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‘Honey, guess what – we’re going to Africa!’

Way back, some 65 years ago, a red-headed, rash, religious Presbyterian missionary on furlough spoke at a morning chapel in Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI where I was a student in the senior class. He had recently come from the South Sudan in Africa. This man said he was looking for new missionary recruits to join him at Akobo in the Sudan.

Harvey and Lavina

He told how someone was needed there to translate the New Testament into the Anuak language. I had taken, German, Latin and Greek all at the same time, during the same semester while I was in college. I had discovered that I loved working with foreign languages. That morning, when chapel service ended, this red-headed, rash and religious man named Don McClure and I had a one on one discussion. He encouraged me to consider being that needed Bible translator.

My wife, Lavina, and our three-year-old son, were home some 21 miles away where we lived near Grand Haven, where I was serving as a student pastor for three years while doing my theological education. As I raced home in my 32 Ford, I wondered what Lavina would say when I came bounding through the door and light heartedly said, “Honey, guess what – we’re going to Africa!”

Well, it didn’t, of course, happen at the door. But two years later we had made our first long trip to Africa, making the last 300 river miles on a paddle wheeled steamer. By this time our little boy, Denny, was 5 ½ years old and we had a little 3 month old baby, Jimmy, in a carrying basket.

Our family served as missionaries in Africa for nearly thirty years. We began in the Sudan in 1948 and in the rain forest of SW Ethiopia in 1964. I told of our experiences in my book, “Honey, We’re Going to Africa!” I also narrated the entire book and one can listen to the audio version on the website, www.talkingbibles.org.

Lavina with Majang people

During our years in Africa, the Lord gave us four additional children – three more boys and our only daughter, Carol Joy. Like for many other missionaries, our children attended a missionary children’s boarding school far from home. If there is a sacrifice a missionary family makes this is it – separation from your children and for the children, separation from their home. Even so, when I ask my grown children about those years, every one of them says they wouldn’t want to have missed their experience of growing up in Africa. I say, “Thanks be to God for His loving kindness and tender mercies.”

When we left Ethiopia in 1976, I never dreamed that I would ever return. But, there I was 35 years later, at 90 years of age, being welcomed back by thousands of these Majangir people among whom we had lived in the forest so long ago. It was unbelievable. I could not have imagined such a welcome. Never, during my entire lifetime, have I hugged and been hugged by so many people as on that day! It was awesome and I felt so unworthy of it all. To God belongs all the praise!

It was 47 years earlier that my dear wife, Lavina and our youngest son, Paul, at that time just three and a half years of age, had first arrived to tell these previously unreached forest people the good news about Jesus Christ. It had taken us ten days on uncut trails with six mules, two horses and more than a hundred different carriers to get us to where, after dark, we ended our journey and slept on the rain-soaked ground beside a grass-roofed hut to begin living among the Majangir.

Until then, the Majangir people had never heard of Jesus. They were wearing leaves and grass, with the men having a small folded loin-cloth in front. They welcomed us but were known to be a fearsome people, and sometimes we had reason to be afraid.

Group picture of those traveling to Ethiopia

During our years among them, we made extensive use of cassettes in their language. The Majang themselves carried our cassette players with the good news about Jesus to distant villages I never visited. We had opened a school and had a daily clinic. During those years hundreds, from villages near and far, came in for medical care. I’d cleared away the trees and opened an airstrip for the missionary aviation fellowship plane. Very sick or injured people were flown out to the mission hospital in Mettu.

When we left Ethiopia, thirteen years later, there were probably no more than two or three hundred baptized believers. In the ensuing years, the number of believers has increased phenomenally. In a population of 35,000 to 40,000 people, an estimated 90 percent have become Christians. Many fearful pagan customs have been abandoned. For example, when people die, mourners no longer cut deeply in the foreheads with sharp knives. We learned that they now sing Christian songs of joy when someone dies. They know that heaven is real. They are a changed people. Many now speak of a “born again” experience with Christ. Some of those testimonies we heard for ourselves on our return to Ethiopia. Let me attempt to share more from our recent awe-inspiring, historic trip back to where it began in the rain forest so long ago.

Welcoming crowd at Teppi airstrip

What a trip it was! We traveled to Ethiopia in response to the invitation of the Majangir Bethel Synod (the Christian church of these Majangir people of southwest Ethiopia) to take part in a special dedication service on February 22 for the Talking Bible in the Majangir language, as part of their second annual Synod meeting. We carried 200 “Talking Bibles” in our suitcases. These were “partial” Bibles, “loaded” with just the four gospels. We’re asking people to please pray with us for the ongoing work of Bible translation for the Majangir. Our returning to Ethiopia was a privilege and experience, the likes of which few are privileged to have. Let God alone be thanked and praised.

Let me share some excerpts from a report that Sandy wrote up for her church’s monthly “Share and Care” publication.

“Eight Hoekstra’s left LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] on February 17, 2011 – Harvey (90 yrs. old), four of his 6 children: Dennis, Carol, Mark, and Paul…Mark’s wife Sandy and two of their sons, Curtis and Tim. This was a very special trip for us. Harvey is a retired missionary. He and his wife Lavina (deceased May 2010) were career missionaries, first working in south Sudan, Africa, among the Anuak and Murle people, then moving to Godare River in the rainforest of southwestern Ethiopia in 1964 to the Mesengos (Majangir), a primitive, unreached people group – caught up in the darkness of paganism, witchcraft, spiritism.

“They shared the love and messages of Jesus Christ with the Majang, and many became believers. In 1964, Paul was three, Mark & Carol were 10 & 11. Dennis began his career as a Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot in the 1960’s in Ethiopia, and helped airdrop supplies to his parents at their new mission post. He has just recently retired. The Hoekstra’s left Ethiopia in 1976. Harvey & Carol have not been back since then. Mark & Paul visited in the 1990’s. Sandy, Curtis & Tim have never been there, but we’ve heard so many stories! (Some of you have read them, too, in Dr. Hoekstra’s book in our church library)

Banner near city hall in Teppi

“We flew to Amsterdam on KLM, about 24 hours there, then we continued on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, arriving about midnight Saturday. We were met by Solomon Gizaw, a young Ethiopian with close ties to the Hoekstra family – Dr. and Mrs. Hoekstra helped him to get college and flight training – now he owns a charter flight service in Ethiopia – he met us at the airport that night and said to Dr. Hoekstra, “Welcome home!” He and his family helped us so much all week!

“We enjoyed good accommodations in Addis – we heard the daily Moslem calls to prayer as they woke us each morning. Our group had been joined by two men from Minnesota – Paul Lindberg and Walter Potts – volunteers who did the recording of the four Majang gospels last year in June in Ethiopia for Talking Bibles – now with us for the dedication service and distribution of the Bibles. Paul L., Walter, Paul H., and Mark had many meetings during the week with missionaries and others as they explored the needs and possibilities for more language recordings needed in various people groups of Ethiopia.

“Tuesday was the big day! Solomon’s plane took us from Addis to Teppi (350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa) – we knew the Majang were expecting us, that word had spread about our arrival, and everyone was excited – but what a tremendous experience it was to approach the runway in Teppi in that small plane and to see thousands of people lining the runway, and still coming, as far as we could see, still coming down the runway. We were warmly welcomed, children presented Dr. Hoekstra with bouquets of artificial flowers as he got off the airplane. When we approached the city hall which the church had reserved for the service, large banners outside advertised the service – one had a picture on it of Harvey & Lavina, and said, ‘The Hoekstra’s – We will always remember you for you led us to eternal life. The Majangir.’

Inside the large hall at the dedication
service in Teppi

“The hall was packed (and hot!) with at least 2,000 people inside who were dancing, singing, swaying, celebrating. In a two-hour service of dedication, worship and celebration music, praise was given to God for the deliverance from darkness experienced by the Majang and experiences and greetings were shared by the Hoekstra’s with the assembled multitude, as well as an account by Dawit, a Majang who spoke on behalf of the Majang – all interpreted and translated with the help of a young Majang named Ashini.

“We gave out 180 Talking Bibles to assembled church leaders in Teppi Wednesday morning before flying to Gambela to deliver the remaining 20 Bibles.”

The following is taken from a letter I wrote shortly after returning from Ethiopia:

“Ours was an unbelievable experience. Solomon Gizaw flew us all to Teppi for the celebration. We were amazed to see thousands of people lining both sides of the airstrip (between 5 to 10,000 people estimated to be there)….In the afternoon, we drove to the city hall, which was packed out with over 2,000 inside and countless numbers unable to get in.

“…I felt so unworthy of such love and praise. In the huge hall, there was beautiful singing and swaying with the rhythm by the entire assembly. Mark spoke introducing our group. Several short speeches were made and then I was asked to speak.

“They wanted to know how it was that we came to Godare to the Majangir. I told them how God had closed all the other doors and opened this one only. I told them about the survey, about Lavina and Paul and my trekking in with six mules, two horses and many different carriers. I told how we soon made cassettes and described how interested the people were to hear. I told of three different knotted strings that came to us.

“I told them the Lord had given me two verses of Scripture to share with them. One, Jesus saying, ‘I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness…’ When they heard this verse, they all clapped for joy. The other verse was where Jesus said, ‘I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples.’ (John 8:12, John 13:34,35).

“The hotel in Teppi consisted of individual houses with bed and toilet, separated by trees and bushes. Each of us brought our own sheet, pillowcase, mosquito net, drinking water and a flashlight. Lights went off at 7 p.m. and came on at 7 in the morning.

“Later that afternoon, we sat in that hotel area under a huge palm tree-like bush. We ate from loaves of bread which we dipped in wild honey. We survived!

“Numerous visitors stopped by to sit with us. The emotions brought many tears. It was unbelievable. Carol had a nice small picture of Lavina from the memorial. When she showed it to someone, they automatically burst into uncontrollable tears. This was true of both men and women. They obviously loved her deeply. Lavina had been a model Christian among them.

“The next day Solomon flew Denny, Sandy, Carol, Walter Potts, Paul Lindberg, and me over the Godare and we landed in Gambella in the area where we had once served over 50 years ago, where local church leaders now came out to meet us. We also dedicated another 20 Majang Talking Bibles with a promise of more. It was a rare, rare privilege. There were so many reasons to praise God.

Paul demonstrates Talking Bible to Peter

“Mark, Paul, Tim and Curtis went by road to Godare. What took me 25 men and 17 days to bring the Land Rover in to Godare, they now did on an upgraded road in just 3 hours. They said some 1,000 people greeted them and they had a wonderful worship service where they normally worship. Mark and Paul both spoke at the service, and Paul was able to speak to them in the Majangir language. I saw photos of their offering table overflowing with Ethiopian dollar bills, a man bringing a chicken and many fruit and vegetables on the ground. God has done a great work among them. Mark and Paul met numerous older people whom I still remember well.

“It is impossible to find adequate words to describe this historic event. God gave us the honor to be the first to tell them about His love in Christ. We planted the seed but the real growth took place after we had said our farewell in 1976. Today they estimate some 26,000 believers, 30 plus pastors and their own Bethel Majangir Synod. I marvel at what God has done.

“At 90 years God enabled me, after 35 years, to return to see what He has done. Words simply fail to describe it all.”

Since returning from that trip, we have received requests to make Talking Bibles in three additional Ethiopian languages. Others requests are anticipated. Talking Bibles International has recently provided Talking Bibles in two of the six languages spoken where we missionaries once served in the Sudan. Being a Faith ministry, each Talking Bible is made possible by the prayers and gifts of donor partners. We are grateful for the increasing number of local congregations observing a Talking Bible Sunday to help provide Talking Bibles in needed languages. Harvey T, Hoekstra can be contacted at harvey@talkingbibles.org

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1 Comment

  1. sharon wilton

    April 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    What a beautiful accounting of your obedience to God’s calling. It has blessed me so much. I too have a heart for South Sudan and the ready declarations they have of their faith.
    What a rich blessed life and to see the harvest won must be truly wonderful.
    May God bless you and keep you in your continuing service and blessings to people like myself…. much blessed by this article.

    Thank you again.

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