Living Through Tragedy
“Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.” - Psalm 22:11
This is probably one of the most difficult update letters I’ve ever had to write. At the same time, it comes off of one of the most meaningful times of ministry we have ever had in Africa. I will also write this differently than most of our letters, because there is only one story I want to tell here.
“The World Race” is a relatively new short-term missions program run by Adventures in Missions. Short-term missions have been a part of the missionary cause ever since Barnabas and Saul launched the first missionary journey in Acts 13. In recent decades, however, their popularity has exploded as the world becomes smaller, travel becomes cheaper, and Christians become more aware of the needs in the world around them. Much had been written in missional journals about this explosion of short-term missions and how to make them count for long-term missionary efforts. In Mokhotlong, we have now been able to see four World Race teams come through, spending between three weeks and three months in ministry at one time. For us personally, it is very refreshing to have groups of 18-25-year-old Americans come around. Our kids especially love the World Racers and immediately start asking when the next group will come after one leaves. From what I have seen, because of the way that World Race works through local pastors and ministries in Mokhotlong, their short-term efforts are truly aiding the long-term ministry of missions.
For the past month, we have had a beautiful group of 21 World Racers living with us in Mokhotlong. They lived one street over from our house in “the mission house” belonging to our pastor Ntsimane, whose home we are also renting. When we learned that a new team would be coming to Mokhotlong, we looked up their profiles on the World Race website. We found all of their pictures and names and spent the month before they came memorizing all of their names and hometowns and praying for them during their month in Swaziland. When they finally arrived in Mokhotlong, the kids went up to greet them and instantly fell in love with them. I think it reflects the biblical principle of sowing and reaping - that the amount you are willing to invest in someone or something will be reflected in the amount that you love that person or thing and how much you also receive back from them/it. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We treasured these Racers, and they captured our hearts as well. That makes what was to come so much more special and heartbreaking at the same time.
This month brought so much joy to our family. Every morning, Kyle and Ellee would come to ask us, “Can I go see the mission team? I drew this picture for Will Holt. Jesse Dillow wants to take me to get fish and chips. Emily Duncan ‘Donuts’ said she would take me for a walk. I want to play basketball with Sam Van Dyke.” We always said yes. We wanted Mokhotlong to be home for them, even if only for a month. We loaned them books and movies. Abby made up a signup sheet for everyone to come over for dinner on different nights. We took them to our favorite picnic spot across the river in a cave. We had them over for movie nights. I played chess with them. We sang and worshiped the Lord together. We built a church building together. We loved them. They loved us. Abby has also written a blog post about our time with them, which you can read here: http://abbymtstclair.blogspot.co.za/2017/11/racing-through-mokhotlong.html
The night before they left, I went up to share my heart with them and give a personal goodbye. I shared how we had wanted to give them a realistic picture of missionary life. Many times you don’t get that on a short-term trip. You get busy, do projects, and try to make the most of your time. Also, many people think of missionaries in Africa living in a hut, huddled around a campfire to stay warm. Sometimes it is like that; sometimes it’s not. But if this is the view of missionary life that young people have, it may often hinder them from surrendering their life to missions if they sense God’s call that way. “I can’t live in a hut. I couldn’t stay that busy all the time. I need time to rest.” So I wanted them to see that missionary life is not so bad. We live in a comfortable home. We have running water (most of the time), electricity (most of the time), internet (most of the time), and we have time to rest and relax and just enjoy life, too. But this life is also hard - because of people. It is the people that we miss from America. So having them here is so special for us. It meets a need in our life that is usually unmet. It is why my kids attach to them so quickly and so deeply. And I thanked them for loving my kids and my family so well.
This Sunday when they left, I preached a message that God laid on my heart. It is a message that is always on my heart, though I don’t always have the right group to preach it to. So throughout the week, I had prepared exactly what I felt God wanted me to say. If I had been asked to preach one week later (this Sunday), I would not have preached the same thing. I don’t regret anything I said, but I now wonder why God wanted me to say it. I called the message “Lose Your Life for the Kingdom” based on Mark 8:34-36. It was basically a plea to these young people to live their lives, burn out their candles, in the service of the Lord. One of my points was that your life is short and you never know for how long the candle of your life is going to burn. It was not a direct plea to surrender to the mission field, but certainly that is one of the biggest needs in God’s plan for the world today. I preached it with all of my heart and emotions. I recorded the audio on my phone and have posted it here, in case others would like to hear it as well: https://www.dropbox.com/s/1jac7aqnp9feb7d/Lose%20Your%20Life%20for%20the%20Kingdom.m4a?dl=0.
After the service, we took one final group picture together and said tearful goodbyes to our dear new friends. They packed up into two combi-bus taxis and prayed and drove away from Mokhotlong. We went away and back to normal life. I played a football match in the afternoon and my team got destroyed (6-0)! In the evening, we went for dinner to the mission house with Ntsimane’s family and a South African mission team that had come for the weekend. As we were visiting, Ntsimane’s phone rang. There has been a car accident on Moteng Pass. We didn’t have many details - only that the crash was in front of the World Racers and none of them were hurt. They were on the scene trying to help. Some people were dead.
I called Abby and said I might need to leave. I have some emergency response training and supplies, but they were two hours away from us already. I called Tšolo, Ntsimane’s son, who was riding with the team. He said the crash would probably be cleared before I arrived. So he gave his phone to some of the team members and I just tried to talk to them and see how they were feeling. Some seemed very disturbed, some calm. One of the guys also said it would be cleared before I came, so I stayed home. We prayed for the team, the victims, and those at the scene. Then we finished our evening together.
Monday morning, the World Racers traveled to Johannesburg from Maseru. They had now joined up with the 30 other Racers who had been in other Lesotho locations. I called Tšolo for an update and he confirmed that they were all on the bus to Joburg. I got on Facebook and messaged some of the Racers. Word had gotten through to families in the States that something bad happened. Mothers were worried. So I contacted as many people as I could to confirm all the details I had and that all Racers were safe. When I heard back from some of the Racers who were there, the scene was much worse than I had gathered. 14 bodies strewn across the road. 8 people dead instantly; 6 others driven to the hospital. Incredibly graphic, disturbing scene. Something that nineteen 18-20-year-olds should never have had to witness. But they did. They faced the trauma bravely and heroically did all they could to help the victims. They attended to every victim they could find using the pathetic first aid kits in their taxis. Those they could not save they prayed for. Others they tried to keep conscious by singing worship songs to them. They loaded bodies onto a truck to be driven to the nearest hospital. They called police and medical services for help. Rural Lesotho has nothing like a 911-response service. Many of the medical facilities they called said they would send nobody because it was too far away. Only one police unit responded an hour after being called. A few local people tried to help, but medical knowledge is incredibly inept here. Others stood around taking pictures, blasting hip-hop music from their cars, or casually chatting. Some local drivers were more angered at having their trip slowed down and tried to force their vehicles through the scene. It was a horrifying situation in every sense of the word.
Now these World Racers were expected to travel on to India, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Guatemala ministering to people and giving of themselves for the next seven months without any direct support from their families, pastors, or churches. No way. They had just spent four weeks with family in Mokhotlong and now we were their only family within 8,000 miles. That evening we packed our suitcases and called their squad leaders to ask if we could come and stay with them until they leave.
Tuesday morning, we drove to Johannesburg and arrived around 3:00 PM. It was incredible to see them again. The hugs in Joburg were different than the hugs in Mokhotlong. They were longer, quavering, strengthening - weakness plus weakness equaling strength. Our dear World Racers were different; they had experienced an instant, forced maturing. Their faces bore a seriousness of recent shock and a softening of relief in seeing familiar faces. A deep breath. A crumpling of the need to be strong for others. A chance to cry again and begin the hard sequence of processing grief. But not alone anymore. Together.
Those days were not easy, but they were meaningful. Abby and I both said to each other that we think this was the most meaningful time of ministry we’ve had since moving overseas. We were able to sit down with all 50 Racers and try to evaluate how to move forward, how those not on the scene could help those who were, how to give people support but also space to settle this matter individually. We dove into the Psalms to try to express our various emotions to the Lord. We had the chance to sit down in one-on-ones and listen to the needs and thoughts of our friends. But we also had the chance to laugh, swim, exercise, sing, dance (sort of!), eat, and drink coffee - lots of coffee!
All in all, I feel like the World Race team is in a great place. For those of you at home who know and love them, you have nothing to worry about. God is keeping and sustaining them. Do continue to pray for them. Many have processed through the grief and come to closure on this incident already in their hearts. Others will do so later. But for everyone, the images of tragedy will be very fresh on their minds for the next month or more. When we faced a tragic encounter with death in Lesotho, it was two months before those images faded and were no longer on my mind all day, every day. So lift them up in prayer. I have committed to pray for all 19 of them by name every day for the next six months. Join me, if you feel led. Pray for Sam, Nick, Madison, Jesse, Allison, Cole, Will D., Josh, Blake, Will H., Emily, Bella, Ana, Katie, Bailey, Abby, Katherine, Kimberly, and Megan. And pray also for the 30 others who are in their squad, but didn’t witness the accident. They are also affected by seeing the effects on their teammates.
Many of the Racers feel that we were their heroes. I don’t. They don’t realize how much they did for us in Mokhotlong. God has definitely used them to meet the needs in our lives, just like we have now been used to meet the needs in their lives. This was mutually beneficial for all of us. We came and offered our presence, tears, touches, words, and Scriptures. We were the body of Christ - all members suffering when one member suffered. The team members have indeed lived through tragedy, but they will come out stronger for it on the other side. We are grateful to God for using them in our lives and for being able to be used in their lives during this difficult time.
- Jonathan &Abby St.Clair