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What does following Jesus look like in Africa?comment (0)

March 24, 2011

By John Evans

Tim Cearley swerved his pickup truck to avoid hitting the 3-year-old boy who wandered into his path on a road in Mozambique. But the boy ran toward the Southern Baptist worker’s swerve as he hit the brakes. A “thump” told Cearley he was too late.

“All I could think was, ‘God, please have mercy,’” said his wife, Charlotte, who piled out of the truck with her husband and three children.

People around them were screaming. The child’s father held him, eyes rolled back, in his arms. Then he made a noise. Tim put him and his father in the truck and started the 20-mile drive to the nearest hospital.

With no room for them, Charlotte and the children stood by the roadside crying. Serving the Lord in Africa, she said, required some adjustments.

Tim and Charlotte began their journey together when they met at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1978 and were married the next year.

Charlotte had deep roots in Alabama, where she spent her high school years in Andalusia and graduated from Samford University in Birmingham. Her father, Harrell Cushing, former Alabama Baptist State Convention president and director of the stewardship department (now the Cooperative Program and stewardship development office) for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, is currently interim pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church.

Tim, a North Carolina native, graduated from North Carolina State University in Raleigh before going on to seminary.

The couple were appointed as Southern Baptist representatives with the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board, IMB) in 1982. They chose to go to Zimbabwe, where Tim had previously served as a journeyman, to begin their careers as church planters.

Life in their new home with their 8-month-old son, Matt (their two daughters, Joy and Sarah, would later be born in the South African country) was a challenge, especially in the era before cell phones. When Tim left in the morning, Charlotte had no idea what happened to him until he returned.

“I remember the first time he was away overnight; I was scared and worried about him and about me,” Charlotte said. “I thought, ‘Lord, I signed on for this for life. Am I going to have 35 years of this? I can’t do that.’ I feel like God told me I would have to trust Him in that.”

A 6-foot cobra enjoyed sunning itself next to the sandbox Tim built for the children, and Charlotte endured a jarring brush with a small house snake on a windowsill.

“I looked out the door and prayed God would send me a helicopter to escape Africa because I was so scared,” she recalled.

But the couple endured, pressing ahead with the work of church planting. Tim found areas with no evangelical churches and helped empower local partners to start some. He estimates 100 churches in Zimbabwe and 30 in Mozambique (the next stop in Tim and Charlotte’s journey) — small congregations meeting under trees or buildings with grass roofs — grew this way.

“We were careful not to breed dependence on me or on foreign aid in that,” he said. “They could start a church with very little money, mainly by witnessing to other people.”

The couple were careful not to import an American style of Christianity but rather see how the biblical way of following Jesus looks in Africa. With this humility, they learned quite a bit from African believers, including the value of relationships.

“As Americans, we can learn a lot about that, because we just hop from one thing to another and never appreciate the person we’re with,” Tim said.

Charlotte remembered when the family’s dish cabinet fell off the wall, shattering everything inside. At church the next morning, the couple told the pastor what had happened. “When church was over, he said, ‘We’re now going up to the Cearleys’ house to pray,” Charlotte recalled.

The pastor called the congregation into the kitchen and prayed that God would bless the family and remove any evil spirits that might be there.

“I would never have thought to pray for a neighbor when their dish cabinet falls off the wall, but I learned to do that,” Charlotte said.

The next day, she learned something else from her fellow believers.

“People living on less than $50 a month showed up at our house with dishes. They brought them to replace our loss. I didn’t cry about the dishes breaking, but I cried when they brought that stuff.”

The couple witnessed the explosion of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, which Tim said caused the number of funerals in their area to skyrocket.

“If you went to church, nobody would be at church because they were down the road at a funeral,” he said. “We would sit around the fire, talk about Scripture and help people grow in their faith at funerals (which last for days there).”

In 1995, Tim and Charlotte moved their family to Mozambique, a desperately poor Southeast African country struggling to recover from a 16-year civil war.

“When we went to Mozambique, we felt like we were dropping into a hole, because … it was very underdeveloped,” Charlotte said, adding that unexploded land mines littered the country.

She conducted True Love Waits programs for students who told her they had to sleep with their teachers to move to the next grade in school. She spoke about having a future and hope in God to people who sold their bodies for a necklace or pair of shoes.

“I was trying to describe true love to them, and I realized I was working with people who didn’t know what real love is, who had never been loved by their parents, husband or wife,” she said.

In 2009, the family moved to South Africa, when Tim became the IMB’s affinity group strategy leader for sub-Saharan African peoples. In this new role, he directs strategies to bring the good news of Jesus to the 600 people groups south of the Sahara Desert who are unreached with the gospel.

“For the next few years, I’m asking people to consider where they are and if God would lead them to go further into the darkness,” he said.

Tim and Charlotte encourage Southern Baptist churches to continue giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Cooperative Program and consider partnering with them directly to reach more areas and people groups.

“We don’t have enough IMB [representatives] to take it on and reach these (people groups), so we want to join with churches to do that,” Tim said.

The couple thank Southern Baptists for the support they provide, while emphasizing that the needs in Africa, both spiritual and physical, are still overwhelming.

One of Tim’s most gripping memories is of a mud-walled, grass-roofed hut in a South African town. Inside the hut were a 9-year-old girl and her two siblings, one just a baby and the other 5 years old. Their parents, grandmother and two other siblings had perished from HIV/AIDS and were buried in the front yard. The children slept on the bare mud floor and hid their clothes so they wouldn’t be stolen while they were at school. A woman who acts as a caregiver to them and about 100 other homes can only stop by once a week.

Yet amid the dire situation in their region, Tim and Charlotte are given hope for the future by the way the gospel is transforming lives.

“People dying of AIDS are coming to Christ,” Tim said. “Christ is making a difference. Churches are providing school fees so [children] can go to school and monitors to make sure they’re studying.”

Even the story of the boy he accidentally hit on the road in Mozambique did not end with tears.

“To make a long story short, the child recovered,” Charlotte recalled. “In the months that followed, Tim started meeting with that family. That boy would meet Tim, hold his hand and walk down the hill singing ‘Jesus Loves Me.’”

To contact Tim and Charlotte, e-mail africapetitions@gmail.com.

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