Howard's Beginning


Night falls quickly on the highlands of Ethiopia, causing the horizon to vanish in a gray mist. At 9600 feet the air turns bitter cold, and the twisted laughter of wild hyenas echoing below cuts the darkness. The young missionary shivers as he crawls into his hastily assembled wooden shelter, wraps himself in a thin sleeping bag, and wonders again, What on earth am I doing here? I could be hack in America sipping coffee, watching the Lakers.

From nearby villages the sound of singing and dancing blends with the mesmerizing beat of drums. A spiritual darkness seems to blanket the hills, making the young man's mission seem less and less possible.

Since he was a child, Howard Brant has dreamed of telling these people about God's love for them. But now he wonders: How will the good news of Jesus ever penetrate such inky blackness? Can it possibly reach through the occult worship, the pagan rituals of a hardened culture? Through a crack in the shelter he spies a faint star, high in the night sky. An hour ago the star was invisible.

It took the darkness to bring it out.

"Lord," Howard prays, "I feel like that star up there. A little light surrounded by a great darkness. That's me. There's nobody else here who knows about Jesus. I feel so alone."

Then a voice seems to say, "I am the One who put that star there, Howard. I put it there to show you that in all this darkness, one tiny light can make an enormous difference." Can it really? Howard falls asleep wondering.

As a student at Prairie Bible College in Canada, Howard Brant was determined to take the good news of Christ to Africa-just as his parents had done. He had grown up in Ethiopia, and when his wife, Jo-Ann, and he set foot once again on Ethiopian soil, it was like coming home.

Elated to be appointed principal of a Bible school at the mission station of Woliso. Howard almost popped some buttons thinking about it. Me! Principal of a school! But he arrived to discover that the student body consisted of a grand total of three students.

Though he learned a lesson in humility, Howard was undaunted. "Let's go preach up in the mountains," he told the three, "and see if God will increase the enrollment." Sure enough, within a few weeks, 18 students had joined the school.

They listened respectfully as Howard began teaching them how to preach-just the way he had learned. "One man gave his message," remembers Howard with a laugh, "complete with three points and a poem. Then he said, `That's what Mr. Howie wanted me to say. Now I will tell you what I'd like to say...' So the students really taught the teacher. I learned to teach God's Word in the context of their lives and their culture."

One step was the closing of school on Thursdays-something I wish my teachers would have done more often. But Howard's purpose was to give the students an assignment: "Go out in twos or threes and share your faith. Every time you hear a question, write it down."

When the students returned, they handed in their books. On weekends, Howard pored over the questions, and they became the basis for the school's curriculum.

One day the students returned, excited. "We've found a group of people in the mountains. They've never heard of Jesus." Sure enough, nearly three-quarters of a million people-the Gurage-lived nearby. Firing off a letter to mission headquarters in Addis Ababa, Howard bluntly reminded them that these people were dying without any knowledge of the One who could save them. Unless they did something to reach these people, they would be responsible to God!

So the mission did something. They sent Howard.

That night beneath the faint star was the first night of Howard's first expedition. "My plan is bigger than yours, Howard," God seemed to be saying. "You just hang on and watch."

Jo-Ann soon joined him in a tiny village, and together they built a small school and medical clinic. One day Howard looked up and saw a local judge coming down the path toward him. "Sir," Howard said, "I would love to teach you about the Lord Jesus."

"I've been thinking about that, and I want to talk to you," the man replied.

Howard couldn't believe his ears. "My boy comes to your school," the man continued, "and every night I ask him questions about what you teach him."

Before long the judge became the first believer in the area, and soon he was teaching others. Within months there were six little clusters of believers there in the mountains. But the darkness descended often. Girls walking down a path would suddenly fall over, barely able to move. Carried to the hut of the fetish leader, they would speak in a language they had never used before. Back in their own village, whenever the cult leaders walked past, the girls would suddenly grow wild-eyed and convulsive and run from their homes to follow them back into the forest.

"As we began to preach about the miracles of Jesus," remembers Howard, "many were miraculously delivered." When the cult leader appeared and those women who had been possessed sat peacefully, everyone was astounded at the power of God, and the word began to spread.

One morning when Howard turned on the radio, the ominous sound of drums and martial music filled the air. The revolution had begun. Emperor Haile Selassie had been deposed, and the Communists had taken over. "I thought about what had happened in other countries when this happened," says Howard, "and I considered running. Then the words of John 10 came to me, how the hired hand flees because he cares nothing for the sheep but the good shepherd stays out of love, even laying down his life. I knew we couldn't desert our new believers. Their faith was about to be tested. We must stay, regardless of the cost."

Agonizing over how best to use the remaining time, Howard concluded that he should invest in a few believers who would be able to teach others after his wife and he were either forced out or killed. While studying John 17 one night, he noticed that God gave Jesus specific individuals to disciple. Finding several believers, Howard told them, "If you want me to teach you about Jesus, come to my hut tomorrow when the sun reaches straight overhead. I will take the first six who come."

The next morning Howard waited. Three men arrived: the judge, an older man who was strong in faith, and a younger man. Exactly the ones Howard would have chosen. The sun rose higher. Would there be more?

Late in the morning two strangers approached. "We want to be taught about God," they said.

"Are you Christians?" Asked Howard. They shook their heads.

"But a disciple must be a Christian," said Howard. They shrugged.

"We heard that you teach people about God, SO We decided to come."

Howard thought of the New Testament disciples when they first met Jesus. Did they understand that He was the Son of God? Or did they just follow, believing in the process? Standing to his feet, he invited the strangers in.

It was almost noon when he heard a nervous cough and looked outside. There stood Balaynesh, a woman with a twisted spine. "I would like to be a disciple," she said, shyly.

"You don't understand," said Howard, "I'm...well ...I'm not looking for a woman. I need men, strong men, who can trek with me through the mountains, teaching and preaching." Howard knew she wouldn't last a day. Holding his Bible in front of her, he asked, "Can you read?"

"No," she replied, "I've only had grade one." Then Balaynesh looked at him with big brown eyes. "Please?"

"God seemed to be saying to me, `Howard, you asked for six. You've got six."' Howard smiled, and welcomed her in. Within days the seven of them were trudging through the mountains, visiting huts, attending funerals, sleeping on dusty floors, eating whatever was available. All the while, they were teaching by example-washing feet, listening to problems, giving medical help.

But their deeds didn't go unnoticed by the Communists. The Communists began turning students and teachers against the small band, stealing their car and their belongings. One day while Howard was gone, 26 armed soldiers searched his house and terrorized his family. "When I arrived home," he recalls, "they let my family go, but placed me under house arrest."

Locked in his own home, Howard was thankful that his captors allowed him visitors. The six joined him daily for a rather intense discipleship program.

One day he was given the word. You are free to go, but you must leave the country.

A world away, Howard and Jo-Ann prayed for the six disciples. They prayed that God would work in their absence. Eight years passed, and finally Howard was permitted to return to Ethiopia and travel to a distant part of the country. What the Communist government didn't know was that the Gurage Mountains were right in his path.

Reaching them by nightfall, Howard parked his car and took off into the hills and valleys he knew so well. The tribe sent out runners, and believers began to gather. Joyfully he greeted the little band of four disciples.

"When you left," they told him, "we felt abandoned. But finally we decided to go out preaching like we did when you were with us."

"How many churches are there?" Asked Howard.

"We don't have churches," they replied. "The Communists have closed them all. We meet in houses."

"How many believers are here?" Asked Howard, dreading their reply.

"We have no idea," they responded. "Five thousand. Eight thousand."

Howard's eyes lit up with astonishment. "Who led all these people to Jesus?" He asked.

They grinned at him. They shrugged their shoulders. "We did," they replied. All of them had been in prison.

"Where are the other two?" Asked Howard, bracing himself for their reply. They took him to the grave of one who died a martyr behind bars.

"And where ...where is Balaynesh?" He asked.

"She can't come," one of them answered. "Two thousand women are meeting secretly for a conference, and she's the main teacher. She's the leader of all the women in the tribe."

Howard remembered the time when he had asked the crippled woman if she could read. She'll never last a day, he had thought. How wrong he was. The torch had been passed. The light was shining, brighter than ever.

Callaway, Phil. Who Put My Life on Fast-Forward? Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2002, p. 241-146. Www.philcallaway.com

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