Africa, Here We Come?

Eighteen years after my conversion we began to feel the Lord’s call to the African mission field more keenly than ever. Commitment to His service weighed heavily on Gladys and me. We had been waiting patiently for the call from the Lord, telling us to execute our promise to go where He wanted us. It never occurred to us that He might have another mission field for us than Africa.

We felt the Lord indicating that this was the time to act on our eighteen-year exercise. There was no revelation shouted from heaven, nor signs, or circumstances from the Lord. In fact, all the signs were saying that we should stay put. I had a good job, which I enjoyed. We had a new house, and car. We had happy fellowship in the Milwaukee and Waukesha assemblies, where we were busy serving the Lord, and they were saying that they needed our help. Why leave all this?

We knew this was the time. I can’t explain how we knew, but the Lord had been tugging on our heart strings so strongly, we would often lay awake nights. We were praying continually for guidance that there would be no mistake, but we knew He was calling, and we could wait no longer.

We went to the elders of our assembly in Milwaukee and asked if they would give us a letter of commendation for service in the Congo. They had known of our exercise for Africa ever since we arrived four years earlier. The elders agreed to give us a letter, but brought up all of the reasons why we should not go. They reasoned that with all we had going for us right there, and since the Lord was using us effectively to build up the two assemblies, why would we want to leave? However, they did seem glad for us as we took this step.

We began to get things in order. We started buying supplies, getting government approval for visas, etc., and made plans to sail within a year. We wrote to the Deans family in the Congo about our plans, and asked them for help and advice in getting everything in order. They were delighted— after waiting for us almost eighteen years. There was a need for someone to look after the printing plant, and the Deans had planned this job for us. Within two months, we learned that the whole undertaking had to be canceled. The government would not allow us to take our son, Vernon Jr., and we knew we wanted our children to be a part of any work we might do for the Lord. This closed the door to Africa at that time, and we believed the Lord did it, though we did not know why. All we knew was that the trip was out for now.

I went back to work with somewhat of a sigh of relief. Yet even though the call to the mission field had been canceled, we were still willing to obey whatever the Lord had for us. With Africa out of the picture, it was all up to Him. Gladys and I felt good about continuing where we were without the continual pulling at our heart strings for Africa. The Lord knew our hearts, and He knew we had been willing and anxious to go if it was where He wanted us. Still, the local brethren were delighted to hear that we weren’t going to leave just yet.

Everything went smoothly for a few months. I enjoyed my job, knowing that I could look forward to continued success if we stayed with the company. We anticipated contributing to the Lord’s work in Milwaukee. In spite of this, the Lord seemed to remind me of my promise to go and do what He wanted me to do. But why did He close the door to Africa?

Gladys and I both became uncomfortable, believing that the Lord wanted us to forsake all temporal ambitions and serve Him full-time. To advance with Swift’s would require more and more of my time, and we were beginning to be convicted of our priorities in life. We wondered why the Lord would bring us to the very brink of forsaking all for Him, and then allow the door to be closed. Could we have mistaken the field of service the Lord had in mind for us?

We knew that if we pursued success in the business world, even reaching the top, it would be a useless achievement in eternity without hearing, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” from the Lord. I knew I could be in business while serving the Lord fulltime, but we felt the Lord was calling us specifically to forsake all and follow Him. To do anything else would be disobedience.

Through a number of ways the Lord dealt with us during these months. New Orleans, Louisiana, began to be burnt in our hearts as the place that the Lord wanted us to serve. Apparently there were no New Testament assemblies in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama. My brother Marius was in the Navy now and stationed in New Orleans with his wife. He would write to us about that wicked city, and the scarcity of the gospel message there; he would urge me to come and preach. We were bombarded with stronger and stronger indications that our field of service should be in the South.

Until this time, we had not shared our burden with anyone. We were praying that the Lord would lead us, making our path clear in this, the largest decision of our married life. If I quit my job, we would have no income. Could we simply trust the Lord to feed us? We were convinced that if we were acting in the will of the Lord and had His leading, we could rely on His Word: “The Lord is faithful.” Scripture after scripture kept reassuring us that we should launch into the unknown just like Abraham, trusting Him alone, resting on the knowledge that He would lead and care for us. The well-known introduction of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” meant so much to us. We hung onto the word “my” in that first verse, making it our own.

We were reminded of George Miiller’s and Hudson Taylor’s lives of faith, and were convinced that what the Lord did for them, He could do for us. The lives of these godly men were an inspiration to us. Gladys and I took these things to heart, and determined that with His help, we would seek to trust and please our Saviour, to whom we owed our all.

One day before the Lord in prayer, we concluded that we did have the leading of the Lord to go to New Orleans. There was no mistake about it. Though our hearts trembled with the fear of the unknown, His Word constantly assured us: “He is able,” and “He will never leave us nor forsake us.” One verse that we particularly took to heart, we hung on our wall—Ephesians 6:10: “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.” These verses became very real to us. We accepted them as personal assurances of His leading, coming directly from the Lord. In faith, we would go to New Orleans.

One day, shortly after our decision was made, Charles Lacey preached at our chapel. He stayed at our home, since visitors to our assembly usually stayed with us. Mr. Lacey was a brother after my own heart. He and his family lived in a trailer, entirely trusting the Lord for support. I never heard of him begging for money, or even making his needs known. He had a reputation as a man of the Word, standing for the truths of God. Positionally, he was one with us. Being considerably older than we were, Gladys and I decided that we would share our burden for New Orleans with him and get his thoughts on the matter. After all, in Proverbs it reads, “In the multitude of counselors there is safety.”

Imagine our surprise when he told us that he had preached in the streets of New Orleans, and along the bayous of Louisiana. Because he could so clearly see the need, he had been praying that the Lord would burden someone for that field. Wanting to be a witness for Christ there, he had planned to go to New Orleans again soon. If the Lord led us to go too, he would be happy to go with us. He would help us, show us the market places and the bayous where he had preached. We all stayed up that night into the wee hours of the morning, talking and praying about the Lord’s work. Gladys and I were overjoyed with the prospect of having an older brother to go with us to the South. We recognized at once that this was of the Lord.

At the end of the week, we approached our elders and asked for a letter of commendation. I never had thought of a “Commendation Letter” as anything more than a letter of introduction to other Christians that we might meet. It was simply so that they would know we were Christians in good standing in the assembly we were from.

This was about six months after we had first asked for a letter that we could take with us to Africa. Since then, a preacher had visited our assembly. When the matter of giving a letter was brought up, he had advised the elders that perhaps they ought not to give us a letter of commendation. We were well established there, and everything on the surface seemed to confirm that we should continue in our work building the assemblies locally. He cited that the job, home, car, and effective ministry were evidence that we were in fact where the Lord wanted us to be. This servant was a very godly brother, who knew us and loved us both. We all had great respect for him, and he believed that this was the best advice for us, as well as for the assembly. As far as he was concerned, the evidence he observed was the best way to determine the will of the Lord for Gladys and me.

When we came to the elders a second time, again asking for their commendation, they had changed their mind. They told us that they were hesitant about giving their blessing to our venture in moving South. They reminded us of our nice home, our good job, and that we were needed in their assembly. We told them we saw their reasoning, and that from their point of view, they were right. However, we knew that we had a definite call from the Lord. We knew that He had made it very clear to us, and we were settled in it. It was such a clear calling to us, we felt compelled to simply follow the Lord’s leading.

After listening to our side of the story, they finally agreed that they had no reason to withhold a letter. They all cared very much for us, and were concerned that Gladys and I might be making the wrong decision, thus bringing hardship on ourselves. The elders knew we only wanted His will, though, and when they saw how strongly we felt His leading, they consented to give us a letter of commendation.

Now that we had the fellowship and prayers of our local assembly, as well as a letter of commendation for the work in New Orleans, we started to get things ready. I wanted to give my boss two months’ notice so that he could get someone to replace me. Gladys and I prayed before I met with him, and we asked the Lord to use this as a final indicator for us, in case we had somehow misunderstood the Lord’s leading. We prayed that if we had mistaken God’s call, my boss would somehow discourage me from quitting. Earlier that very week, when one of the men resigned, the boss told him how foolish he was being to give up a secure job with possibilities for advancement. However, when I told him my plans to leave to become a missionary, he told me, “Schlief, if any of the other men in this office would have told me this, I would say they were crazy. But having observed you through the years, I think it’s what you ought to do.” We took this as another sign that we were in the will of the Lord.

The brethren suggested that we should get a good medical exam before we left, so we went to one of the leading doctors of the city. He was very firm in discouraging us. He told me that if I took my wife to a hot and humid climate like New Orleans, I would surely kill her. At that time she was suffering from asthma and hay fever so badly that often we were up all night with a steam tent just to keep her breathing. The doctor said that we would be going to the absolutely worst place in the country as far as her health was concerned. He also found a very large goiter pressing on her heart. This would require immediate surgery, whether we moved or not. He also told me that I had a skip in my heartbeat which probably would be agitated by the hot, muggy climate there.

When we arrived home, I told Gladys that I couldn’t take her anywhere that might have such frightful consequences. Her reply was, “We have the leading of the Lord; let’s go. I’d rather die doing what the Lord wants me to do than live, not pleasing Him.” The Lord has honored Gladys’ determination to serve Him. Since we moved south, she has never had another asthma attack and the goiter completely disappeared!

There is a verse of scripture that has been important to me from early on in my Christian life. It often pops into my mind when a decision has to be made, or some mishap or catastrophe has taken place. It is found in Psalm 118:8-9: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” A little further on in the Psalms, in 146:3, the Lord simply commands us: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” These scriptures have been used by the Lord many times during the years when we faced difficulties. We have not entered into politics, or made overtures to local officials to get help. We just trusted God. He rules the rulers! “With God, nothing is impossible.”

We put our furniture up for sale to finance our trip. We had very little cash, because we had always believed in giving to the Lord. We liked to think that we were living for eternity. We sold all our furniture to the neighbors, and left a few personal things like canned fruit, winter clothing, etc. Then we turned our home over to a realtor. We thought we might be able to live quite awhile on the equity from our home, but we weren’t counting on it. We wanted to rely only on the Lord to supply our needs. It turned out that it took two-and-a-half years for the house to sell! After paying for the trip, we arrived in New Orleans with twenty-five dollars. It was 1942.

There was one final test of faith—the trip itself. The Christians had given us a warm going-away party, and the elders had instructed the assembly treasurer to give us a gift but he forgot about it, and we did not receive it for six months. We packed all our belongings in our new car, and started out early the next morning. There were severe snowstorm warnings, but we had arrangements to meet brother Lacey in Chicago, and felt the Lord wanted us to trust Him and go.

The storm turned out to be the worst storm to hit the Milwaukee and Chicago areas in one hundred years. The state police turned us back after only five miles, warning that the road ahead was impassable. We turned back as ordered, but the wind had increased so much that it was almost impossible to continue back. We stopped and prayed. Believing the Lord would not have us retreat at the first stormy opposition, we turned around again and headed for Chicago. We trusted in the power of God to see us through the drifts of snow, the wind, and the cold. It was a rough trip, taking us twelve hours to cover what normally took an hour-and-a-half. We counted a hundred freight trucks overturned or stalled from Milwaukee to Chicago, and numerous cars by the wayside. There is no doubt in my mind that the angel of the Lord, who camps around His own, was the one who guided us safely through that fifteen-hundred-mile journey. As far as we were concerned, the trip was another miracle by our miracle-working Lord. Oh, the greatness of His power!