Two weeks into my missionary trip to Afghanistan, I stood with about 30 people in a burning church. A woman who had been teaching children in a back room came to our side of the church screaming that the church was on fire, and that we needed to get out quickly. At the time we could not smell any smoke. It was only when we got outside that we saw that one section of the church had been set on fire. We ran for safety, some among us fetched water to dose the fire. Later in the day, all the warnings we’d been receiving started to make sense. We were not welcome. And we had to stop the missionary work we were doing — which was preaching Christianity to the mostly Muslim population in the area. We were helping a local pastor build his congregation.
Missionary work was my chance to see the world
This incident happened nearly a year ago, and I still get teary when I think about it. I started doing missionary work at the age of 15 in my hometown in Pretoria. My friends and I would go from door to door preaching the gospel, and handing out pamphlets. I would do this after school and during weekends. I really liked it because it made me feel closer to God, especially the times when people were not chasing us away or slamming doors on our faces. I felt that people responded to me more positively because I was younger, so I wanted to do more.
After my 19th birthday last year, I got involved involved in a movement called Send Us Out. I had always wanted to travel and preach the gospel, but, because my family could not afford it, I had not travelled much by then. The movement was offering free training and sponsorship for a missionary trip to Afghanistan where we would spend a month working with a local church. I immediately signed up. I did the training, and worked hard to convince my parents to let me go on my first overseas trip.
I was arrested for having a Bible in my bag
I didn’t have any expectations of Afghanistan. Even so, the difference between the country and my hometown was jarring. There was nothing; just dry and barren land. There was a lot of dilapidated buildings, the roads had more holes than tar. Even in Kabul, the capital, I could see and sense the effects of wars that had devastated the country.
Other than being my first ticket out of South Africa, Afghanistan was my first experience of Islam. All women, including children, wore hijabs,. This made us stand out even more, especially when I wore shorts. People gawked; their hostility was palpable.
The pastor said that some people did not want us there. But it was not our dress code that made us unwelcome. It was our mission to spread the Gospel. This mission was so dangerous that I’m not allowed to say where in Afghanistan I was stationed. But we kept working until that day, in the church, two weeks into our trip, when the building was set on fire, and we finally got the message.
On another occasion, I was doing some sightseeing with my team when we got to a checkpoint. They searched our bags and found a Bible in mine. We were not allowed to walk around with them, and I had been advised to leave it at home, but I had forgotten it was in my bag. I was taken into a van which took me to a holding cell. On our way to the cell the two officials told me how gruesome my body would be tortured. I cried. I thought I was going to die.
The cell was cold. I questioned why I was there, and thought about the people I love. I felt selfish for coming to a war-torn country where my religion was not encouraged. I was set free six hours later after my team negotiated my release.
Nearly losing my life gave me a new perspective
My experience gave me an understanding of how diverse South Africa is when it comes to people’s freedom to practice their religion. I used to take this for granted. Here, I can freely carry my Bible anywhere. Looking back, I don’t think I would ever stop doing missionary work, and have since worked in Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. I have also developed the heart for countries like Kenya, Chad and Tajikistan.
Most importantly, my time in Afghanistan made me realise that in life there has to be something worth dying for. In my case it would be the Gospel.
Feature image by Athenkosi Guntu