Watching God at Work: Gerald and Dorothy Hogenbirk

July 8, 2024 | 15 minute read
The Alliance Canada

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Ministry in Africa 

An Inconvenience Becomes an Opportunity 

It was the year 1987. Dorothy and I had been in Dimbokro, Côte d’Ivoire for two years learning the Baoule language and a unique dialect of West African French. The Sunday before, I had gone to a village with four other young men to preach in five of the thirty-eight churches in the surrounding district. Monday was finally a day to relax. It was the beginning of February with the hot, dry, dusty, Harmattan season, and we looked forward to the rest. Our house-help, a wonderful man with ten young children, came to our home at eight in the morning. After the usual greetings, there seemed to be an urgency in his heart. “You have to come to my village, Kokokro; there is a young man who is very sick!” I thought to myself, Yes, there are many sick people, but this is my day off. 

I hummed and hawed but whispered a prayer to our Lord, “Lord, give me strength.” As we headed down the road, I was reminded there were hardly any followers of Christ in Kokokro except our house-help. We turned down the dusty road toward the village with clouds of red dirt billowing behind our Nissan Bluebird. There in the distance were the thatched-roofed mud huts; a few huts had tin pan roofs and cinder block walls. During our approach, we saw a group of people huddled under a grove of mango trees. Upon seeing us, several kids sprinted toward our car with concern and fear etched in their faces. Many explanations were given, “He ate the wrong food that the spirits forbade!” 

Walking toward the group of people, we noticed a young man in his early twenties laying on mats on the ground. His eyes had a glazed stare. After inquiring, we found out he had been circumcised a few days prior, according to local custom, with a straight unsterile razor blade; now tetanus had set in. I asked, “Didn’t he get a tetanus shot before this?” Shoulders were shrugged; a seemingly needless expense when you are just trying to survive on little food. I sighed a prayer of frustration, concern, and anguish, “O God, help!” Short prayers are good. They picked up his rigid body; we opened the two back doors of our car and slid him in. 

The motel-style building of the little hospital in Dimbokro had a line-up with dozens of people in the blistering heat, all waiting to be attended to by a single French doctor. We were called up. The doctor shook his head, “Not much hope here, but I’ll do what I can.” The life of the young man hung in the balance for weeks. Some days it looked hopeful, and others thought the time of his departure would be imminent. During this time, we, and other followers of Jesus, would come to sit and pray for him, telling him about the healing power of Jesus and the peace He gives if we turn to God with all our hearts and invite Him into our lives. 

Just over a month later, early in the morning, there was a knock on the gated doors of our home, perched on the top of the Dimbokro hill. I peered out of the louvred window, wondering, Who could that be? There stood a good-looking young man calling the words, “koko, koko,” the Baoule call accompanied by clapped hands. 

As I came out, I could not believe it, here he was! I invited him into our home, “Please sit down! Let me get you some water.” He easily seated himself, and there was joy radiating from his eyes. A man made new. He said his health took a quick turn for the good but, more importantly, he had unbelievable peace and joy in his being because he asked Jesus to come into his life, forgive him, and spare his life. 

I drove him back to his village, and the villagers came running with astonished looks, some uttering the words, “He lives!” We were ushered to see the chief of the village surrounded by his elders. Words of tender thanks and handshakes ensued. The young man joined us in saying, “Thank you, but Jesus did this in answer to the prayers of His people with the help of the physician.” 

“Please come back and tell us more.” 

Partway through March, we returned with a group of Christians from a Bible study we led studying the Christian family. Twelve people attended at first, and now over seventy came as they highly valued this biblical teaching. As we arrived in the dusty late-afternoon heat, two twenty-foot wooden poles were cut and planted in the ground, between which we tied a white king-sized bed sheet. A generator, projector, and sound system were set up; the atmosphere was electric. The young man was proudly there. Four reels of the JESUS film were to be shown. With a view of the glorious red sunset descending over the palm trees, in time to the rhythmic sounds of the African drums, the believers from the Bible study group started to sing the praises of Jesus. 

Everyone from the village came out. Hundreds of people, men, women, children, goats, sheep, dogs, and chickens, were drawn to this unusual event. The story of Jesus―how He came, loved people, helped, transformed, and healed― was presented. For over two hours, people stood transfixed as the JESUS film progressed. Tears rolled down the cheeks of many who watched the brutal crucifixion of our Lord as He gave His life for us, then cheers of rejoicing and wide-eyed wonder as He rose from the dead. 

The invitation to come to Jesus was given, to receive healing, forgiveness, hope, and freedom from fear. Dozens of people came forward to be prayed for. This new group of believers were so excited they said, “We have to build a church in our village!” 

Permission and free land were given by the village chief, who had previously wanted nothing to do with Christianity. They had seen the power of Christ in this young man’s life. We will never forget the Christmas our three sons, and we celebrated with one hundred and twenty-six people in a new church with wooden stick walls and a tin pan roof, decorated with bright red flamboyant flowers. 

What seemed to be an inconvenience was a God-transforming opportunity. We saw this type of thing happen multiple times during our twelve years and saw twenty-three churches of various sizes in different villages and cities established. Our God is a miracle-working God. 

Protected by God 

Learning a new language, ways of cooking new food, getting to know people in the church and neighbourhood, caring for two small children, and delivering a third son in a mission hospital kept Dorothy’s days filled. The incredible privilege to do manuscript typing for the Baoule Old Testament was another highlight which filled siesta time while the rest of the family was napping. Evening rest was most welcomed. 

As we prepared for bed one evening, fear gripped our hearts as we listened to panicked yelling, “Thief, thief!!” Then we heard the incessant clanging of a machete on the metal barred windows of our neighbour’s house across the street. The engulfing darkness enlivened the stories we had recently heard about armed robbers terrorizing people in their homes. There were no streetlights along our usually quiet and sparsely populated, gravel road, and we could see little outside in the darkness. We were foreigners getting used to a new country, language, and culture with no telephone or way of communicating with others. What could we do? 

Turning to God in prayer, some of the fear subsided. Then we started to sing songs of praise to God. Afterwards, an overwhelming sense of peace and calm invaded the fear and darkness. The shouting and banging stopped, and we were able to sleep. The next morning, we woke to find danger had indeed been right outside our door, but God had protected us. We learned in a new way, not only the power of prayer but also the power of praise not just in the physical but also in the spiritual realm. 

Prison Ministry 

It was a pleasant afternoon during the rainy season. Everything was green, and the sun had just come out. I decided to walk to the church in the centre of town to visit with the senior pastor and catechist with whom we worked. The church in town had over eight hundred members. I was thinking about the request from the youth group and pastor to visit a village to bury one of the Christians. My eyes glanced to the left as I walked down the hill from our home. There stood a grey seventy-metre square cement building with no windows and one metal door I had often seen. It was the notorious regional prison with approximately three hundred and fifty prisoners crammed into this dismal space. It was a place I would rather not go, and it was not part of my job description. Fear of the unknown gripped my heart. There was a deep impression from the voice of God, “I want you to go there.” 

After the meeting in town, I returned home, wrestling in my heart, should I go or not? I came up with a whole load of reasons why not. My Mother in Arnhem, Holland, had lived right near the ‘bridge too far’ during the war and wanted to be a missionary. Because of the war, she could not go, but she prayed, if she would ever have a son, he would go. 

My Father, from Harlem, Holland, and mother immigrated to Montreal, Canada, in 1952, just after their marriage, leaving family and home behind. They faithfully took me to church, but I did not find much joy, purpose, or meaning in my life. I had just turned sixteen when Billy Graham’s message came through the little black and white TV. This is the last thing I want to hear, I thought to myself. He spoke of a holy God, who gave His Son, who loves us and gave His life, so we could have life. I went up to my bedroom, and for the first time, I prayed. Joy, forgiveness, peace, and His presence overwhelmed me. A deep impression came; You need to tell others about Me. 

Delivering newspapers early the following day, I told my friend what had happened. He took it upon himself to tell the pastor’s wife. The pastor called and said, “Great! I’d like you to give your testimony to the youth group on Friday night.” To speak before more than two or three people terrified me! To hike up Mount Everest backwards would have been easier. I almost wanted to give up my newfound faith. A short prayer, “God, help me!” Once again, a deep impression came over me, Don’t talk about yourself, tell people about Me and what I’ve done. That has been the story of my life, going from incompetence to incompetence, but with enthusiasm and with God’s amazing help, as He is competent. 

Jeremiah 1:5-10 are the words God gave my mother to pass on to me at my ordination: “’Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ ‘Alas, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak’…’You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you’… ‘I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’” 

With these words echoing in my heart, I said, “Lord, I can’t, but you can.” As I approached the entrance to the prison, some of the guards jumped up with their rifles. “Who are you, and what do you want?” 

I introduced myself as the pastor from the Protestant church, coming to see how we could help the prisoners. They laughed. “Protestant minister, what are you protesting about today?” 

After a lengthy discussion, they ushered me in to see the warden. He was kind but said, “You’re wasting your time with these guys.” Some were in for theft, murder, or corruption. Then he said, “Sure, you can come every other Saturday morning at 6:00 a.m. for one hour.” I could hardly contain my excitement! 

With a couple of young men from our youth group carrying drums and a few Gospels of John, we arrived as the sun began to show its first rays of light. The metal door creaked open and slammed shut behind us. They marched us to the congregating area for the six sub-court yards. A thick metal chain and the massive lock fell to the ground as they opened the second barred gate. Guards with rubber truncheons pointed to the meeting room. I said, “You’re coming too.” They replied, “No,” and proceeded to lock the gate behind us. 

The word was out; anyone who wanted to hear something about God could come. Courtyard gates were opened, and about seventy-five men and boys shuffled in with their tattered T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. There were no benches or roof; you could see the early morning blue sky with a little bird perched on the top of the soaring walls. With melancholy, hopeless eyes and drooping heads and shoulders, the men clustered around. Many were scratching with scabies; some were coughing with tuberculosis. They said a couple of bodies had been taken out the night before, afflicted with AIDS and unceremoniously buried. 

The three of us started to sing praises to God, joined by a few others from the group who seemed to know the songs. I thought, Let me just tell them how Christ changed my life. The only difference between us is you were caught, and I was not. 

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). 

An invitation was given, and over twenty came forward for prayer. We handed out the Gospels of John and said, “If you memorize John 14, we will give you a New Testament when we return in two weeks.” When we returned, the despondent look and atmosphere seemed to have lifted. I brought three New Testaments, but sixteen had memorized John 14! Every week they learned more songs of praise. They began growing, and as time went on, over one hundred and twenty made commitments to Christ. 

The entire atmosphere of the prison changed. One civil servant shared, “I’d rather live in this hell-hole for the rest of my life and serve the Lord than go back into the world and serve the Devil.” 

Four choirs were formed, singing in four-part harmony. One scrawny young man from Guinea prayed and fasted and said, “If I ever get out of here, I want to become an evangelist to my people group.” 

Eventually, complete Bibles, theology books, and Christian literature were shared. We brought them food and personal toiletries; a couple of Catholic nurses joined us in helping with some of their medical needs. It became one of the greatest joys. They would sing and pray with more enthusiasm and gusto than I have ever seen. When we returned from home assignment in Canada, the warden said, “You and your team can come back at any time. This place has a completely different atmosphere.” 

As the metal door clanged shut behind us, and I returned home on the dusty path, my heart was filled with ecstatic praise to God; His words ring in my ears to this day, “Take courage, it is I, don’t be afraid…Watch me do amazing things.” 

Maranatha Bible School 

We were finally becoming some-what comfortable with our lives, languages, culture, and ministry when a request came for us to move to Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, the next country north. We were to teach about sixty students for fifteen hours a week from Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire at Maranatha Bible School. Dorothy could care for the office and finances, as well as our youngest son. Two of our sons were already at International Christian Academy (ICA) boarding school in Bouake. Once again, a feeling of being overwhelmed flooded our hearts. We said yes. 

A wonderful but hectic year was spent training leaders and preaching in the local churches. We loved the students’ passion, zeal, and love for the Lord. It went so well our colleagues in Côte d’Ivoire asked us to come back and help revamp the campus, curriculum, and church participation to support Yamoussoukro Bible School. Dorothy would teach English and music along with office duties. Hospitality and correspondence kept us connected to others. Through a lot of collective hard work, the student body grew from fifteen to over sixty students. 

One of the great joys was the practical ministries with the students on weekends. Outreach to villages and cities, teaching Bible classes in primary schools, wheelchair help for the handicapped, and other small business ventures provided great joy and impacted many people’s lives. I thoroughly enjoyed running with the students and then praying together before classes began early in the morning. Time was spent researching property and being treasurer of the board of the West Africa Alliance Seminary (FATEAC), a graduate school to be established where trainers of trainers could be taught. 

There was explosive church growth with over two thousand churches and many new pastors trained to give leadership in Côte d’Ivoire. They were doing well, and then came another request from our Mission leaders in Canada and the U.S. “We would seriously like you to consider leaving Africa in 1996 to redeploy to Central Europe as the team leader for our new work in Poland, Hungary and the Balkans.” 

With the fall of Communism, a brand-new world was erupting with many opportunities. We had come to know and love the people and the work in Africa. Why would we make yet another change? We sensed God saying, “Trust your leaders. I’ve used all these wonderful experiences of the past to prepare you for something new.” 

Ministry in Europe 

In a War-Torn Land 

In January 1997, we left our three sons at the Ivory Coast Academy boarding school. On a bright warm sunny day in Africa, with the wind rustling through the palm trees, we left Côte d’Ivoire and arrived in Budapest, Hungary, to freezing cold, grey, coal-saturated air filling our nostrils. Four days later, a new teammate and I headed by car to the war-torn country of Bosnia. Visas were not required— enter at your own risk. Crossing the border from Hungary into Croatia, there were tanks and military all around with clear instructions to avoid the mine scattered shoulders of the road, marked by yellow flags. 

We drove to the Dalmatia coast, where the Apostle Paul had served the same Lord years before, then went up to Sarajevo and stayed in an apartment just off “Sniper Alley.” The beautiful former host of the 1984 Winter Olympics was now covered in snow littered with bombed-out buildings and graves filling the Olympic Stadium and community parks. 

As my colleague and I sat on our beds in a small apartment with no electricity or running water, wrapped in sleeping bags to keep warm, I could not help but think to myself, A few days ago, I was eating ripe bananas from the tree, and now I’m eating frozen bananas in a dark and freezing place, far from my wife and children.

Was it worth it? I did not know the language nor the cultures. We had heard there were very few committed followers of Jesus Christ in the entire country. Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians who had once lived peaceably together were now enemies. Loss, pain, poverty, destruction, hopelessness, and racial tensions marked the surrounding area. 

We heard of a small group of young Christ-followers in the city of Mostar. The famed historical bridge had been blown apart. To cross over into different sectors was life-threatening. With a guide, we found this small group of forty or so young believers. Gathered on the first level of a house where the second story had been blown out by a mortar shell, they cautiously opened the door. When they heard we were followers of Christ, they warmly invited us in. To our surprise, there were Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians all together. Some young men who had been in the military were helping lead this small group. 

When they heard I was a pastor, they asked me to speak, so I spoke on the extremes of John 3:16. The presence of God was there in a powerful way, and the palpable joy as they worshiped Christ was phenomenal. Then they started to say, “We need to go to this city and that city and tell them about this wonderful news of Jesus. Let’s set up an aid group (Agape) to meet peoples’ desperate needs. 

Would you help us?” Wow! I knew now the transition was worth it. 

What a joy to see fledgling groups develop in Poland, Hungary, and Serbia. They showed the love and compassion of Christ through humanitarian aid, refugee work, drug rehab, marriage enrichment, leadership, and church planting coalitions to impact the region of Central Europe for Christ. Groups of Christians who had not worked together in the past started to come together for this purpose. 

A few months later, our leadership in Canada proposed a broader new role to become regional developers for our work in Europe, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and Central Asia, later named the Silk Road Region. 

Regional Developers 

Our family moved yet again, this time to southwest Germany. We were blessed to work with wonderful teams in nineteen countries for many years. Through the years, we were involved in ministries among multi-ethnic groups, establishing international churches of thousands of people. There was also medical work, marketplace mobilization, relief and development for marginalized people and workers, and collaboration with local believers in Christ to do whatever they could to love people and see Christ lifted up. There is a myriad of equally fascinating God stories from each of the countries in the region. 

Back in Canada 

Now, after forty years, we are back in Canada, and we reminisce. We are so thankful for a covenant-keeping God who has shaped us, formed us, loved us, and guided us on this fantastic journey. Who we are and what we have done was by the grace of God and the impact of other wonderful people in our lives. 

We are so grateful for the privilege of being part of The Christian and Missionary Alliance family. We thank the Lord for Avenue Road/Bayview Glen church in Toronto, where Dorothy grew up and where we served and received support for decades and Surrey Alliance Church, where we did our home service for four years where they taught us and loved on us. We are grateful for Fairview Alliance Church in Montreal, where Gerald was nurtured after coming to Christ. 

We are thankful for Ontario Bible College/Tyndale, where we both did undergraduate studies and Canadian Theological Seminary/Ambrose, where Gerald did graduate studies. To all the teachers, elders, church and denominational leaders and members, colleagues, friends, and even acquaintances, who helped shape our lives—a huge THANK YOU. 

To our parents, siblings, and broader family members, we owe a debt of gratitude. To our three sons, Peter, Jonathan, and Timothy, who spent many years in boarding schools in Ivory Coast Academy, Africa and Black Forest Academy in Germany, our hearts cannot sufficiently express our great gratitude. We are so thankful for those who loved, cared for, and taught our sons when we could not be there. Thanks to our sons for always being up for another adventure, learning many cultures and skills, and appreciating people from all over the world. They were totally part of our team, and without their enthusiastic support, we could not have carried on. 

So now, the best is yet to come, the rest of life, for which the first was made. What a joy to return to the Greater Toronto Area, connecting with so many churches and fellowships from various ethnic groups. Geography is not the determining factor to the vocational calling. 

Being involved with the Power Team/C&MA alumni to encourage each other to live lives filled with heroic virtues and deeds for the good of people and the glory of God gives us joy and fulfillment. Connecting with neighbours and people from our fitness centre has helped us fit into our community. 

We are so thankful for the past, content for today, and anticipating all God has for the future. It is great to continue to live with one foot raised, learning new ways to love God and people. 

This is an excerpt from the book, On Mission Volume 2. Download your free copy today.

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