CHARLOTTE, NC — Bruce Johnson, fresh from greeting America’s second Ebola patient to Emory Hospital in Atlanta, now faced fifty reporters and twenty-five camera operators eager to present his words to audiences throughout America and across the world.
Johnson, president of SIM USA, shared the story of that August 2014 news conference Jan. 30 during the organization’s public reception, “Missions: Why Go?” It was a fitting introduction to SIM’s long history of hardship and to the keynote address by Nancy Writebol – the missionary who’d been brought home with Ebola – and her husband, Dave.
Johnson recalled a reporter in the front row raising his hand and asking,
“‘Um, how, uh, normal is this, that SIM would be involved in this kind of crisis?’”
“And I thought, ‘Wow, what a good pitch, to answer that,’ and I said, ‘Actually, in our 121 years, crisis is part of our story. And it started 121 years ago, with three young men in their 20s, who founded SIM. You see, those three young men (two Americans and a Canadian), were called to a people in the interior of Africa, some sixty million people, and to their knowledge and the knowledge of veteran missionaries, the gospel had not reached that area,’” Johnson said.
Johnson then explained SIM’s origins in 1893, when Walter Gowans, Roland Bingham, and Thomas Kent went to the shores of present-day Nigeria, being told by coastal missionaries not to go inland because they would fail and die. Bingham stayed on the coast to manage support, while Gowans and Kent traveled inland. Within a year, Bingham went looking for them, discovering that each had died of malaria. Bingham also contracted malaria but was able to get home to Canada to recover.
Bingham, though, never faltered in his faith that God had called him to serve in African missions, and he never abandoned that calling. He gathered other Christians called to serve in missions and went on a second trip, only to return home with malaria again. For the rest of his life, he directed the organization from his pastorate, sending out more teams. Eventually, SIM’s work in Nigeria blossomed into the Evangelical Church of West Africa, now so numerous and widespread that it is called the Evangelical Church Winning All.
“‘You see, it was kind of from our roots,’ as I told the reporters that day down in Atlanta, ‘that hardship is part of our story, and from there, other people have gone and have never returned,’” Johnson said. “‘I walked through a cemetery in Nigeria, and the gravestones had the names and the resting places of the bodies of adult missionaries, but it also had the infant bodies of some of their children, who along with their parents made the ultimate sacrifice.’
“There was kind of a hush over the room of the reporters when they realized that this was not just something that happened to have happened to us, but it’s something that is part of our story.”
It’s a story that continues today in Liberia and many other places around the world. SIM serves in countries plagued by war, such as South Sudan and Burma; terrorism, like Nigeria and Pakistan; natural disasters, like Japan and Malawi; HIV and other diseases; and extreme poverty, such as Mongolia and Bangladesh. Late in January, SIM workers and their fellow Christians in Niger lost homes, churches, schools and offices to fires set by people upset by the actions of journalists in France. SIM’s missionaries were unharmed, but they were not unaffected. They stayed, and they are helping rebuild.
“In fact,” Johnson said, “I’ve heard that Liberians have said of SIM, ‘In difficult times, you never left. You’ve been here for decades, through two civil wars and now Ebola. SIM continues to be here. That speaks volumes to us about your commitment and the heart you have for our nation and our people.’”
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33, New International Version (NIV)