“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
These words from Isaiah 6:8 inspired the daughter of a pre-Civil War Southern slaveholder to travel to Africa as the wife of a Baptist missionary to bring the Word of the Lord to the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria.
Those real facts are the basis of North Carolina State University Professor Elaine Neil Orr’s fictional account, “A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa.”
Putting aside the irony of Americans from a region where millions of Africans were enslaved taking a liberating Gospel message to their African cousins, “A Different Sun” tells a compelling story. An idealistic couple struggles with an unfamiliar and punishing environment, with a culture totally foreign to them, and with the extraordinary challenges these factors brought to their marriage.
Orr based her story on the diaries of Lurana Davis Bowen, who, with her husband, Thomas Jefferson Bowen were the first Southern Baptist missionaries to Africa. Orr renames the couple and calls them Emma and Henry. Because the diaries are sketchy, Orr uses her own experiences to fill in the gaps and provide a very credible backdrop for the story. She grew up as the daughter of Baptist missionaries, and she sets her story in the part of Nigeria where she grew up.
Bringing the simple message of salvation to the Yoruba people was not a simple matter. When Emma first called on a woman leader of the village where she and Henry were to live, she took the opportunity to evangelize, “keeping it simple and using her own Yoruba.”
Emma told the leader that there was one God who “sent His son to live with us and open the road to eternal life. His name is ‘Jesu Kristi.’ He brings hope to the poor and all who suffer. My husband and I have come to Ogbomoso to share this true faith.”
The woman leader was puzzled and asked “why this God-on-earth was preferring the poor.”
Emma answered, “Because the poor are most in need of God’s mercy.”
The leader responded that “big men also need God; who will come to them?”
Emma, struggling for the right response said, “Of course, if the rich man is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus, then the way is open for him.”
The woman leader, still puzzled, explained that “the rich man has a responsibility to keep his wealth so that he can distribute it to his wives and children and other members of the town in need.”
Emma responded, “As long as the man’s primary allegiance is to Jesus and loving God and if he lives a good life, giving freely of his wealth, he can enter the church and be saved.”
She thought, “That should do it.”
But it was only the beginning of a series of frustrating efforts to explain their Gospel. Only by compromise and patience, along with friendship and service, were the Bowens able to build a small group of followers.
Selling their God to local leaders was an almost unattainable objective. They visited the king of their village to secure permission to remain in his territory. Finally, the king agreed saying, “We are ready for you to stay in Ogbomoso.”
Henry then said, “We remain as God wills.”
The King viewed himself as the connection to God. “In our own thinking, God directs the people through the king.”
Henry could not resist the challenge. “We believe God speaks directly to His disciples.”
Like Henry more than 150 years ago, today’s Americans dealing with other cultures still have trouble tamping down their strong convictions that we have the right culture, right form of government, and right religion for the rest of the world.