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I have always found profound inspiration in the stories of men and women who lived and died for Christ. In fact, their incredible level of commitment is a measuring stick for my life; their undying courage is a source of my encouragement; and their burning passion is the light to my personal mission.
Where would I be without the stories of these seemingly ordinary people who behaved extraordinarily against impossible odds? My faith is lifted each time I recall these true heroes.
For me, one of the most moving is the powerful story of David Livingstone and the sacrifices he made to open the great continent of Africa to Christianity. When I first heard this story, I was already very familiar with the hardships that missionaries regularly endure. But the day I heard Livingstone’s story, I was finally able to embrace the extreme price one man paid.
Travel with me to the year 1857. David Livingstone had already lived in the land of, “the thousand villages where no missionary has ever been” for sixteen years. He is now back in England, ready to address Cambridge university students. The custom of the time is for the students to heckle the speaker—all in fun. This day is no exception. The students have peashooters and noisemakers of every description. They’re ready for whoever this man might be.
Then David Livingstone slowly walks to the podium with the step of a man who has walked 11,000 miles. His left arm hangs dead at his side, having been nearly ripped from his body by a lion, his shoulder crushed into splinters. His skin is a dark, leathery brown from sixteen years in the African sun. His face is furrowed with innumerable lines from bouts with African fever, which have also racked and emaciated his body. His physical being is wasted. He is half deaf from rheumatic fever and half blind from a tree branch that whipped him in the eyes while traveling through the jungle.
The students are staring.
They know this is not just another guest speaker. Before them is a man to be taken seriously. This is a life that was literally being burned out for God.
As he begins to speak they learn that Livingstone’s journey began as a young man in Scotland. It was there that he prayed, “Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.
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Then Robert Moffat, home on furlough, spoke the words that changed the course of David’s life, “I’ve seen the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been.” Africa would be the land where God would go with him, sustain him and sever any tie that bound him.
Thirty-two years later and thousands of miles away from home, it had all come to pass. Malaria had claimed Livingstone’s wife. His body was broken. During the last five years, he saw no familiar faces. In fact, no one from England ever knew where he was. Discouraged and sick, David insisted on taking one more journey to more of, “the thousand villages…”
Eventually he had to be carried and propped up to speak.
Then one morning his servants came for him. They thought he was kneeling in prayer by his bed. But, David had finally gone to be with the One to whom he prayed.
His faithful servants carried his body back to the coast where it was placed in a coffin and shipped back to Great Britain. Finally, he was buried with dignity and honor in Westminster Abbey.
But, there is much more. The people of Africa knew this man had sacrificed everything for them. Every day for thirty-two years, he gave his life for the souls of Africa. His heart was truly with these people. So, before his body was sent home to England, his faithful companions removed his heart and buried it where it belonged—under a shade tree in the plains of the Dark Continent.
It remains there to this day.
Remember, in his day, Livingstone had few converts. That’s the knowledge he had to live and die with. Yet today, 150 years later revivals are sweeping the continent. There are 75 million known converts in the land he traveled through. Evangelist of today surely realize that they are standing on the shoulders of six generations of previous evangelists who have all stood on the shoulders of one man—David Livingstone.
Now, flash forward. The year is 1986 and this time it’s me listening to a speaker at a podium at a Sunday School Convention banquet in California. I’m listening to a man whom also looks like he’s paid the price. His voice is raspy, his eyes are tired. In his brokenness, he tells of being jumped and beaten on the streets-his eyes being smashed with a brick. The blow also fractured his cheekbone and broke a tooth. But, it was the blood clot behind his eye that caused immediate blindness.
The doctors told him they would have to take his eye out. Just one more price he would have to pay for starting a mission in this new kind of jungle.
Though arrangements had been made for his surgery, this preacher secretly made plans to leave New York on another flight. He was never coming back. He was quitting.
But, the morning of his surgery—the morning he was planning to steal away—he woke up to see perfectly from both eyes. God had other ideas for him. And Bill Wilson stayed in New York.
During bill’s talk I begin to learn about the trials, misfortunes, and struggles of ministry in that forgotten and dangerous wasteland—the inner-city jungle. And, like so many around me, tears streamed down my cheeks. I was reminded of David Livingstone, lost and alone in a strange world. Except, this was not a far off place in a time long ago. This is today in America.
In time, I decided to go to New York, ‘to one of the thousand villages…’
Today, I look back and realize that I came to Metro Ministries at the beginning of its prime—a point we are still climbing today! I reflect on the stories of all the missionaries who have inspired me through the years. They serve as a reminder that Bill has pioneered this ministry in an unforgiving, often deadly, urban jungle. And for that I am forever grateful.
As I write this, I am looking out the window of my comfortable, almost rodent-free ghetto apartment. It’s one of the many housing units that our staff occupies. There are shootings in this neighborhood. People die in the streets here. Yet, it used to be worse. The faithful group who started here used to make their home in the old beer brewery, huddled around a fire made in an open barrel for heat. It was barely enough to keep them warm. There was never enough money then for real shelter and heat.
And I realize there was a day when this group siphoned gas from one bus to another just to have enough to pick up the kids for Sunday school. Again, there was never enough money to buy gas for all the buses for all the kids.
But, they did it. Week after week, year after year. They “traveled to the thousand villages…” Whatever It Takes is the creed they lived by then. And it’s still our motto today. But, it’s more than just words; it’s a way of life.
One Friday evening, while out visiting the kids Bill was doused with gasoline and was almost torched. Death looks for you here. When you walk the talk like Bill has done for all these years, it can come pretty close to finding you—even today.
I have watched Bill fly thousands of miles just to be home in time for Sunday School. I’ve seen him preach when he was too sick to eat. He’s had tuberculosis and hepatitis, as well as two heart attacks as a young man.
So, when we staff members are told, “You never miss working Sunday School,” we know it’s coming from someone who will do whatever it takes to put the Gospel in front of kids. We know it because he proves it to us every week—and has for over 32 years.
I know how Bill has slugged it out here for years despite the lack of support, both financially and denominationally. You see, he concentrated his efforts on children. And children don’t have much political power, they don’t produce much, and they don’t give any money.
What a journey into the jungle this has been for all of us. And that’s why I wanted to write this to you. As someone who has witnessed the trials and triumphs of this ministry from the inside. I bear witness to the remarkable similarities between Bill Wilson and David Livngstone. These two men dedicated their lives to bring the gospel to the jungle.
Of course, I’m not the only one to see this. Let me finish by telling you a story from just a few weeks ago. Bill was in Ohio and had just finished preaching an evening service. He was greeting people when a white-haired lady approached him. She asked if she could speak with him away from the crowd. By the look in her eyes, he knew it was important.
The woman explained that she was a widow and that her husband had served in World War II. She went on to tell him how her husband’s sergeant had been shot during battle; during a horrible ambush. Her husband ran to the injured man and pulled him back to safety. But, he himself was shot during the rescue—half his side was ripped out.
As a result of his selfless courage, her husband was awarded the Purple Heart. It was an honor he never took lightly. In the years that followed, he tried to get his own children to understand what his sacrifice and his medal truly meant. He tried to make it clear why he was willing to give his life for another man. Unfortunately, he felt they never truly understood.
His patriotism, his character, his ideals just didn’t make sense to them. Sadly, this is a different generation.
“A few years ago he lay dying,” she went on to say, “He made me promise not to give the Purple Heart to any of our children. Then he told me, ‘If you ever find anybody that’s been wounded and understands sacrifice, someone who would really appreciate it, then you give them that medal.’” With that she took Bill’s hand and pressed the old box with the Purple Heart into it.
She looked Bill straight on. “I think you would have made him proud. I whish he could have known you before he died.”
When Bill told us this story, I was reminded of something he also said not long ago. “The wounded in the Body of Christ are His medals. Though we are wounded and beaten for Him, He receives us as shining medals.”
And today we—you and I—stand on the shoulders of great men and women who have lived and died for Christ. We may not be a Bill Wilson or a David Livingstone, but that doesn’t excuse us from fighting battles and doing our part to bring the Gospel to the concrete jungles of our world. We must remain strong enough for future generations to stand on our shoulders, our efforts—so that they, in turn may provide strong shoulders for the next generation to stand on.
It goes back to giving yourself. Where your treasure is, your heart will be. David Livingstone’s treasure was the people of Africa. Bill Wilson’s treasure is the children of New York and the world. It all goes back to the question in the beginning, “Where Will Your Heart Be Buried?”