Imagine transporting 25,000 men to a conference without airplanes, trains, or a mass transit system. If you were a Ugandan, you’d rent cargo trucks from over 40 companies across the country and pack the men in—standing room only—even if the trip lasted all day and into the night. You’d have trucks teeming with men chug across bumpy roads from all over Uganda, as well as from Kenya and Tanzania.
Imagine feeding those 25,000 men for 3 days without restaurants, or even a single modern kitchen. If you were a Ugandan, you’d buy 10,000 pounds of rice, a comparable amount of beans, and slaughter something like 12 cows per day. You’d butcher the beef with an ax. You’d cook over an open fire. You’d buy water and have it trucked in during the night.
Imagine housing that same multitude for three nights without hotels. If you were a Ugandan, you’d buy mattresses—thousands and thousands of them. You’d have them stacked impossibly high on the back of trucks—a moving mattress metropolis. You’d hand them to attendees, who would carry them on their heads in uniform lines that would make ants envious.
Imagine seating all those men so they could listen to preaching throughout long hot days. If you were a Ugandan, you’d set up countless (a hundred?) tents. You’d rent 25,000 chairs. You’d run cables from a makeshift sound system to speakers you had posted throughout the site. If the sound system (or the generator which supplied its power) broke down in the middle of a service, you’d fix it. The multitude would wait. Perhaps for hours. No big deal.
All of this work had been done prior to our arrival at the conference. While we had dinner, prayed together, then slept, Ugandans labored. While we enjoyed breakfast and an encouraging devotional (brought by Matt Schmucker from Ezekiel 36-37), Ugandans toiled. We arrived mid-morning and were greeted by the spectacle that is 25,000 men in small tents. “They are many,” we repeated to ourselves. We tried to take it all in. We started shaking hands—the first of thousands we’d shake (Ugandan style) over the next 3 days. We whispered prayers for the Lord to work. And we, like everybody else, waited for the sound system to be fixed. Quietly. Patiently (them more so than us, I confess).
Eventually, a man began singing. Those within the sound of his voice joined in. Smiling ensued. Then dancing. The same started up in pocket after pocket across the multitude. No sound system? No problem. Ugandans make due.
When the sound system was repaired (temporarily), we began. My brother Jeff—who was made to minister to Africans!—introduced the conference, then introduced me, the first speaker. And so it began. Colossians 1:1-8 was the text. Now, it wasn’t a stellar message on my part. Not at all. I struggled with the microphone, accustomed to having my hands free. I fumbled my notes (all 6 pages of them), accustomed to having a pulpit. I struggled to time the back-and-forth with the interpretor, accustomed to speaking my thoughts fluidly, not in the short, staccato utterances expected when preaching to Africans through an interpreter. I told a joke which totally missed the translation train. I ranted, I think. Worst of all, I skipped an entire verse—tragically, Colossians 1:6. But it was a start. The Word went out to a multitude of eager listeners, in spite of me.
As Steve Hafler started the next message, I realized that this was the main attraction: the preaching of the Scriptures, hour after hour. It was hot, especially in the sun. Many who didn’t have tents used plastic chairs as makeshift umbrellas, a fairly common sight over the next 3 days. But they sat and listened. This wasn’t going to be sermonettes occasionally scattered amidst other events. This was a preaching conference, period. Steve, a veteran missionary to Kenya and Zambia who has unique insights into the needs of African believers (and the foresight to paper clip his notes to his Bible), preached a message on prayer from Colossians 1:9-11. Jeff led the men in prayer, each praying aloud, African style. One teammate called the harmonious cacophony of voices the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard. It was a powerful, moving time.
Over lunch, I asked Jeff’s opinion of the conference so far. He told me that we had barely begun, little knowing that the entire event was about to be turned on its head. Unknown to us, the food servers weren’t prepared to feed so many so quickly. Many had gone without food, and there was concern among the attendees. To complicate matters, a storm descended on us from the mountain towering over the site. It rained buckets, turning much of the site into a pond and all of the site into a muddy mess. Winds blew, uprooting stakes, bending tent poles, tearing canvas, and sending plastic chairs every which way. It was devastating, though we would later rejoice that no one was injured. When we saw the meeting place, our hearts sank. After a significant delay, Jeff preached what would be the final message of the day, a sermon on thanksgiving from Colossians 1:12-14. It was a courageous display, preaching in what is my new definition of “out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Half the men had nowhere to sit or were still waiting for lunch. The mood of the attendees was low. The mood of the team was lower. The conference was finished for the day, and perhaps even for the week.
We were in a spiritual battle. We prayed, but I confess that I had serious doubts. How could a conference that took months to plan reinvent its feeding system—much less repair twisted tents and a soggy site—overnight?
In hindsight, I seriously underestimated the attendees. I underestimated the tireless, persevering, and innovative organizers. I underestimated the Lord. I had no idea that this dark night would yield to an overwhelmingly bright day, and that the Lord would receive all the more glory because of the adversity. Grace.
(The financial needs of International Bible Conference are significant. IBC, Jeff Anderson, and the Ugandan leaders of the conference put their necks on the line to make this conference happen. It was completed successfully, but outstanding bills must be paid immediately. Please help, whether with a large or small gift. You can make online donations here or contact Jeff Anderson for more information here.)