by Mike Nichols and Tresor Yenyi
How “spiritually adopting” African young people can lead to a revolution of “Timothys” who will bring hope to their worlds.
The relationship between Paul and Timothy described in scripture is powerful. This hit home three years ago as I desperately searched for an answer to help Shannon, a student of mine at Lincoln Christian College. Raised by a struggling single mother, Shannon never knew her father, who left two years after her birth. In the spring of 2005, I had a pivotal conversation with Shannon that led to dramatic change in both our lives. While sitting in my office one day, she poured out her heart about her intense battle with loneliness. She was a sophomore in college with no real emotional or financial support from family.
In the middle of our conversation I sensed the Lord speaking, “Shannon needs a father and you need to become that father.” God confirmed this again while I was giving a lecture in class. Psalm 68:5-6, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families…,” seemed to leap off the page and the Lord said, “Mike, this is going to become true in your life!” I have never actually heard an audible voice from the Lord, but on occasions I have heard clear messages in my inner being. This day, the Lord was saying, “I want to place Shannon in your life and family.”
I continued building my friendship with Shannon, mentoring her as a student in my program. After much prayer and talking with my wife and three children, I received confirmation to pursue spiritual adoption. I told Shannon I wanted to become her “father in the Lord.” I knew legal adoption was not feasible because of her age and the situation with her mother, but I desired to become her father in every possible way. I also knew that spiritual adoption wouldn’t work unless both of us were equally invested. Shannon readily accepted my proposal, and we began to meet every week to talk and pray. She opened her heart about daily struggles and I gave her fatherly advice, a special nickname, and plenty of hugs. We began a slow process of becoming father and daughter. I began to pray for her every day as I did for my other children. As our relationship grew, she began to naturally call me “dad.”
But one day we hit a wall in our relationship. Shannon was struggling with a particular doubt and fear; she needed to know if our relationship was real or if it was artificial, temporary, or out of pity. She asked me directly, “Is our relationship just a simulation; are you just pretending to be my dad, and am I merely pretending to be your daughter?” I knew in my heart this relationship was not fabricated, so I struggled to find the answer for her question. After agonizing in prayer, the Lord provided an answer through the relationship between Paul and Timothy. The opening verses of both letters to Timothy contain powerful, affectionate phrases: “To Timothy, my true son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2, emphasis mine) and “To Timothy, my dear son” (2 Tim. 1:2, emphasis mine). I couldn’t wait to share these verses with Shannon. She had become my true and dear daughter in the faith. The father-son relationship between Paul and Timothy was a true relationship based upon mutual love—there was nothing pretend about it. I was able to process this with Shannon, and we internalized this authentic, biblical model for our father-daughter relationship. We realized our relationship could in fact become as close, or closer, than blood relationships or legal adoptions. After successfully jumping this hurdle, God has blessed our relationship, and it has continued to grow. Soon after graduating from college, Shannon came to live in our home. She is now married to a young man with a heart for missions and they are considering serving in Africa. I officiated their wedding this past fall.
Psalm 127:3-5 says, “Children are a reward from the Lord….blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” This is my favorite “father Psalm.” Counting sons-in-law and other students I have spiritually adopted, I now have eleven children! My quiver is becoming full, and I am feeling blessed indeed.
More than Mentoring
Greater than mentoring, apprentice-type (or teacher-student) relationships are the blessing and responsibility of being a father or mother in Christ. There is something emotionally powerful about becoming connected to someone as family. I believe Paul was not carelessly using words in his letters to Timothy; he purposely chose the words “true son” and “dear son” to communicate his deep love and identification with Timothy. This is more than metaphorical, figurative language. He uses this same kind of language in his letter to the Corinthians: “For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:17).
The family bond that comes from the spiritual parenting Paul speaks of may be the missing element of youth ministry in Africa. African leaders have often felt threatened by youth they suspect want to “take their spot.” Fathers and mothers, on the other hand, ideally make space for their sons and daughters, encouraging them to succeed. Ultimately, true leadership development in the church must go deeper than training and developing replacements—it must include the emotional bonding of spiritual adoption.
As I look back on my own life, I remember being spiritually adopted into a family after graduating from college. I was an inexperienced leader in my first youth ministry, and Larry, the senior minister, treated me not only as a colleague, but as a son. His wife, Wilma, was a second mother to me. Several times a week I ate supper at their house and became like an older brother to their five children. Being a “father in Christ” to Shannon and others has given me the chance to pass on a blessing I received as a young man.
I have thought much about the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa. My wife and I served as missionaries in eastern Congo (formerly Zaire) for a decade (1983 to 1993). The area we lived in has become one of the most troubled spots on earth. I still have vivid memories of two evacuations in the fall of 1991, once to Burundi and once to Rwanda. Our family was forced to leave due to political and social unrest started by a mutiny of government soldiers who had not been paid.
The rioting, looting, killing, and raping that began with the army quickly spread to the general population across the country. Little did we know these were only birth pains of more suffering yet to come. This area experienced the horrors of the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in 1994, as well as ongoing civil and international wars since 1998. The International Rescue Committee estimates that 5.4 million people have died in the Congo since 1998 due to war-related causes.1 Journalist Timothy Butcher describes the carnage:
It was in the Congo that the world’s bloodiest war was raging. It began in 1998 and, by the time I started working , it was claiming more than 1,000 lives a day. But the truly staggering thing was how this loss of life barely registered in the outside world. Like so many other places in Africa, the Congo had come to be seen as a lost cause, and the costliest conflict since the Second World War passed largely unnoticed. (2008, 5)
This summer I had the chance to return to this troubled land for the first time in fifteen years. I wondered what I would find—what stories I would hear from my friends. I wondered if the persistent, long-term problems I encountered as a young missionary were still present: things like corruption, tribalism, and the generation gap.
The Congo has suffered a series of corrupt leaders—from Belgian King Leopold to President Mobutu Sese Seko and his successor, Laurent Kabila. During the time I lived in the Congo, Mobutu plundered the country’s mineral resources, considering them his personal wealth, and the ethos of corruption became the norm for every level of society. I had personally experienced the corruption of border officials, the harassment at soldier checkpoints, and the regular stops by traffic police looking for extra money. Hopes that things had changed were dashed the minute I set foot on Congo soil. I was openly asked for a bribe by the first immigration official I met at the border. A few days later the truck I was riding in was stopped by a traffic cop at a busy intersection, and we were not allowed to proceed without paying a bribe.
On yet another day I was stopped by soldiers at the entrance to an old tennis club. I had come only to take a photo I had promised to my daughter. Even though I had an official permit to take photos, the soldier would not let me enter without paying a bribe. Border officials, traffic cops, and soldiers—all quickly proved to me that corruption was still the normal way of life in the Congo.
I am deeply saddened when I reflect upon the poverty and suffering of the Congolese people. Out of sixty million people, most make less than one dollar a day, and the average annual per capita income is around $110—or 0.4% of the United States (Johnstone 2001, 197). My sadness comes less from the poverty and more from the unrealized potential of this country due to greed. Butcher says the Congo has “more potential than any other African nation, more diamonds, more gold, more navigable rivers, more fellable timber, more rich agricultural land (2008, 8). He goes on to describe why this fact is so disturbing:
What made it so galling to me, the outsider, was that of the large sums paid by the various mining companies, brokers, and traders, only a tiny fraction ever reached the local economy. The vast bulk was lost in bribes demanded by corrupt officials at all levels. Lubumbashi’s [Congo’s second largest city] cobalt bonanza brought home to me how money alone will not solve Africa’s problems. (2008, 67)
Many, like Butcher, feel the Congo has few rivals for its pervasive corruption. This past summer I felt led to tell Congolese Christians that I refuse to ask God to bless the Congo. After getting their attention with these shocking words, I went on to explain, “God has already blessed the Congo in many ways—the Congo doesn’t need more blessings, it needs more people with the character of Christ!” Paul warned Timothy about the corruption of his day—about those who used supposed “godliness” as a means for financial gain (1 Tim. 6:5). He gave one of his strongest teachings and warnings about the danger of loving money in his first letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:6-19). Evidently, one of Paul’s primary concerns was the character and integrity of his adopted son Timothy.
My trip took me through Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The 5-hour drive from Kigali to the Congo border town of Bukavu was sobering. All along the road were memorials, large and small, to those slain in the Hutu-Tutsi genocide of 1994. On several memorials, the English phrase, “Genocide Never Again!” was painted, reminiscent of signs I had read on the wall when visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. My last trip to the Congo had been in December 1993, just a few months before the Rwandan genocide. I remember receiving faxes of first-hand reports from missionary colleagues and Congolese Christians who had witnessed the killing of people with machetes from across the Ruzizi River that separates Rwanda and Congo.
The Rwandan genocide has caused many problems for the Congo. President Mobutu had been close to Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose assassination became the justification for the Interahamwe (Hutu extremists) to begin their genocidal rampage. After being defeated by the Tutsis, these extremists fled to the Congo and are now afraid to return to Rwanda. In the meantime, they wreak havoc on the rural populations of Eastern Congo. During my trip, I talked with several whose lives had been terrorized by this group. I visited a Christian-sponsored project attempting to reach out to a group of twenty-two young women who had been kidnapped and raped by the Interahamwe not far from Bukavu. A few of the girls were able to share their nightmare stories with me; others were silenced by their pain. I will never forget the story of one hollow-eyed girl as she recounted being kidnapped at age ten. She was continually raped for seven years before finally being able to escape. It was hard for me to imagine the level of physical and emotional healing this girl needed.
The Rwandan crisis showed the world again that tribalism can lead to violence and even genocide, especially when it is linked to political power. Kenya was shaken this past year when their closely contested election erupted in tribal-based violence. During my years as a missionary in the Congo, I witnessed power plays, intimidation, and hatred between churches and church leaders due to tribal differences. Tribalism isn’t a new problem: Jesus confronted it in the first century when he taught about loving your neighbor and the story of the Good Samaritan. Paul taught that believers are “one in Christ Jesus” and there is neither “Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28). He put this teaching into practice in his relationship with Timothy. The Book of Acts gives insight into Timothy’s “tribe,” telling us that Timothy’s mother was a Jewess, but that his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1). We must take note that Paul, a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), became the spiritual father to Timothy, someone from a “mixed race.” To consider someone of another ethnic group as “family” was as big a deal in the first century as it is today. The relationship modeled by Paul and Timothy transcends the problem of tribalism.
In the summer of 1984, I had an unforgettable conversation with one of my Congolese friends. I had been in the Congo for only six months at the time, and my Swahili could only handle simple conversations. My friend had been listening to short-wave radio broadcasts describing the political events in America. He heard a news report about the presidential re-election campaign of Ronald Reagan and wanted me to clarify something for him. He calmly asked me in Swahili, “If Walter Mondale goes on to win the election and defeat Reagan, who would then kill Reagan?”At first I thought I had heard him wrong and it was just my poor Swahili. He then repeated his question slowly, “Nani ataua Reagan?” Who will kill Reagan? I suddenly realized I was in a place that did not understand peaceful transfer of power. President Mobutu ruled the Congo as an iron-fisted dictator for thirty-two years (1965 to 1997). He had no intentions of having a peaceful transfer of power or grooming a younger person to take over. The only thing he could see in a young, potential successor was “threat” with a capital “T.” For more than three decades Mobutu alternated between the carrot (bribes) and the stick (death, imprisonment, or exile) to tenaciously cling to power. In the end, the only way he relinquished power was to be driven from the country by the rebel military force of Laurent Kabila.
This summer I struggled to come up with the right words in Swahili to describe the destructive problems I had witnessed between older and younger generations in the Congo. For some reason, the phrase “generation gap” seemed too mild. Then, one day, a friend used the phrase “vita de generation,” a mixture of French and Swahili that means “generational war.” This phrase comes closer to the destructive reality of problems between old and young in Africa. I sat and listened to my friend Jean-Marie for over four hours one night as he recounted the story of the recent leadership transition in his church organization—a story of an older leader who used bribes, intimidation, death threats, and even witchcraft to try to hold onto his power.
When I asked about the reason behind his actions, it all came down to one thing: he was threatened by the younger generation. The older leaders of many African churches see their own youth as a threat to their position rather than beloved sons and daughters in the Lord who need love and encouragement.
Paul loved and valued young Timothy. He traveled with him, prayed for him, and encouraged him to “fan into flame” his spiritual gifts (2 Tim. 1:6). Paul did not feel any threat from Timothy. Instead, he empowered him—charging him not to let others look down on him because he was young, but encouraging him to be an example for older believers (1 Tim. 4:12). The relationship model of Paul and Timothy provides a solution to the problem of generational mistrust.
A Story of Hope
God, in his grace, allowed me to see the fruit of my labors that began twenty-five years ago in the Congo. Mwati Kaseke was a member of the original youth group I worked with. I still remember the day he publicly dedicated his life to serving the Lord at his father’s funeral. This summer he was the first one to greet me when I arrived in the Congo and the last to say goodbye before leaving. One day, I went to visit the ministry he supervised in Bukavu. He worked for a Christian organization called “Ministries along the Nile.” He had been chosen as the manager of their project because of his proven track record of honesty and integrity. Mwati was anxious to show me all the facets of his work. Dozens of young men and women were learning various trades like sewing, carpentry, animal husbandry, and gardening. The youth at this project were a mixture of orphans, former street kids, and members of extremely poor families. Mwati impressed me by the way he refused to use the project pickup truck for personal travel and the way he guarded the storage depot that contained cloth and sewing machines.
He took great pleasure in introducing me to the youth during the daily chapel time. I was humbled as he shared with his students some of the Bible lessons he still remembered from the days when he was in my youth group. As he talked about my spiritual investment in his life, he shared one of the lessons I had taught on purity from Psalm 119:9. Mwati finished introducing me by thanking me for being a “father in Christ” to him.
After chapel, I walked around the grounds with Mwati and two of his closest friends, Kasavubu and Germaine. These two had also been in my first youth group. I suddenly thought of a question that intrigued me. But first I asked them to remind me of their tribal identities. They responded that Mwati was Warega, Kasavubu was Banyabwisha, and Germaine was Wahavu. I then asked them to explain how they had become such good friends, seeing they were from three different tribal groups. They simply answered, “Tribal identities have no meaning for us; we are brothers in Christ.” Their answer sank deep into my soul and made me smile; suddenly, I felt hope for the future of the Congo. Mwati is now in his forties and has a wife and six children. He is doing his best to support them and to stand strong as a man of integrity in a very corrupt society. It did my heart good to see Mwati pouring himself into these youth on a daily basis. He was teaching them from scripture and from the example of his life. Mwati feels no threat from the younger generation; he loves them and wants to teach them and empower them. He experienced my love as a son in the faith and now desires to be a spiritual parent to others.
I have often wondered about possible solutions to Africa’s problems. Sometimes problems look so big there seems to be no solution in sight. I had that depressing perspective many times during my years of ministry in the Congo. I do believe with all of my heart there is a solution—his name is Jesus Christ. God can heal the deep wounds of the Congo if a new generation of youth can be loved, taught, and empowered to follow Jesus. The problems of the Congo won’t go away overnight—but they can diminish with a new generation of youth who love Jesus more than money, power, and tribe. Paul adopted and parented Timothy to become a counter-cultural force in the first century. We need more fathers and mothers in Christ (both missionaries and African Christians) to spiritually adopt African young people who will become the counter-cultural Timothys of the twenty-first century.
1. See www.theirc.org (special-report/Congo-forgotten-crisis)
Butcher, Timothy. 2008. Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. London: Vintage.
Johnstone, Patrick. 2001. Operation World. Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster.
My African Son: Mike’s Story of Meeting Tresor
In January of 2006, I was invited to be a guest instructor for a one-week intensive course at Ozark Christian College in Missouri. Looking around the room the first morning of class, I noticed a young man who looked “African” to me. When I asked him where he was from, he replied “Congo.” I asked him what part he was from. He told me he was born in Bukavu in 1983 and lived the first five years of his life there. This was very intriguing to me because my family and I were living in Bukavu during the time he was there.
I mentally pictured the hundreds of small boys I had seen over the years in Bukavu and wondered if I could have actually met him at some time. It was strange to meet a young Congolese man in a college in southern Missouri whom I could have met when he was a child in the Congo. I spent lunch breaks and much out-of-class time with Tresor during that week of class. I was so impressed with this young man whose goal was to return to the Congo and help the youth who needed it the most: former child soldiers, rape victims, and the like.
I was drawn to his vision for youth ministry, and I sensed the Lord prompting me to enter into a special father-son relationship with him. Tresor had a good father in the Congo, but he was now far away from home in a strange land and he needed a father here. Tresor had heard me tell the story of Shannon’s adoption during class and he humbly asked me to consider spiritually adopting him as well. I responded affirmatively and thus began a wonderful father-son relationship that just keeps getting stronger. God used this “chance meeting” with Tresor in a very significant way. I had been teaching missions/intercultural studies courses for twelve years at Lincoln Christian College, following ten years of mission work in the Congo.
I enjoyed using illustrations in class from my missionary career in the Congo, but subconsciously thought of that decade as my “past life.” Through my interaction and newfound relationship with Tresor, the Lord was clearly telling me the Congo needed to be part of my present life as well!
My American Father: Tresor’s Story of Meeting Mike
My American Father: Would you happen to be from Africa?” “Congo,” I replied. “Where were you born?” “Bukavu,” I replied. “I too lived in Bukavu,” he said. These were the first words I exchanged with Mike in January of 2006. I was taking Mike’s class on “ministry to international children and youth” at Ozark Christian College in Missouri. Although I enjoyed the class for the content, during that winter intensive session I found a man whom I wanted to have as a role model. While we were in class, Mike kept talking about his spiritually-adopted daughter, Shannon. I was amazed to see such a big heart in a man—one that would see past bloodlines. He was reaching out to open his heart and treat a young Christian woman as his own child. This was something I was searching for at that time in my life—a Christian father figure to help me to grow as a leader. I hesitated for the entire week and finally asked him on the last day of class, “Is there a place in your heart for one more son?” That was the beginning of our wonderful father-son relationship.
The most significant moment in our relationship came in 2007. I was going through a lot of pain and difficulty in my life and ministry. Mike led me as a father would lead his son; we exchanged many memorable emails. Mike affirmed my positive qualities and confronted me in love. I grew to trust him in every area of my life; he has been a part of my maturing process ever since. He cares for me and my growth as any father would care for his son. I soon moved from calling him Mike to calling him Baba (Swahili for father). My relationship with him has taught me that regardless of where we are from, our core identity is in Christ. I have also developed a brother-sister relationship with Shannon, and I am now part of a big, wonderful family of other young Christians who have been spiritually adopted like me.
When I was growing up in DR Congo, one of my uncles used to tell me the way in which a traditional healer would choose his successor. He would choose a promising boy and slowly teach him the secret of plants. The young man did not need to be from his own bloodline. Initiation and storytelling are ways our ancestors helped young people to grow and become leaders, preparing them for significant roles in society. This is a lesson the Church still needs to learn. Older leaders feel threatened by promising young people. Instead of helping “Timothys” grow and become effective leaders, “Pauls” are making sure they never become effective leaders. Generational wars do not help the spread of the gospel. I hope the Congolese Church and the Church worldwide will see the example that Paul sets with Timothy and long to duplicate it. As a Christian, African, young person, I believe spiritual adoption is a biblical way to grow Christian leaders for the Church.
Mike Nichols is professor of intercultural studies at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. From 1983 to 1993 he was a missionary to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with ACM International. Mike is a doctoral student in the intercultural studies program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Tresor Yenyi, from Bukavu, DR Congo, is founder and president of Mwangaza Congo International, a Congolese NGO that works with war victims in Kinshasa and South Kivu province.
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