
Mr. T. Ernest Wilson of Angola (now at home with the Lord) was a godly brother who crossed my path before I came to Africa. We were often thrilled as we listened to him telling of his experiences among the Chokwe people. He came to stay with me on one occasion when I lived in Zambia, and we had very happy times of fellowship together. He heard that some believers from Angola had come to live in an area about 30 miles from Kitwe, and he asked me to accompany him to the place. We went there and eventually found four or five believers who were delighted to see us, and they gave us a great welcome. Arrangements were made for us to have meetings in the village, and quite a number of unsaved people came along and all listened attentively to the gospel. The people built a little grass hut where we could stay, and we spent a few days with them having meetings. They were very appreciative and greatly encouraged by Mr. Wilson’s visit. When he left to go home we continued having meetings in that district, and through time quite a number of people were saved. Eventually a little assembly was formed and a small hall erected. As a result of the faithfulness of those dear African brethren and sisters, a number of outlying areas were reached and some assemblies established, which still continue to this day as testimonies for God. Mr. Wilson was never privileged to return to this area again, but his visit is still remembered by some of the older members of the assembly.
Mr & Mrs James Geddis (of Lurgan, N. Ireland), went to labor for the Lord in Angola in 1922. Sometime later they were forced to leave this area because of the opposition by the Portuguese Government and the harsh persecution against the African believers. They moved to a place called Dipalata (in Zambia) about 150 miles away. The work of God prospered in this district and many people were saved at that time. The assembly grew and eventually numbered about 200 in fellowship. It has remained strong over the years, which no doubt bears testimony to the faithful labors of the late Mr. James Geddis and others who have labored for many years at Dipalata. I first met Mr. & Mrs. Geddis during the war years when they were on furlough in Ireland. Owing to the war, they were unable to return to Africa until 1946. During those years I had the opportunity of getting to know them more intimately. I regarded them both highly as a man and woman of God. Having been commended to the Lord’s work by the Ebenezer assembly (Belfast), and after much prayer and exercise before God, I expressed my desire to return with them to Dipalata. They both encouraged me greatly in this, and in 1946 I traveled to Africa with them. I cannot speak too highly of their kindness and of the spiritual help they gave me in those early years.
Mr. Tom Rea also from Lurgan came to Africa in 1911 and labored in Angola, the Congo, Zambia and S. Africa. He, too, often gave me much help and encouragement. In Nov.1946 I received a letter from him inviting me to attend the conference at Kalunda (Angola).This was to be my first long journey in Africa (approx. 300 miles round trip) cycling through the forest. Saviyi, a dear African brother, accompanied me. He was saved as a result of hearing the gospel preached by Mr. Rea. About 500 people attended the conference and they gave us a great welcome when we arrived. I could only understand a little of what was spoken about that day, since I was still learning the language. Mr. Rea ministered from Luke 22:60 (Peter’s fall and repentance and bitter tears of remorse as the Lord looked upon him.). A real sense of the presence of God was evident in that meeting. Although over 50 years have passed since then, this message still stands out clearly in my mind.
Mr. Rea and Mr. Fisher (B. Congo) worked together in the translation of the Lunda Bible. Mr. Fisher spent the greater part of his life in the translation of the Scriptures. Eventually, when he had finished this great work he turned the key in the door of his study and said to his dear wife, “At last the work which I set out to do is now completed.” These were indeed true words because shortly afterwards Mr. Fisher passed into the presence of the One whom he had loved and served for so many years. We were living at Kayombo when that first Lunda Bible was printed and given to the believers. There was very little sleep for some of them that night, for they sat together the whole night perusing over the Scriptures by the light of a few candles. There was great rejoicing amongst them, for now at last they had the whole Bible in their own language.
The late Mr. James McPhie (Scotland) was also a brother beloved. He and his wife were commended to the work of the Lord in Angola in 1914. During his lifetime he walked thousands of miles preaching the gospel in the villages all around the country. These dear servants of the Lord saw many souls won for Christ and gathered into assembly fellowship. We had the pleasure of visiting them at Cazombo on many occasions. Mr. Mc Phie often encouraged us in the work and reminded us frequently that the God we serve is not only a Good God, but He is also a Great God and an Unchanging God. His devotedness to the Lord and his interest in the preaching of the gospel was an inspiration and a good example to those of us who were younger.
“Can we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high;
Can we to men benighted the lamp of life deny.
Salvation, 0 salvation the joyful sound proclaim
Till men of every nation have heard the Savior’s name.”