During my visit last month to Village Altonodji, I was fortunate to share a ride from N'djaména to Moundou with Lol, the newly appointed pastor of the village. He had arrived the night before from Nigeria, where he had just received his master's degree in theology. Though I had met Lol briefly before and Pastor Bako had told me some about him, believing that Lol was uniquely qualified in character and experience to pastor the village, I was anxious to hear the whole story. The six hour drive in the back seat gave us lots of time to talk, and as I prodded this humble man who does not like to talk about himself with questions (I would not stop!), I was amazed at the story of God's grace and leading in Lol's life. As he shared his calling and heart with me, it quickly became clear that the Lord has prepared Lol in significant ways to be the spiritual leader of the church and orphan village we love and support.
Pastor Lol was born in a village outside of Moundou, in southern Chad, where his father was the chief. As an expression of his role and status, his father had seventeen wives. Lol's mother was number sixteen. Lol has 74 brothers and sisters! Growing up, none of Lol's family were Christian; his father and mother did not hold any religious beliefs strongly, though they gave some allegiance to the traditional African, animistic beliefs of their people. As was typical of village life, what was important, under his father's leadership as chief, were the interrelationships and community obligations of tribal life in a very large, extended family, which were designed to help the village survive amidst the challenges of life in Chad.
When Lol was ten years old, an older brother, who had married and moved the 275 miles north to the capital city, N'djaména, brought Lol to live with him in order to give him an opportunity for an education and future beyond the village. But his brother's wife was not happy to have Lol in the family. As Lol puts it in his understated manner, "she was hard on me." In response, as Lol grew older he turned his attention to life on the streets and the gangs of young people who gathered there. He soon gained a reputation for his violent behavior as part of the street culture. But at the same time, surprisingly, Lol did very well in school, having real academic gifts, so well in fact that upon graduation from high school he was awarded a place at the university, which in Chad is not an easy thing to achieve.
In the midst of this double life, success at school and trouble on the streets, Christ invaded Lol's life. Through some Christian young people at school, Lol heard the gospel and submitted his life to the Lord in his last year in high school. His life began to change dramatically. One day, as he was walking home, a gang jumped him and stripped him of all his belongings, including his bicycle (a prized possession in Chad!). Surrounding him, they then began to get ready to beat him. He knew from his experience on the streets that he would be hurt badly. Then, for some reason he did not understand, he amassed the courage to ask the leader, who was holding his backpack, if he might have his I.D. back, which is very important for daily life in the city. Holding it up in the air, the leader of the gang read it and asked him mockingly, "Is this your I.D., PASTOR?" Lol had no idea why he called him that; he guessed that the gang leader must have heard of him, and evidently news of his conversion had also spread. So everyone was shocked when the leader suddenly gave him back his I.D. and told him to run away. But Lol told me he was so scared that he could not move. He just stood there, trembling. He knew of this gang and their reputation. He told me, "they kill people; they were very dangerous."
Then, and to this day he does not know why he did so, he blurted out to the gang around him, "We could pray, if you want." Even more shocking, the leader said, "yes!" So Lol began to pray for the young people around him. When he was finished, the leader told him to go, but to come back next week to pray again. So he did, though he was scared. But when Lol arrived, there were now about 100 gang members waiting to pray with him! This was the beginning of a new ministry in the city, an outreach to gangs for Christ. Because of his background, Lol had the reputation and the courage to go into the streets for Christ, where no one else was ministering. In time, Lol's ministry became a formalized outreach center to the gangs and destitute children of the capital city. Lol told me that he even had the privilege of leading the top gang leader of the city to Christ – and that he is still, now years later, an active member of a local church in the city.
By his second year at university, and as a result of his growing personal outreach to the gangs and street children, Lol knew the Lord had called him to the ministry. So he quit his university studies in biology (with all that meant for giving up a good paying job!) and enrolled at the Shalom Evangelical School of Theology (the other ministry we support!), where he studied for three years from 1994-1997. His family had quietly accepted his conversion as his own decision, and several of his siblings had even become believers, but when they heard of his decision to enter the ministry they were extremely saddened, especially his mother. They know that pastors in Chad are poor, and as a pastor he would not be able to support them in their old age. They have never accepted his calling. Such a response is common in Chad, even among Christians: pastors are highly respected both socially and in the church but families seldom want their sons to go into the ministry, since it means a life of extreme physical and financial hardship, with little opportunity to fulfill their obligations to support their parents. For this same reason, few families want their daughters to marry pastors; the sacrifice is simply seen to be too great. Lol, however, did not look back. He knew he was called, especially to the street children of Chad.
He graduated from Shalom and was ordained into the ministry of The Evangelical Church of Chad (the largest denomination in the country, of which Pastor Bako formerly served as general secretary). From 1998-2005, Lol served as an associate pastor in Church Number 12 in the capital, one of the largest churches in the city. During this time he continued to develop his outreach center to the gangs and street children. He also married Esther, and together they now have three children: twin girls, Lajoie and Lapaix (8 years old), and a son, L'elu (4 years old).
During this time, the dream of Village Altonodji was also developing. As a part of this dream, a visionary church in Boca Raton, Florida, Spanish River Presbyterian Church, gave the support to build and begin a church at the heart of the village, which has recently been named the Dr. Nicolas Evangelical Chapel, after the former pastor of Spanish River! What better platform for planting a church than a village for orphans as a demonstration of the love of Christ, in whom we all have been "adopted" as God's children? As he thought of this new church, Pastor Bako knew he wanted Lol, with his heart for street children and his valuable church experience, to be its pastor. Pastor Bako also knew Lol needed more education to lead the ministry in the village, which we pray will become not only a thriving church for the children but also an outreach center to Moundou and a training center for church leadership throughout the country. The vision is big, so the leader would need more training than is currently available in Chad. Bako also knew that Village Altonodji would continue to have a significant partnership with American churches. So, responding to Bako's invitation, Lol left his outreach center and ministry at Church 12 and returned, again with the help from our family of donors, to pursue his master's degree at the Evangelical Church of West Africa Seminary (ECWA) in Jos, Nigeria. There Lol could also learn English (which he did – no small thing to learn and study in a new language at the master's level as a "second career" student!) as well as theology and church administration. Lol studied there full-time from 2005-2008, receiving his master's degree just last month, December 2008. His thesis was on the theological and practical need for developing mentoring relationships for discipleship in the church of Chad