Kenya—A Faith Assignment:How We Lived And Served
I promised my bride-to-be in 1955: “I may not be able to give you houses and lands, but I can promise you we will do the will of God.” That promise launched a mutual acceptance of the surprising, exciting, and sometimes nerve-racking circumstances we found ourselves in with each new assignment God made clear to us after we were married.
Our First Voyage
After two and a half years of marriage, my wife Gloria and I packed up all our earthly belongings, boarded a freighter at the Brooklyn, New York, port and headed for Mombasa, Kenya. It was March 20, 1959. I had recently celebrated my 23rd birthday and our son Mark was just 17 months old. We imagined life in Africa to be different, but as the chilly March winds wrapped around our three bodies that day, we should have known the journey ahead would be filled with more challenges than our limited minds could foresee. The 41-day voyage on a freighter across the Atlantic and around the Horn of Africa through the frightening monster Cape rollers of Cape Agulhas, South Africa, provided me with plenty of time to reflect on my life up to that point. What had made me fearless to move my young, growing family halfway around the globe for an undetermined length of time? It was absolute faith in Jesus Christ!
Our First Assignment—Bukuria Mission
Our first divinely appointed assignment was at Bukuria Mission, on the Tanzania border near Lake Victoria, though eventually we would settle in the capital city of Nairobi. Observing a senior missionary communicate freely in Swahili with Kenyan tribesmen, I knew that to really get close to the people, I needed to speak their language. Right then, I committed myself to do that and enrolled in a six-week crash course in Swahili to learn the structure and vocabulary to preach freely in the local language.
Gloria developed her hospitality skills as refugees from the neighboring Congo fled through our little mission station as the result of their country’s dangerous civil war. With no shortage of opportunities to do women’s ministry in the back country, Gloria taught Bible courses at the station’s mission school, did the bookkeeping for the station, and had the privilege of typing the first translation of the Book of Mark into the Kuria language. It was the first book of the Bible in their language.
Approximately 20 miles from Bukuria Mission was its sister mission, Suna Mission, where missionaries George and June Lindsay served. I traveled with George (who had been in Kenya a number of years before we arrived) to the unreached territory across the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania. We often pushed my little Volkswagen through herds of impalas, zebras, and wildebeests. These trips established new pioneer churches. Today, from the small seeds we planted by faith in late 1959, churches are thriving!
While our son Mark played with local children, my responsibilities at home included mechanical and electrical work, carpentry, building, and preaching. In July 1960, needing to replace our oil-leaky VW with a new vehicle, I drove the 300 miles to Nairobi to car shop. Two and a half days later, I received a telegram informing me that Gloria had delivered a baby girl—Marcia Kay, born two weeks ahead of schedule. I learned that the very night I left, Gloria began to feel labor pains. She immediately made the 20-mile trip to the home of our senior missionary, who drove her the second part of the 175-mile journey to the nearest hospital. I didn’t see Marcia until she was four days old.
Gloria was such a trooper! While I was out pioneering churches, my beloved wife stayed home at the Bukuria mission station lovingly caring for our two small children as she navigated through learning new skills such as applying treatments for worms, fire ants, and fly larvae. Gloria truly did whatever her hands found to do. She cooked on a wood stove, kept the kerosene fridge operational, and daily checked our outhouse for dangerous spiders and snakes. We collected rain water in big tanks to store water during the rainy seasons, washed all the fruits and vegetables, and changed the water filters every few days to provide clean drinking water.
The mission had purchased a motorcycle I used to do church visitation, and I was able to get to churches that were accessible only by a narrow, dirt trail. To get to one location, I had to drive the Triumph down a trail that paralleled a deep trench which kept elephants from crossing. Turning the motorcycle wheel a bit too quickly in the mud, I flipped into the air and down into the trench. By the grace of God, a tree on the inside of the trench caught my ankle. When I awoke, I was hanging upside down. I was able to climb out of the ditch but was unable to dislodge my heavy bike. The only two women in sight agreed to help me pull it out. I knew I had been saved by my Savior from certain death and perhaps an attack by a wild animal.
On to Nairobi
We moved to Nairobi in 1962, two years before Kenya’s independence. Although the British still had political control, their control was showing signs of fading. Many tribal and political battles were being fought. The city’s tension, however, was not my first order of business when we arrived in Nairobi. The words of Saint Paul in Corinth came to me: “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10b). I desired to know who these people were!
Our first official assignment in Nairobi was to establish an indigenous national church. Through evangelistic meetings, with Gloria playing the accordian, we pioneered a city church which eventually developed into All Nations Gospel Church. It was the first multi-language, Pentecostal church in Nairobi. We intentionally established this church to grow without financial support from the United States, which was one of the essential principles we carried with us from our seminary training. I believed that every city has its own key to evangelism, and I asked God for the key to Nairobi in particular. The Holy Spirit showed me it was “by the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21), and so we increased our street meetings to 25 a week.
By late 1962, missionary leaders in Kenya realized the handwriting on the wall—foreign missionaries would not always be in charge. Thus, the Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa was born—an organization that would be fully Kenyan. The Kenyan brethren would accept responsibility for its continuation on their own shilling and initiative. Today, the PEFA organization has thousands of churches.
On December 15, 1963, we had the privilege of attending Kenya’s independence ceremonies held in an open stadium seating 250,000 people. We were happy and fearless standing with the wonderful people of Kenya, willing to face whatever the future brought, for we knew Who really held the future.
Adjusting Back Home
Our first assignment in Kenya was marked by a political transition from a place of foreign rule to a place of national rule. In 1964, after five and a half years, it was nice to get back to the U.S. and our families. The family dynamics had changed; we had missed some funerals and weddings, and our extended families had missed our children’s developmental years. My twin brother, Rob, helped me put together a slide presentation to use as I traveled around reconnecting with supporting churches. That year, Rob and I were offered the opportunity to go into real estate development and sales in Rochester, New York. It sounded like a perfect opportunity, but not wanting to get caught in a trap to derail any assignment God had for us, I dug into the Word and prayer to find out. God’s voice came to me through the words of Elisha to Gehazi in 2 Kings 5:26, that it was not the time to receive money. It was time for us to return to Kenya!
Our Second Assignment
Our second assignment to Kenya began in 1965 and lasted nearly five years. We returned to Nairobi because we knew we had not finished the work we went there to do. The All Nations Gospel Church had grown to some 300 people, still continuing with both English and Swahili services on the streets and in a meeting hall. I prayed for God to show me the location and plot where we could build a church seating over a thousand believers. The Spirit spoke clearly into my spirit, “I own the whole city.” I knew God had a specific place and provision. Eventually, the Nairobi City Council went contrary to their established policy and gave us a plot of land.
After nine months of construction, on July 20, 1968, All Nations Gospel Church, located right in the heart of Nairobi, was dedicated by Evangelist Oral Roberts. Today, the church continues strong, healthy, and unchanged from its original purpose. The building presently holds 1,500 people and the church has started 60 branch congregations.
While Gloria and I focused on building an unshakeable foundation in God’s church, we became quite shook up a couple of times. One day, while visiting the Nairobi National Park, suddenly, an adult baboon picked up our four-year-old Marcia, who was snacking on a banana, and started to carry her away. Before the baboon made it with Marcia to the nearest trees, we realized he was only after the banana. We yelled with all our might, “Throw down the banana!” She did, and the baboon dropped her and picked up the banana. Another time, Marcia was hit by a fast-moving car, throwing her about 65 feet forward onto the pavement. In shock, I placed my arms underneath Marcia’s limp body and prayed for a miracle of healing as a passing motorist offered to drive us to the hospital. Marcia remained semi-conscious for three days and at the end of two weeks walked out of the hospital without medication or broken bones. We were only able to get through this accident by God’s right arm and holy hand upholding us (Psalm 98:1).
Our work in Nairobi was very draining. There were very few Christian conferences for us to attend for encouragement and refilling. Once, during a long season of drought, I knew I needed time in prayer with spiritual brothers. My mind immediately went to other white missionaries. The Holy Spirit convicted me of bias toward the very people I loved. I repented and called the Kenyan brethren together. I asked for forgiveness and for them to lay hands on me to pray for strength in my body and spirit. We spent three hours ministering one to another. It was like splashing in a desert oasis! Thereafter, I called together the Kenya church elders every three months for mutual prayer and encouragement.
The Nairobi Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship took on the task of laying a solid biblical foundation for ministry by developing a long-term, three-year Bible school for ministers. Our trusted African brothers taught and counseled the students, and many graduates became great preachers who not only evangelized in Kenya but also throughout Europe and South Africa.
Saying Goodbye to Kenya
In midsummer 1969, it was time for our family to return to the United States. Gloria and I were at peace with the work we had left behind to others in Kenya. From the beginning of our missionary journey, we did not want anyone to become dependent on us. We had to believe God for dedicated local workers who would give themselves and all of their resources for the sake of the ministry.
Hundreds of Kenyan Christians saw us off at the airport. Witnessing the crowd and hearing their words of support made me know in my heart that the Kenyans had affected a change in Gloria and me. Coming from the U.S., Gloria and I had thought the American way of doing things bigger, better, and faster was best. However, in Kenya we learned to move slower and that relationships are more important than issues, projects, and getting things done. This way of thinking helped us become more caring. It was the best gift the Kenyans gave us! We would live the rest of our lives with a focus on people and not programs. Our Kenyan family of believers sent us back to the United States with a solid connection of love keeping us connected.
“Lowing All the Way”
By 1994, I was serving as chairman of the board at my alma mater, Elim Bible Institute in Lima, New York, when I learned the then-president planned to step down. After a couple days of prayer with the school’s leadership team, they concluded that I was to become the next president. Still unconvinced, we went on a personal retreat to seek the Lord’s will. We were well aware that if I accepted the position of president, it would mean we would have to move away from our beloved New York City, the place where we lived and had started the New York School of Urban Ministry. As we sought God to confirm the direction of our next move, we read together the story of the ark going back to Jerusalem in 1 Samuel 6:1–12. The Philistines, as a test, had placed the ark of God on a cart and attached two milking cows that had been separated from their calves. If the cows left their calves and went to Jerusalem, they would know that the plagues were from God. If the cows refused to leave their calves, they would know what they were experiencing was by chance. The cows did indeed head for Jerusalem, but they did so crying or “lowing all the way.” Although we had already served at Elim 16 years prior, we wanted to do God’s will. This confirmation made it easier for us to obey, despite our human feelings to the contrary. The next 12 years at Elim saw amazing growth and expansion.
Gloria and I have lived over eight decades witnessing God’s mighty hand work faithfully on our behalf as we have obeyed our unique, divinely directed assignments. We reflected on the highlights of those assignments in our recent autobiography entitled Faith on Assignment: The Johansson Journey. We are transitioning now into a new, slower-paced ministry of encouraging and coaching the younger generations.
We pray that you too will accept God’s will over your own will, listen for and obey your heavenly Father’s voice aligned with His written Word, and allow the Master Writer to write your own unique, surprising story of trust in Him.