What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

5 Ways to Communicate with Supporters About a Ministry Transition

I remember facing our first ministry transition and Googling, “How do I tell donors that we’re changing ministries?”

We hadn’t served in our first overseas assignment for very long. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding our very unexpected change in plans and country of service. 

I hardly knew how to process the unforeseen change myself, let alone how to concisely communicate it to our donors. I felt like we had failed them. I was anxious and needed guidance with this intimidating task.

The blank screen that met me told me that no one talks about this.

Maybe that’s because people don’t go to the field expecting a change in their ministry. I certainly didn’t learn about the situation in training – or how to communicate about it.

But it’s more common than you might think. If you plan to serve overseas long term, it is likely that you will face adaptation in your ministry or furlough plans at some point. We expect global life to be fraught with transition, and we know how to pack a bag to exactly 49.5 pounds, but we are usually left feeling vulnerable and ill-prepared to communicate the delicate matter of ministry transition.  

If you are in this boat, I’m sorry. I’ve been there. I know the baggy-eyed exhaustion you are facing after a season of debating and seeking God on what to do. I also know the sleepless nights of wondering how your supporters will receive the news.

On the other end, after multiple transitions over the last decade, I also know the staying power of the people on our support team. Their dedication to God’s heart for the nations shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but I guess I never take it for granted.

No matter the ministry transition, you’re probably living in some discomfort and uncertainty. You might have an idea of future ministry plans, but many things are still unclear.

The very public nature of mission work with its fundraising and partnership development exacerbates an already delicate season. You not only have to navigate your own pain and incertitude, you have to promptly, concisely, and clearly communicate your shift to your ministry partners. 

Transition is also a time ripe for misunderstanding, which can damage relationships. Uncertainty can be crippling and may leave you unable to communicate with crucial ministry partners, even if you have stewarded these relationships well for many years. 

The goal here is to preserve your valuable partner relationships even when it feels daunting. These people are FOR you. There are things you can communicate, even if you’re still living with some uncertainty. As you do so, you will move from a place of ambiguity and non-communication to a place of greater clarity and new confidence.

In the midst of an unclear season, I offer five tools that you can apply when you communicate about your ministry transition. 

1. Share what you are praying and learning.
What have you prayed through this transition? What have you learned about God, his heart for people, and the sacrifice he modeled?  

When our family made one significant ministry transition, we prayed for God to open our eyes to where he was at work and how we could join him there. We learned that it was extremely important to us to partner with the national church, and we wanted to do this on a deeper level in our next assignment. We shared this with our partners and used it as a guide for discerning where to plug in. Your partners will cherish knowing how and what you have prayed through. 

2. Communicate threads of continuity.
People respond well to threads of continuity during transition. What will stay consistent? There is an overarching and unchanging aspect to conducting ministry that remains the same no matter where you are and no matter what you are doing. 

What was the original vision, or part of the vision, that launched your family into missions and still propels you today? This is the “why” that transcends your specific job descriptions or geographic assignment. You may need to step back from your specific ministry roles to look at the bigger and more timeless picture of your role in spreading the gospel message, however and wherever you do that.

When we transitioned out of one ministry to another several years ago, we faced a lot of change, including our job descriptions and country assignment. However, we leaned on two significant threads of continuity that we could communicate to our donors. Our long-term passions and skill sets included skills training, education, and discipleship. These ministry aspects are part of who Sam and Anna Danforth are and how we do ministry. They are the “why” beyond our specific job descriptions or location. 

Your threads of continuity carry a sense of timelessness that aligns with God’s call to make disciples of all nations and utilize your skill sets. Even though everything around you is changing, this isn’t a total shift in your identity or your approach to missions. It is an affirmation of the timeless call to make Christ known among the nations and of your role in that call.

3. Avoid getting bogged down in details about the past.
Your story is important, and transparency builds trust. But too many details can be confusing and may actually detract from your message. You are moving forward. Communicate what comes next.  

You may be dealing with difficult immigration officials or toxic team dynamics that are a major contributing factor in your need for a change. Focus on what is changing in the ministry or your situation, not all the details that led up to your transition. 

For example, “We were unable to secure our visas last week as we hoped and will have to return to the United States until further notice.” Share your next step instead of a very long explanation of every detail that went wrong at the immigration office. 

Instead of communicating the need for distance from your team, you can share, “We will be meeting with our teammates for vision casting quarterly instead of monthly.” If you are dealing with a private or sensitive medical issue, try, “One of our family members is experiencing some health issues that need to be addressed with a trip back home. This is a difficult time for us, and we ask that you enable us to protect our family privacy during this vulnerable time.”   

You can always go back and share more when you are out of the thick of the mess. Remember that anything you share may be shared publicly or forwarded to anyone. Starting with less gives you a chance to deal with your own pain and lack of clarity first. 

Do not promise that more details will come. Simply state your current situation or what is coming next. Allow yourself to choose whether you can or should go into more detail later on.

4. You have agency. Own your choice where you can.
If any part of your transition was your choice, own it. Embrace your role as a decision-maker. Avoid blame. This may not always be possible, but where it is, it moves you from a place of helplessness and reactivity to a place of confidence and proactivity in following God’s guidance.

If your sending organization has made a major shift in their vision or policies and you can no longer stay in ministry with them, avoid blame. Instead, talk about how your future sending organization provides the vision or opportunities you need to carry out the mission that God has placed on your heart.

Avoiding blame is especially important when family members are concerned. If one person in your family is dealing with a major issue or health problem that forces a change in ministry, avoid focusing on that family member. 

Instead, communicate your decision to pursue family health. For example, “After _____ years on the field, we have determined with our member care team that we need to return to the U.S. for a season to pursue care and resources that are not available in our host country.” Or, “Our family will be moving from our rural station to the capital city so that we can still serve in this cross-cultural context while accessing the resources that our family needs at this time.”

5. Avoid overly detailed promises about future plans.
What is the main thrust of your next assignment? You may feel a deep sense of responsibility to communicate a clear and detailed plan for future ministry. However, your future ministry may not shape up exactly as you plan. It is ok to share general plans for future ministry and how God is leading you to fulfill those plans without making specific promises of future outcomes. Prepare your heart and the hearts of your partners for open-mindedness on how God may shape your future ministry. It might turn out differently than you expect.

For example, instead of sharing, “We will raise up Thai leaders who will show the Jesus film in rural villages,” try saying, “We will work with local people to share the Jesus film in their own communities.” It is possible that the leaders God brings to you will be of other ethnic groups or that they will share the Jesus film in urban areas too, not just in rural villages. 

Instead of saying, “I will be working in a soup kitchen three days a week, tutoring high school students two days a week, and teaching Sunday School once a week,” try, “My ministry will include working in a soup kitchen, tutoring students, and teaching Sunday School.” Your time allotment may have to adapt and change according to community needs once you get there.

Avoiding overly detailed language may seem unimportant now, but it could save you heartache and miscommunication in the future. Partners typically latch on to the first news they hear during transition, and it can be difficult to communicate a different plan later on.

For example, when we were starting up a new auto repair ministry, we bounced around the name “Titus Garage” as an idea. The name actually became “Titus Auto Centre.” But years later, even after hundreds of social media posts and dozens of newsletters using the correct name, partners still called it “Titus Garage” because that is what they first heard. You can avoid confusion by refraining from details now.   

Unexpected change in ministry is both inevitable and unsettling. These five tools serve as a starting point to help you clearly communicate your timeless call to serve Christ while maintaining your valuable sending relationships, even when you’re not sure what to say. Because nobody needs to stare at a blank screen when there are people on the other side who care about you.

Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

Just Keep Going: Lessons From a Newbie Runner

You know who you are. You’re the one who’s been on the border of transformation so many times. You’ve pulled into the parking lot of that gym multiple times only to pull a uwee to the first coffee shop because who actually has time for that and 5 am is out of the question. You’ve picked up that budgeting book because you know you want financial peace but the automatic transfer to your savings account eludes you. You’ve pulled out your computer to email that missionary therapist but quickly numb yourself with Facebook for the umpteenth time today instead. 

I’ve been there too.

I’m the one who ran all through high school, college, and young mommy days and then let life’s demands crowd out my passion when I moved overseas for missions. I’m the one who sat on the couch and watched my sister-in-law push herself out the door day after day to crush tar with her Adidas. I’m the one who longingly scrolled past pictures of my friend jogging with her family and wanted all the same rewards but just . . .got busy.  

I’m also the one who walked into our town’s family-owned shoe store a dozen times to buy all the right shoes for my kids and ask about their running programs. I hoped that my questions would unlock the mystery of what held me back from committing. And I’m the one who received a gracious and genuine answer every single time from the shop owner, Scott Gall. Scott gave me and my husband all of his attention and talked to us like we were already in the worldwide club of runners. Oh, how I wanted to be in that club, the club of people who possess discipline and who commit to run. Regularly.  

Scott never judged me for not starting. He was just always there to answer my questions with kindness and patience. Then one day the seeds of a dozen conversations finally sprouted. I mustered up the courage to ask him for his 5K training program, even though I felt like a baby. He sent it to me, and I set a date on my calendar to start. I knew that I needed external accountability, so I asked my friend to do it with me. “We have to send each other pictures every day to prove that we did it.”  

I was scared that I would last two weeks and then life would get busy as it always does. Or that the interruption of my move back to South Africa would interfere with my goals. Like it always has. But I set the start date and sent my friend a picture of day 1. Then I did day 2. I found out that I could re-prioritize my life and actually follow through with running when I moved back to South Africa.  

Then I just kept going. I missed day 19 but made up for it on day 21. And yes, I felt like a baby. Yes, there was a day when I cried through my last mile at how slow my pace was. Yes, I was sore and slow. But the days turned into one full month of following the program every single day. Then two full months. Then I shaved a few minutes off my time. I wasn’t as sore, and I could breathe a little easier up that hill by the beach. And yes, I got plantar fasciitis my third month and had to take a break. But guess who’s back on the trails this week?   

Through it all, I kept sharing photos with my friend, because some of us need support to crush our goals. Eventually, sharing daily photos was replaced with using a tracking app. As I reflected on all those visits to the shoe store, I began to think about the importance of patience and encouragement. I thought about all the times Scott answered my questions even though I hadn’t started. I thought about how many people walk in those doors asking him identical questions, promising themselves that they’ll start tomorrow. And I finally understood how vital it is for seeds of curiosity to be watered before they take root.  

I slipped on my Brooks and thought about how many times I’ve shared about the God who transformed my life and it seemed to fall on deaf ears. I pounded through the trail and thought about the people who have needed to ask me questions about faith but weren’t ready to commit yet. I jogged past an eight-point buck bedded in the woods and contemplated how many times we need to ask the same questions before our hearts are prompted to action. I remembered how many times my sister-in-law talked to me about hope in Christ on our high school campus before it finally took root in me.  

I was reminded of the patience, the conversations, and the people who had been part of my story of turning to Jesus. Sometimes we need to hear the same patient message repeated before something clicks and . . . it changes us. I clocked in my last slow mile and was glad that Scott hadn’t given up on our countless conversations about running. Because the day finally came when it took root in my heart and changed my life for the better.

So don’t be dismayed by the revolving door of conversations about faith that you’re having with the same person. Don’t push or judge. If they’re coming back for more, something might be happening under the surface. Those tenderly watered seeds might be ready to sprout. Keep nurturing those conversations, and you may become part of a beautiful transformation.