by Bonnie Oberg, who, with her husband, Kevin, is an Alliance team developer in Africa
I was never a brave child. I didn’t like being in new places; even into my teens, traveling away from home filled me with a strange mix of excitement and anxiety. I had vivid nightmares about snakes and crocodiles that would paralyze me with fear. And I’m still not a fan of flying. But God has called me to a vocation that requires me to face and conquer that fear regularly.
All that to say: By nature I am not a courageous person!
My husband, Kevin, and I moved to Burkina Faso with our two small sons in 2000, following the calling on our lives and going through the doors God opened. I wasn’t feeling particularly courageous at the time. Yet, despite the challenges I do enjoy living overseas, and God has increased my sense of adventure.
We are now facing a new challenge when it comes to international living. Back in 2000, terrorism was a non-issue for us. We hardly thought about it, as it did not take place often in our part of the world. But times have changed. Since our work as team developers gives us the privilege of serving international workers in four African countries, the threat of terrorism constantly looms in the background.
Because the teams we serve live in or near places where terrorist activities are being carried out, terrorism has become more real. It is no longer something “out there.” And in 2016 it became personal.
Attack in Ouagadougou
On January 15, 2016, terrorists attacked a popular restaurant and hotel in downtown Ouagadougou, the city where we live. Almost 30 were killed, and many were taken hostage. Our family knew both places well. We had eaten at the restaurant regularly and had stayed at that hotel with our colleagues for a conference. This was the first time that a terrorist act of this magnitude had occurred in a country where we had felt, up to that point, quite safe.
Kevin and I had gone out with friends that Friday night. He had planned to suggest eating at the restaurant that was targeted, but instead we decided to dine at a place in our neighborhood.
In the middle of dinner we received word about the violence downtown, that no further details were known, and that we should finish eating quickly and return home. Continuing our meal was out of the question—my stomach was in anxious turmoil, and the only thing I could think of was that we needed to immediately retrieve our daughters, who were at a friend’s house, and get home to our boys.
Social media updates were flying in, and we were horrified as we read about and saw pictures of the carnage. Then it got worse.
Someone we knew had been eating at the restaurant during the time of the attack. Mike and Amy Riddering ran an orphanage in a nearby village, and Mike had come into town to pick up a short-term team that had arrived to assist their ministry. Now Amy could not get in touch with him.
I spent an almost sleepless night, tossing and turning, crying out to God for Mike, Amy, and all those who had been touched by this tragedy. I checked my phone frequently, desperately hoping to see a message from a friend close to Amy, letting us know that Mike had contacted her. I knew that what I was going through was nothing compared to what Amy was experiencing; with each passing moment, the feeling grew stronger that there would be bad news. I kept thinking, If everything is OK, we should have heard something by now.
The next day Kevin and our Envision teammate, Betty Arnold, went to the main city morgue where they encountered a horrific scene of families and friends coming to claim their loved ones. When Mike’s body did not turn up, Kevin came home in the late afternoon to update our regional director about unfolding events, including the kidnapping of an elderly Australian doctor and his wife in northern Burkina on the same day as the attack in our city.
Betty went on with Mike’s colleague to a second morgue. Shortly after their arrival, she called to give us the heartbreaking news: they had just identified Mike’s body. Our world felt like it was being completely shaken! How could these things be happening in this country we loved and called home?
I put my hands over my face and wept. I wept for Amy and for her children. I wept for the orphans who loved Mike as a papa, for all those whose lives were forever changed because they had lost someone they loved in this senseless massacre. I wept for Burkina, for our world—that such acts are becoming more frequent and that it seems as though evil is winning.
There is such a feeling of helplessness. What can we possibly do? Nothing—except choose to turn to God, who understands our pain and our fear and who walks through those moments with us. And inexplicably, even at that point with my emotions in turmoil, part of my soul was at peace. God was with me. He understood.
I dried my tears and went to inform our children of what had happened. They knew Mike, as they had been to the orphanage several times and had eaten a few meals with Mike’s family and our Ouaga team. They were sober as they heard the news, and then our youngest daughter made the connection. Mike is like her daddy. Her daddy is an international worker; he goes to the airport to pick up short-term teams; he also eats at that restaurant sometimes. Although our kids did not know Mike well, this hit very close to home for them.
A New Reality
As a result of the attack, life in Burkina changed. Police checkpoints increased, and we got pulled over more frequently to make sure our papers were in order. The main stores and most popular restaurants hired guards with metal detectors to scan customers and to search bags before entry. Shopping for me now included looking for a good place to hide and almost expecting to hear gunfire—all the while telling myself I was being absolutely absurd!
We stopped going to restaurants for a while, and then as we ventured out again we were careful where we went and when. And we always located the back exit, something we had never done before. We were cautious and on high alert.
Our children now attended school with armed policemen stationed around the perimeter, guarding the gates. Discussions took place about increasing security. As a parent, this was almost too much to swallow. I remember the feelings I had, especially during those first couple of weeks. Every time I walked through the gate onto campus and past the guards with their guns, I could hardly believe that our family was now living in this reality.
“Be Still . . .”
And yet, God gave peace. For exercise, I would jog around the soccer field, my mind playing through all of the possible scenarios. As I mulled over the “what if’s,” I heard these words in the back of my mind, keeping rhythm as I jogged, “Be still and know that I am God; be still and know that I am God”—over and over until my worries turned into prayer, then surrender, and finally peace.
Although I wish this attack had never happened, I would not wish away what God taught me as a result. It would be easy to harbor hate in my heart, to become fearful and to let those fears influence how I treat those around me. But God taught me a little something about loving my enemies. Shortly after the attack, I sent an update to our prayer supporters, which included these words:
Will I choose love, or will I let hate reign instead? Will I pray for my enemies, pleading that God will open eyes and save souls, or will I harden my heart and not care that they are lost for eternity?
Maybe that is what loving your enemy means. We don’t have to like them. We can abhor what they do. But does my heart ache when I think about what they are facing for eternity, completely lost and separated from God forever? They will never attain what they were so fervently seeking to gain.
A New Song
During those difficult days and nights, God often brought a song to my mind and I would hear the lyrics over and over: “I have this hope as an anchor for my soul . . . .” I felt God carrying me along, and I still feel that way. Somehow, these experiences have made me more aware of His presence to this day.
I learned that God gives grace and courage in our time of need. My trust in Him has grown deeper, knowing that no matter what I face, He is with me. He is faithful. He is good.
And I learned that just as through Jesus we stand righteous before God, through Jesus we also stand courageous! We do not have to be afraid as He gives us everything we need to face whatever comes our way. “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12:2).