Missionfest happens every year in Winnipeg and all else in my life gets cancelled for that first weekend in February. The speakers whose story and message struck me the most this year were John and Eloise Bergen.
The Bergens are an elderly couple who sold all their possessions so they could move to and live out their last years as missionaries in Kenya. They purchased a farm and started a garden to provide food for the orphans in town. They had been there only four months when they were attacked.
John had heated and poured bath water for Eloise and, while she soaked, went outside to check on things. It was a dark night but the only oddity, the only cause for concern was that the night guard wasn’t answering his calls. Then he saw it, inches from his face and moving closer—a large black hand that grabbed his throat and held, leaving him struggling for air. While he was thus held, other hands beat him with clubs, hacked his body with machetes and dragged his lifeless body under a hedge where they left him for dead.
Then they moved inside. Eloise hadn’t heard a thing and was surprised to look up from her bath and see men standing there, looking at her.
“Would you please hand me my clothes?” she asked.
What followed were 45 minutes of rape and brutality.
When the men had finished with her and taken what possessions they wanted, they left, heading to the nearest bar where they began to brag about how they had just killed a white man. Two local reporters overheard the men, left the bar and went to the police. The attackers were in jail before the Bergens reached a hospital!
After the attackers left the house, Eloise went outside, calling for John. She heard a faint response and, when she found him, realized she needed to get him into their vehicle and get help. But when she tried to lift him, he was too heavy. When she tried again, she lifted him with ease and got him into the car without any difficulty. She attributes the new-found ease to angels who helped her.
“Drive straight to the mission compound,” John told her. “Don’t stop for any reason. If the gates are closed, drive through them. He was concerned the attackers might lurking.
John’s legs and arms were all broken. A machete has the power to cut down a tree and to cut off a leg yet he counted 15 slashes on his still-intact legs. The bone in one arm had been severed but God’s goodness had stopped the machete just before it came to the ligaments and the doctors were able to put him back together. He had been half scalped and one machete strike had cut through the skull but his brain was undamaged.
Eloise’s jaw had been broken, both lips of her mouth had been nearly cut off and, in addition to other cuts and wounds, she was bruised from her waist to her knees.
Their attack made national news back home in Canada.
Their story, however, is one of forgiveness and of intimacy with God. Five days later, ten Dutch girls were also attacked in Kenya. A Dutch reporter phoned John and asked him to come and show his country the way to forgiveness for the whole of Holland had become embittered and angry towards the girls’ attackers. “When did you first forgive your attackers,” the reporter asked John.
As John thought about it, he realized he’d done the forgiving sixteen years before the attack had ever happened when he had worked through the pain of his woundedness and found forgiveness for those in the past. In truth, his and Eloise’s responses to the attackers during the attack and afterwards were shaped by the way they had been living their lives in the many years preceding the attack.
John writes, “Because we had stored up the Word of God in our hearts for many years, our spirits were strong to overcome the crisis of the chilling events of that horrible night.”
They wrote their book to “show you how to live so that a crisis never takes you by surprise.” How does one live like that? Is it possible? John’s and Eloise’s testimony demonstrates that it is.
John’s immediate response upon his attack was to pray, “Jesus, help me!” He says that “Had I cursed my enemies instead of speaking “Jesus” into the crisis, I would have tied God’s hands...and I would likely have been killed.”
Eloise’s response was the same: “I whispered the name, “Jesus”, under my breath, and immediately His warm presence surrounded me.”
As she was driving them to the mission, she remembered how God had been teaching her about joy the previous three years. She had asked God about the joy the Bible talks about continually. “...but how do I do that? And what does that look like when everything is falling apart around me?”
What God had been showing her was that the miracle of her mouth is “the sound of laughter!” and so, as she “was bumping down this country road, listening to the sounds of pain and agony coming from John in the seat beside me, I knew I had to laugh.” She could laugh at the devil because his purpose had been defeated. “I also knew I wanted to laugh to release the joy of the Lord through me, because it was His joy that was my strength that night.” Physically, she wasn’t able to because of her injuries. “So as I was driving along, all I could do was go, ‘Ha Ha!—Ha Ha Ha!’ with a straight face and no smile.”
John was unconscious on the drive to the mission, the drive to the hospital and for three days afterwards “but throughout the trip [to the hospital] John’s breath and conversation were pure Scripture. He spoke of forgiveness out of Matthew Chapter 5 as if the words of Christ were his present comfort in this unbelievable crisis.”
The man who drove him to the hospital says, “John’s spirit took over when his soul and body were out of commission. This was possible because, for many years, he had been downloading intimacy with his heavenly Father into his sprit. This made him strong enough to be able to sail right through that horrendous crisis, and come out of it full of joy.”
Like Eloise, John was also able to laugh once he returned to consciousness. “...the joy of God’s presence so overwhelmed me that I started to laugh. There was no room in my heart for thoughts of revenge.”
One day in the hospital, a large group of people came to visit Eloise. One of them, a pastor, was talking about forgiveness. “‘Yes, that’s what I need to do,’ [she thought to herself] ‘My ears need to hear the sound of my own voice saying those words of forgiveness out loud.’” And so, one by one, she pictured each of her abusers and spoke words of forgiveness. When she was done, she realized she also needed forgive the men for what they had done to her husband. Like John, she too had previously dealt with unforgiveness towards those who hurt her so that forgiveness had become “a much needed way of life” for her.
John writes, “I believe that something breaks in the spiritual realm when people forgive and start blessing those who have hurt them.”
John and Eloise needed to return to Kenya for the trial. In the night, Eloise felt a great heaviness pressing down on her and asked John to pray. “As he was praying, I felt these words rise up so strongly in me that I said them out loud, ‘You surround me with songs and shouts of deliverance!’ I knew that Jesus was rejoicing over me and that ‘rejoice’ means ‘to jump up and spin around.’” She pictured Jesus dancing around her and realized that she could get up in her spirit and dance with him.
The next day in the courtroom, at a moment of fear, she realised, “I don’t need to start crying now because I am dancing with Jesus far above all the evil in this courtroom.”
Since his recovery, John has travelled many places, telling his story and in each place he has asked people to pray for his attackers so that when the time comes, they will be willing to accept Jesus into their lives.
Three weeks ago he visited five of the nine in jail. He told them he had forgiven them. One of them spoke out, “We have been praying that God would forgive us. Now we know that God answers prayer,” and each of them committed his life to Jesus.
As evidenced by the list of books I bought this past weekend, I love stories of missionaries and of Christians who are willing to put their life on the line because of Jesus. Can I live like they do? Can I live the way John and Eloise Bergen lived before their attack so that, when the unthinkable happens, I can respond with grace and forgiveness? I want to. Lord help me to do so.