Each time an email from Don Foster arrives, I open it with a mild sense of trepidation. I’m sure they’ve set up a plan in case something happens to them. A friend or supporter will probably reach out to share the inevitable news: Don and Jenya, missionaries in eastern Congo, were killed by Islamic militants. We’d be saddened—crushed even—but we’d know they’d moved on to their eternal reward.
I open the most recent message, which turns out to be an upbeat one. In a large photo, the Fosters pose with the 25 Pygmy children they care for, all smiles in matching batik outfits. Don is excited about getting the cow they wanted. The compound walls have been reinforced with additional security, and a newly acquired dog serves as a deterrent to rebel attacks.
Of all the situations I’ve covered for In Touch Ministries, theirs is the most precarious. Don and Jenya choose to live in the face of serious danger in order to remain close to an Mybuti Pygmy tribe. Their friends have been killed in recent years, including a Congolese pastor and his wife. When asked about the risk, Don points to the story of a Catholic missionary who left the mission field only to die in a car collision in Rome. When it’s your time, it’s your time. Only God Himself knows the day and hour.
When I became a Christian at 18 years old, I left behind an intense atheism that colored my cynical view of the world. There was no ultimate meaning to life. We’re born, live about 80 years if we’re lucky, and die. To me, sacrificial love was pure sentiment—or stupidity. Then, while on drugs, I had a near-death experience, and my life flipped upside down. Somehow in that moment I came to the realization that Christianity—a religion I had openly mocked—was true, and that Jesus is real and is the Son of God. I repented, and my intense physical symptoms immediately disappeared. That week I went to a Bible study of teenagers who, unknown to me, had been praying for my salvation for more than two years, and confessed to them Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior.
As my fledgling spiritual life grew, I found myself most attracted to the sacrificial nature of Jesus. I was young, hormonal—and like many other teenagers—overly romantic. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Sign me up! I wanted to be like Jesus so bad. I would go to my own cross for the people I loved. The story of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Peter Flemming—missionaries who died trying to evangelize the Huaorni people of Ecuador—riveted me. I had stood at the edge of the abyss and almost died for no good reason. Now I could go to a dangerous mission field and possibly lose my life for something greater than myself.
But inside the quiet of my mind and heart, the thought of death still brought dread. My drug experience did nothing to remove that. I considered the life I wanted to live—finding a career or entering (safe) foreign missions, meeting the right woman, and starting a family. I secretly thought, What a waste to die so young.
When I cover stories like the Fosters, I find myself wondering if I would make the same choices they do. Nowadays, the excuses are different. I definitely wouldn’t be dying “so young” anymore, and the life I desperately wanted has come true, for the most part. So I ask myself, what do I have to lose? The relationships I have as husband and father, son and friend. I find that, more than ever before, I want to keep what I’ve gained.
I confess that the older I get, the more I tire of playing “what if.” I feel no false sense of guilt for not wanting to die any time soon on Jesus’ behalf. Yet I can say that the Fosters’ obedience has become a sort of mirror in my life, a challenge to ask if I’m willing to make sacrifices even in my own safe circumstances. Truth is, some days I am, and some days I’m not. It’s something to keep praying, searching my heart about.
Don Foster knows the risk he’s taking. He even repented in a recent email for not better considering Jenya’s safety, though she willingly chooses to stay. Their love for the Pygmy children essentially overrides their love for their own lives; they know it’s God’s will for them, and they submit to it. I hope as I tell stories like theirs, I can find and grow in the same willingness to obey God, no matter what.
Photography by Tommy Trenchard