I hold onto this, Lord! Living inside your love I move within a world protected not that I am never wounded but that you keep me safe from ultimate harm from all malignant and pernicious evil. Inside the loving kindness of your heart I’m held where goodness is my atmosphere and tenderness the song that plays incessantly and heals me, filling me with new hope for this poor world.
A few days ago I was sorting through poetry written in 2002 and discovered the one above, written in August, the month before we found ourselves in the middle of the fighting in Bouake. We had been through some extremely painful experiences in 2001 and had profited from some counseling at a center in France. It had shown me how essential it was to leave my distresses with my Lord and to trust him, especially when evil raised its ugly head and life stayed hard. Learning to remember that his goodness and love were always my true home, even in the dark of despair, was now my goal. He was my one source of “hope for this poor world.” Looking back, I know he was preparing me for the danger coming in September.
We had not expected civil war to erupt in Côte d’Ivoire while we were supposed to be in training to lead seminars on Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills, living at the SIL center in Bouake. (The session on “Managing Stress” was actually very helpful right then!) We were hearing gunfire day and night, learning how to manage a lockdown in an attempt to stay safe, dealing with fears for loved ones in other parts of the country with no way to communicate with them.
A huge advantage was that our trainers had experience with preparing for such high-risk situations. One had even done police work and coached us on safety procedures. He told us that if the gunfire became very close, we should gather on the second floor of the three-story building where we were lodged. Huddled in the central hallway with rooms on each side, as well as the floors above and below us, we would be safest. Mattresses were stashed at the end of the hall, to be stacked against the doors for yet more protection.
The 18 of us trainees were divided into teams to take care of various aspects of life. Glenn was on the cooking team, helping to make soups out of the vegetables that we had available. I was the only one without a work assignment since I was supervising a young teen, our son Bryn.
He seemed to be handling it all well. He was doing tenth grade online and needed little help. One afternoon when we had finished our training session I went out into the courtyard to take a brisk walk around it (stress relief!), inside the walls. Bryn was on the swing set as I passed that side of the yard. A few minutes later there was a screeching boom, and a fiery mortar went flying over the courtyard. Maternal instincts took over; I ran back to the swings to remind Bryn to go to the second floor. He wasn’t there! I ran inside and checked out the first floor, the second floor where people were gathering, and finally the third floor where our assigned bedrooms were. He was not in our rooms! Panic was setting in as I walked back down the hall – and then he came calmly out of the men’s bathroom. “We’re supposed to be on the second floor!” I shouted. “I know,” he replied. “I’m coming.” There was no sign of fear there at all!
That was our first experience of lying on the cement floor while we heard the mortars and gunfire tearing right over us. The rebels were on one side of the courtyard, the government soldiers on the other, shooting at each other over the courtyard expanse. Glenn and Bryn were lying parallel to each other on the floor, and I was next in the long line with my dear friend Karen DeGraaf just across from me. Often Karen and I held hands while we prayed. Twice, once for two hours and once for four, we all stayed in that hiding place, waiting it out.
One of the other missionaries took a picture of us all lying in this row; the unexpected flash of her camera startled us. Had something exploded in the hall?? No. Breathe. During the second session on the floor, Glenn and Bryn got tired of lying down in our recommended positions. They pulled out a pack of cards and sat cross-legged, playing to pass the time and handle the stress. That was not for me!
It had all begun on September 19th. On the 26th we finally got reassuring news: the French troops had been able to arrange a 24-hour ceasefire in the city so that foreigners with passports could evacuate toward the south. The first priority was the students and staff at International Christian Academy. They left, taking an eastern route away from the main thoroughfare. We were packed and ready to go, each of us assigned a place in the cars available. When we heard that it was our turn to leave the next morning, we drove out of the courtyard and joined a slow line of other cars heading south.
One of the hardest things to handle was driving through the city, seeing the crowds of young men and boys at the side of the road who had come out to watch us leave. What would they be facing by tomorrow?
The French soldiers checked passports and waved us along. We headed to Yamoussoukro, the official capital, where we were welcomed by a very unusual sight: American soldiers (a unit from Germany) flown in to protect Americans! After spending the night at the home of the Livingstons, missionaries who lived in that city (one of them was in our cohort from Bouake), we headed to Abidjan, the major city. When we arrived at the entry we had to be checked by government police. They required all passengers to exit their vehicles; cars had to be driven over to a side checkpoint to be scanned for firearms etc. Two Nigerian Christian workers were in our car with the three of us, and walked on ahead toward the agents at the checkpoint while Bryn and I hurried to the back of our station wagon to grab his backpack that contained his passport. The policeman near us was upset that we opened the back of the car, but I explained the issue. Glenn drove the car to the side and Bryn and I walked up to the checkpoint. The two Nigerians were still there, being harangued with increasing insistence by the policeman. He was speaking French, not realizing they could not understand or respond. It was clear that he viewed them as suspect, probably because they were dressed in their best clothes, long robes that are similar to Muslim male garb, in readiness to board a flight back to Nigeria. Fortunately I was able to explain in French that they had been at the same training session as I had attended, and were Christian workers, not to be feared. We were all permitted to pass. I truly believe that the Lord used our delay to retrieve Bryn’s passport to give our friends safe passage! (Within a few weeks, we heard stories of people being shot at some checkpoints just because they had a “Muslim” name.)
Yes, we were stressed out. Our futures were all still entirely uncertain. The gunfire and mortar blasts had made it all too clear that danger was all around. But we were now safe, if unsure of next steps.
I still deal with some post-traumatic stress reactions, although they are much milder than in the past.. The sound of guns at a shooting range, and fireworks, are unwelcome. But the Father has continued to hone me, teaching me to trust him in ways that have made many more endeavors possible during these past 19 years – including returning to Côte d’Ivoire during the years of crisis when the rebels still held power in the north where we lived.
All along the way, the essential truth that I have clung to is that my Lord is loving and good, and he has a plan. My part is to trust him and wait, hard as that may be when I don’t see things change right away. Maybe you are facing distress right now. Whatever form it may take, hold onto this truth, and listen for his encouraging words. He does still speak to our hearts if we open our inner ears!
When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey — You can find my book of poetry on my growth in the discipline of listening at the following marketplaces:
Direct from the publisher, WestBow Press: https://www.westbowpress.com/en/bookstore/bookdetails/824658-when-he-whispers
Christian Book Distributors: https://www.christianbook.com/when-whispers-learning-listen-the-journey/linnea-boese/9781664224100