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‘Honey, We’re Going to Africa!’

I was a student at Hope College in Holland, Michigan in 1940, with an early 3:30 am job mopping up the floor in the Dutch Boy Bakery.

Book cover

One morning I stopped in a nearby, lovely little restaurant for a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. The beautiful gal who waited on me caught my eye. I had never seen her before but something attracted me to her. To catch her attention I left a one cent tip when I left. She told me later that she put that coin in her penny loafer shoe and kept her eye on the door the next morning. She said, “I wondered if my ‘Prince Charming’ would return.

I’ve often said, “The Lord swings His doors on small hinges.” I wanted to date this truly beautiful young lady but my friends said, “You’ll never date her because her dad is too strict.” My reply was, “Just wait and I’ll surprise you.” Amazingly, her dad took a liking to me, it seems, and I had smooth sailing.

I was out of town, back home on the farm in Minnesota, for the summer, and we corresponded by letter. We missed each other greatly and there was a mutual attraction. In the fall, I sold my old car and put the money into the best little diamond ring I could find. Lavina knew I was heading for the ministry. I remember well how she said, “I know that ministers moves from place to place wherever God calls them. I can do that with you…..” Wow!

That same year, in November, 1941 we decided to be married. Looking back, one would have to say, “Those kids don’t know what they are doing.” Years later my own father shared with me how, when his brothers in Chicago heard that “Harvey is getting married” they had said, “He may as well quit college now, because he will never make it.”

Looking back, Lavina and I acknowledged it probably wasn’t the wisest decision since I had so much unfinished schooling to successfully graduate from College and then from Theological Seminary. But, across the years, we both knew that God was in it shaping our lives to have us ready for the rigors of the mission field.

Lavina with an African friend

Lavina was exactly the right person for me to have and for the two of us and our children to be His servants sharing the good news about Christ among unreached people in Africa and beyond. I’m unable to fathom the countless times across the years and in the widest variety of circumstances I have thanked God for Lavina being with us for that particular situation.

Many times, when conditions were difficult and unpredictable, we quoted to each other, Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.”

I owe so much to Lavina. She was used of God to shape me into a better person. She was as sweet as they come and tough with courage and fortitude from the Lord.

We had never seriously talked about being missionaries. Once when we were struggling financially, we joked about it saying, “God must be getting us ready for Arabia or something.”

That all changed the morning that a red-headed, rash, religious Presbyterian missionary on his furlough spoke in our chapel service in our Seminary. Among those he was seeking to recruit to join him in the Sudan, was a Bible translator. I had taken German, Latin and Greek all at the same time in college and discovered I loved working with languages. This visiting missionary encouraged me to prayerfully consider becoming that Bible translator. Again, it was the Lord swinging a huge door on a very small hinge.

But, Lavina took it all in stride when, that same morning, I bounced through the door and light heartedly announced, “Honey, guess what – we’re going to Africa!” Well it didn’t happen at the door, but it led to constant conversation and to that sleepless night when we got out of bed, knelt down together and committed our lives to obey His call to Africa. The verse of Scripture the Lord gave us was from Matthew 28:20b “… and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Lavina joined me in taking special courses in several educational institutions where we were sent to prepare for serving in Africa. And, with our 5 ½ year old son and a little guy in the basket, we sailed for Africa on July 2, 1948. Within a few weeks of our arrival, sleeping in our grass roofed house with just mosquito netting over the window openings, we were awakened by the shattering roar of a nearby lion. That verse about His being with us to the end of the world became very practical. We felt then that we were, indeed, at the end of the world.

But for all the details let me invite you to read or listen in audio on the website to my book, “Honey, We’re Going to Africa!” The most common reader response has been, “I just couldn’t put it down.” The book tells how God led and blessed us those nearly thirty years in the Sudan and Ethiopia. It’s an exciting story and many who read it or listen to it in audio comment, saying, “What a terrific person your wife was to live the way you folks did with all its inconveniences, discomfort, challenges and dangers.

Sadly, my sweetheart left us after a lingering illness, when the Lord called her home on May 17, 2010. I want folks to know what a wonderful person of Christ God gave me to be the mother of our children, my missionary companion and loving wife. Lavina Irene and I were blessed with 68.5 years of marriage. It wasn’t always easy, but we had each other and that made it all our joyful sacrifice as we prepared for the ministry.

Ours was a wonderful marriage. When I gave Lavina a copy of my book, “Honey, We’re Going to Africa!” fifty five years after those wedding vows, I wrote under my name as I autographed her personal copy: “Honey, you are fantastic and all those years you showed the Africans and us what a real Christ-like home-maker, mother and wife and missionary truly is. God be praised! I love you more than this pen can write! Harvey.”

A Scripture from Ruth was especially meaningful to us. It reads, “But Ruth said, ‘Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God, where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.” — Ruth 1:16-17

Lavina with Majang people

The first night of our marriage before turning off the lights, we read those words from Ruth in our Bible. And we made it a tradition to reread these special verses every succeeding wedding anniversary. By the grace of God, we never missed being together to read again that Scripture during our years in Africa and after making California our home base for our growing audio Scripture ministry overseas.

One year in Africa, to make it home for our anniversary, I came from a distant village all day on my horse, and made the last 20 miles home being paddled downstream in the darkness in a dugout canoe. When I came up from the river and clapped my hands at the door, Lavina welcomed me and I said, “Honey, I made it!” Thanks be to God.

Lavina and an African Friend

Lavina was truly a person to be admired. On the Dedication page of that book I wrote this: “To my wife, Lavina so beautifully genuine, unpretentious, never seeking acclaim — a missionary-mother with a servant heart, able to convert mud-walls or sticks and grass with dirt floors into an attractive home in which there was contentment and love and where our people in Africa knew they were always welcome and could find help in times of need.”

You can hardly imagine the difficulties and challenges Lavina faced when we first arrived in the Sudan. We lived in a mud walled house with a grass roof and mosquito netting over the window openings. Until our goods arrived six months after we did, Lavina used borrowed pots, pans and dishes from other missionaries. She cooked outside and baked her bread in an improvised five gallon gasoline tin in which I had put a mahogany wooden oven door. She made do with very little and I never heard her complain. Let God be praised.

Lavina Cooking on Stones

Lavina cooking on stones

This is what I wrote in my book: “Lavina was a truly happy, fulfilled missionary wife and mother. She was more than busy. Each of the children was taught during their first years at home. It took a lot of skill and perseverance to keep busy children at their schooling. Still, in addition to these inescapable responsibilities, Lavina found time to help me with primer construction, teaching some of the women and just making time for anyone who came. Our home was always open and many hours were spent sharing with the women and girls who dropped by.

“Lavina set a terrific example for Anuak women as to what it means to be a wife and mother who modeled the love of Christ. I don’t recall an Anuak, or for that matter, Majang who ever criticized Lavina for some failure in character or demeanor. She set a great example for all of us in our home and in our relationships with others.

Hers was honoring to Christ! In all our years on the field, I never once heard her pine to return to America. To God be the glory!

“Lavina was a brave woman. … She had come a long way since that day when I came home from seminary and suggested the Lord might be calling us to ‘the dark continent’.

Majangiir Village

A vision of being up a tree in Africa with a hungry lion at the base had long since evaporated. She learned to cope with ants, rats and snakes in the house, plus scorpions that hid in the grass roof and would drop down on our beds when the army ants invaded us.”

When I wrote my book about our years in Africa, Lavina was a full partner in that effort. As I was writing on the computer, she was going through the letters we had written home during our years in Africa. My mother had saved these letters. As I wrote, Lavina kept coming to me saying, “Honey, here’s one I think you may want to include.”

Lavina’s letter written to the Hoekstras’ home church in Silver Creek, Minnesota, dated January 5, 1962, beautifully describes how she viewed our being there in Africa.

Lavina wrote, “It was with tears in our eyes and aching hearts that we left our home, our work and the people whom we had learned to love. As the little MAF [Mission Aviation Fellowship] plane flew us over the mission compound, it was hard to realize that we would never again return. It makes me sad to think of it. I guess I am like many other people that look so long at the door that is closed behind them, they fail to see the door the Lord is opening before them.

“The morning we left Pibor, I had to get away and relax a bit. So I walked out to the village to say good-bye to some of my friends. I stopped to see Bur, Ocan’s wife. She had come to Pibor this spring knowing nothing of the Lord and with a mother who is very much opposed to her son-in-law’s new religion. Ocan, her husband, is a very dear Christian man. He is an Anuak and a tuberculosis patient at the hospital. Under Ocan’s teaching Bur came to love the Lord.

“While we were at Mundri, she stood up in church and said she believed in Jesus and wanted to be baptized. At that time Bob Swart told her that when Harvey returned to Pibor she would be baptized.

“I could see she was sad about something. When I asked what was making her sad, this is what she told me: ‘When you were away at Mundri, I told the people I believed in Jesus. Bomb (Bob) told me that when Odola [Harvey’s African name] returned I would be baptized.’ She went on, ‘Now you have come back, but today you are leaving and you will never return and I am not baptized.’

“I went home and told Harvey. When he heard this, he said, ‘We’ll stop everything and have a service right now.’”

“So we beat the church drum, called the people together and had a most wonderful time of fellowship with the people that last morning. It was well worth the time it took. How I wish you could have seen Bur’s face when she left the church following her baptism. It was radiant — so different from when I saw her an hour earlier. It was a great joy to all of us. It is experiences like this that make it well worth the investment of our lives.”

When all of us missionaries were expelled from the Sudan, Lavina and I lived with uncertainty for 18 months before our resident visa for Ethiopia was granted. Neither of us ever considered come back home to the USA. Lavina was so wonderful in coping with uncertainty in many difficult situations and together we learned afresh what it means to really trust the Lord.

Lavina Seeing Their New Home to Be

When the Ethiopian visa was granted and we were preparing to go into the rain forest with horses, mules and carriers, the mission wanted Lavina and our little boy, Paul, to remain in Addis Ababa while I went in to find a place to live. Lavina, however, persuaded them that she wanted to share the experience with me and was prepared to accept whatever challenges lay ahead with confidence in the Lord.

Harvey and Lavina

I recall how difficult it was making our way through incredible forest country with hills to climb, rivers to cross and unseen stumps to bang against ones legs leaving behind black and blue swollen bruises.

People who read the book, marvel at how Lavina was able to cope with all these difficulties and challenges. I would invite folks who read this to visit our website and listen to the book in audio. People tell me how much they enjoy it and how they marvel at how a woman like Lavina, with God’s help, coped without a complaint. Thanks be to God!

My sweetheart is with the Lord now. She left us after a lengthy illness. I miss her more than one can imagine, but I would not wish her back to this world of sickness, injury and pain. In God’s tomorrow, we will be together again marveling at the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ and the multitude who heard the Good News and said, “Yes” to Him.

Dr. Harvey T. Hoekstra, Talking Bibles International Board Chair

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