The journey of a lifetime to Nairobi, Kenya.
“There are several things over the course of our ministry lives that we have said, 'We don’t ever want to do this. We don’t ever want to live in a large city, we don’t ever want to work with Muslims, we don’t ever want to live in Europe; the list just kept growing. And as we said, ‘No, we don’t ever want to do these things,’ the Lord said, ‘Let me do these things through you.’”
Lew and Brandi Johnson have served as overseas missionaries since 2006. Their journey has been riddled with health issues, cultural conflicts, hostile environments and seemingly infertile ground; however, the two, along with their three children, have faithfully served the Lord and are now beginning to see that each assignment has only served to prepare them for what is coming when they return to the field in 2019.
In the mid 1990’s, while Lew was in college in South Carolina and Brandi was a student at Mississippi State University, they both surrendered their lives to Christ. As they set out on their journey with the Lord as individuals, He began to develop within each of them a desire to serve Him through missions. Lew served a one year stint with the International Mission Board in Zambia, and it was there that the Lord solidified his call to missions. Soon after, both ended up attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Once Brandi made it to Fort Worth, the Lord confirmed her call to full time mission work as well.
In 2006, the two embarked on their inaugural IMB mission assignment to Uganda, assuming they would be there forever. It was in Uganda in which one of Lew’s most rewarding mission field experiences occurred. “There was a guy there named Jonathan, and he was the assistant pastor at the church we attended in our town. When we went there, they gave us this list of ways we could help them…buy choir robes, purchase this list of things, build this, etc. However, nothing on the list was spiritual. So I sat down with some of the leaders and said, ‘I want to walk through and teach the Bible to you guys. Then, we’ll go out and take it out (to others).’ The first week there were about 10 people, the next week there were 4 or 5 and then at the end, there was just me and Jonathan. However, he was faithful. He was there week after week, and as we walked all over the place, I was able to disciple him. Since our time in Uganda, Johnathan has moved to a new area to plant a church. But the thing that makes this experience so rewarding is that he has taken the same model, and they are discipling people with the same process.”
In spite of the fact that they felt like their work was going well, in 2009 they were told to find an exit strategy. The following year, their next endeavor lead them to France. For two and one half years, they faithfully worked with North African Muslims. In 2012, the IMB began to transition to more of a business platform for overseas missionaries (for security reasons). While the IMB really wanted them to return to France, Lew and Brandi felt a strong call to return to Africa to do leadership training. Brandi stated, “We came down to a point where we had to ask ourselves, ‘Is the Lord calling us to do this or is the IMB calling us to do this?” Because returning to Africa was not an option with the IMB, they then made the difficult decision to part ways with the IMB and began working with Africa Inland Mission. Due to some health issues and other extenuating circumstances, the Johnson family had an extended furlow in the States once they left France. When they returned to the field in 2016, they landed in Madagascar. For the next two years, they labored in the very spiritually dark city of Diego Suarez in which the culture was steeped in sex tourism, prostitution, and other nefarious acts.
Advice for Others
When asked, “What advice would you offer to someone who is feeling led to serve on the mission field?” Brandi said, “In a lot of ways it’s a progression and then sometimes, it’s a big moment. Some people are always looking for that big moment, but sometimes it’s a progression and it’s listening to wise counsel. And then, if this is a passion that you feel like the Lord has put there, He has put it there for a reason. It may not be that it happens tomorrow, but be faithful step by step by step. Investigate. Get the information that you need. Research. And be about sharing the gospel where you are now so that it is not foreign when you get somewhere else. I shared the gospel in grocery stores in America and I went over to Madagascar and shared the gospel in a grocery store in Diego Suarez. That was a natural progression for me because I had already been doing that here. So if that is a passion that God has put on your heart, you’re still to be faithful in sharing the gospel here while you are waiting to see where the Lord is going to send you.”
Lew then echoed, “Even in Acts when God called Paul and Barnabas, they were already doing what He was asking them to go and do. If you are feeling led to missions, get involved in a local church because God calls people out of a local church. He forms us using other people. He doesn’t call us to be lone rangers, therefore, He is going to use the church to affirm your call and He is going to hopefully use some of it’s leaders to point out the areas in which you need to work on such as character development, competency, skill set, etc. Lastly, as a local pastor once shared with us, ‘You need to recognize that your identity is in Christ, not in being a missionary.'”
The Truth About the Mission Field
When asked, “What do you want people to know about being a missionary?”, this is how they responded:
“It is a very lonely life. It’s extremely difficult to step into our (American) culture when we come off of the field because we’ve been so alone. So the love that churches/individuals pour out on missionaries coming off of the field is vital for our refreshment. I don’t think people realize how important it is to us.” Brandi continued, “A lot of our ministry has been giving the gospel. We don’t get to see what happens after that—but it’s been a lot of giving of the truth.” For example, just before they left France, Lew had been sharing with a couple of businessmen and one of them had a brother (who was also a businessmen) that was always around. “One day, I was sitting at a table with him, and he kept looking around as if to see if someone was watching us. As he looked at me, he said, ‘I need something to read.’ My response was, ‘I don’t have the paper or anything. Why are you asking me for something to read?’ And, in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I know he isn’t talking about a Bible.’ I always had a bag with me, and it always had Bibles in it. But I didn’t realize that everybody knew that. So I said, ‘Do you mean this?’ as I pulled out an Arabic French New Testament. He said, ‘Yes’, and he took something and placed it on top of the Bible to cover it up, slid it towards himself and placed it on the shelf. As he did that, he said, ‘I’ve been wanting one of those.’ I have no idea why I never thought this guy would be interested. I had tried to talk with him before; however, he never engaged in religious conversation with me. But he was simply waiting for the right opportunity when it was just us. I had been focusing on sharing with the other two men; yet it was this man that God had been drawing.”
Brandi stated it best with this analogy: “All of these places that we have been are like a strip in a basket and all of these things are woven together. The Lord pours into our basket and He has woven all these pieces together. For our life, the places we have been and the things we have experienced is crazy. But He has poured into us, and it’s our job to pour our basket into someone else. So that is what we have tried to do over all of these years: we have tried to give the gospel to people so that the Lord can work in their lives and use them for the Kingdom.
"We’ve lived in places where we have been able to disciple people. We’ve lived in places where we were moving rocks, and it was just hard, hard ground. And then, we have lived in the ‘in-betweens’ where we were watering what somebody before us had already planted.”
In the early part of this year, the leadership of Africa Inland Mission asked Lew and Brandi to return to Nairobi and join the Southern Region Leadership team with the focus of mobilizing the African church. When they return to Nairobi in 2019, Lew and Brandi will have the responsibility of looking for people who are interested in missions, assist them in trying to raise awareness in their churches, and then also help them figure out how to send out missionaries from their churches.
“We’ve lived in these different places and for us, every time we’ve had to leave somewhere, we’re like, ‘Uh, I wanted to be here for decades, like missionaries have before us. Like they’ve devoted their lives to this one place.’ But that is not what God has asked us to do. Now we are starting to see that through living in these different cultures, it gives us an understanding to be able to do exactly what we are going to go do in Nairobi. Working with the African church to send out [missionaries] into different cultures. So the experiences in which we have had have been hard, difficult and not how we saw it happening. However, we are able to say, ‘Now we can apply this and help believers who feel called to be missionaries to go out. We can help equip them to do what God is calling them to do. In that, there is value.”