The Missionary Vehicle

David Mays


Russell longed to reach more of the Buletto People.  Deep in the heart of Congo, this young church-planting missionary was severely handicapped by a lack of transportation.  Villages were widely spread, the roads were nearly impassable most of the year, and Russell had only a bicycle.  While most of the veteran missionaries had done missionary work by bicycle for years, Russell had a bigger vision.  Much of the missionaries’ time was spent bicycling (and patching tires) from one village to another in order to evangelize further into the bush.  The further into the bush they penetrated, the more time it took for travel until it was simply counterproductive to reach any further.  Yet there were hundreds of villages without a church.


In an extensive survey over a three-year period, Russell and his compatriot missionaries had estimated there were at least 50,000 people in more than 800 villages within a 200-mile radius of the mission station.  Very few of these churches had a congregation of believers and most of the people had not been evangelized.  They were virtually all beyond reach on foot or by bicycle.


In his mind, Russell could picture a growing, thriving congregation in every village.  But he knew that those churches could only be started and grown in villages he could visit at least twice a year to assist with evangelism and train local leaders.  And he could get to many of these villages if he had a suitable vehicle.


In 1998 Russell began his own-year home assignment with the primary purpose of raising the funds to purchase it.  He began by researching what kind of vehicle he would need and what it would cost. 


Because of the poor state of the roads, the frequent heavy rains, the danger from bandits, the frequent roadblocks with unauthorized tolls or shakedowns, the possibility of accidents with other vehicles, the scarcity of parts, and the lack of unreliable service, the vehicle had some rather stringent requirements.


Many missionaries in Africa get by with a fifteen-year old Citroen station wagon or a used Land Rover.  But Russell was very much aware of how much their ministry was hindered because of frequent breakdowns, high repair costs, and delays waiting for parts.   Such vehicles were not only unreliable but they did not have oversized wheels for negotiating giant mudholes and small rivers.  They were not equipped with winches for getting “unstuck.”  Further, they had no bullet-proof features to protect the missionaries from stray (or aimed) bullets.


Russell was convinced he would need a new vehicle with specially designed equipment.  Otherwise, because of the dangers, he would be prevented from daring into much of the area where he needed to work.


Via the web and e-mail, Russell began to investigate specialized equipment being developed for jungle exploration and clearing by major oil and excavation companies.  He even found some articles on the moon rover.  From these and other sources he picked up ideas that would be extremely beneficial in a missionary all-terrain vehicle.  Bouncing these ideas off some transportation experts provided further confirmation and expansion of some features and discounting others.  Eventually the ideal vehicle began to take shape in his mind.


As plans developed, Russell began to incorporate a long-standing dream that had been growing in the back of his mind.  He felt that the missionaries who preceded him allowed their vision to be unnecessarily limited by finances and precedent.  They were content to build relationships in a slow and laborious manner, relying on family relationships and other tribal connections for introductions to new people.  Russell felt progress could be accelerated dramatically by capitalizing on the interests and desires of the people to get their attention and make contacts.


The Buletto people were absolutely fascinated with wheeled vehicles.  Having none of their own, they were glued to videos showing modern trucks, cars, races and chases.  If any of them traveled to a larger city where cars were to be observed, their neighbors would crowd around them to hear the fascinating descriptions of such amazing machines.  Russell knew he would have a direct route to the hearts of the people if he had a vehicle he could take them a ride in.  The lifetime ambition of virtually every young person was to ride in an automobile. 


However, Land Rovers have a limited capacity.   And even if he took many trips, taking up a lot of his time, he could accommodate only a small portion of any village.  And so the possibility began to grow in Russell’s mind that perhaps he could purchase or build a larger-than-normal vehicle so that he could give rides to whole groups at once.  This would provide an ideal avenue to build relationships and open doors for ministry.  It also occurred to him that, although the people were poor, they would be willing to contribute finances to get a ride and thus help offset the cost of it.


Consequently, he hired a good engineering expert to begin generating computer-aided design plans to for a specially equipped Land Rover. 


Russell’s plans were taking shape while he was visiting American churches asking for funding for his ministry.  The more Russell dreamed about his auto-ride method for reaching people in Africa, the more he told people about the new Land Rover.  And the more he dwelt on the plans and the financing, the more he described the features of the Land Rover that would facilitate his relationships with the people. 


He told them how 96% of the people had an ambition to ride in an automobile.  He told churches how the people clustered around battery powered VCRs to watch races.  He told them about how the vehicle would be constructed. 


He told them the Land Rover would have an extra-strength, an extended frame and an overpowered engine.  He told them that the tires would be specially oversized, double-walled, studded tires – similar to those used for excavation vehicles for jungle operation. 

He explained that the electrical system would have a complete redundant backup system to avoid being stranded by a defect. 


He thoroughly loved to describe the custom body which would seat 21 people in modern van comfort.  How the upholstery would be soft velour specially coated with an experimental “Scotchgard”-type product to make for quick and easy cleaning after carrying full loads of less-than-clean people.  He envisioned the floor mats being made of specially designed nitro-rubber to give the appearance of elegance while being strongly wear resistant and easily cleaned.  He insisted on sidewalls and windows which would be bullet resistant to protect his wife and family.  Further, the floorboards would be reinforced to resist high explosives. 


To justify the very high cost, Russell described in detail the special features and their value to the vehicle and the ministry.  For example, the wheels were to have stainless- steel self-locking lug nuts covered by the latest design stainless steel wheel covers to prevent theft and attract people. 


As Russell went from church to church, campaigning for funds to build the missionary Land Rover, some people began to complain.  While there were all in favor of reaching as many of the Buletto people as possible, they began to wonder whether they were being asked to help build a ministry or a high-powered toy for Russell and his African friends.


I wonder if people ever feel that way about the churches we build in America?